LifeWriting Competition: 2017 Winners

Here are the winners of Story Circle's LifeWriting Competition, chosen for their freshness and originality, and the clarity and authenticity of the author's voice.

The writers are responding to questions about Out on a Limb: Sometimes we have to go out on a limb to get what we want or need. We have to take a risk, even though we're afraid it won't pay off—or we're just afraid, period. We invite you to write about a time you've gone out on a limb. This might be an occasion when you discovered that you had little control over your situation and were left hanging, with little expectation of success. Or it could be a time when you dared to stretch for something out of your reach, or you took a huge risk with little expectation of reward. Tell us your out-on-a-limb story.

  1. I'm Ready, by Leah DeCesare of East Greenwich RI (FIRST PRIZE!)
  2. Nancy, by Sarah Rickman of Colorado Springs CO
  3. The Tree of Life, by Debra Bowling of Stone Mountain GA

We know you will enjoy these stories as much as we do. Congratulations to our winners! And look for an announcement of our next competition in June, 2018.

I'm Ready
by Leah DeCesare of East Greenwich, RI

I may soon become the mother to a little boy I've never met. I've never seen him, not even a picture.

He crashed into my heart on December thirteenth while shopping for Christmas gifts for children in need with our church's youth group. Back at church wrapping the presents, I read each of the kids' summarized stories, one heart wrenching tale followed another. I felt a deep ache for them all.

One in the pile was short, but it reached out to me. It's impossible to say why it leapt out, in rereading it, there's nothing especially moving or pivotal. What drew me to it the way it did?

It said "Eight-year old boy," it was short with few details, and the final line stated: "He wants his forever family." I was overcome with needing to love this child. Why him? I can't explain, it was a feeling more than a thought.

With him on my heart and mind, I returned to wrapping. I happened to be next to our agency connection to the children and I blurted, "I want to adopt that eight year old boy." Every moment has felt like something beyond me was in control and those words, spoken aloud, were the first step on a journey we never expected to travel.

My husband, Nick, and I have been married twenty-three years and have three awesome kids who are kind, witty, and loving. One in high school, one off to college and our youngest in eighth grade. We have a blessed life, the family I always dreamed of and we're savoring the dwindling years with them under our roof. Both savoring them and looking ahead to warmer climates once they're all on their own. We weren't looking to extend the years before we can travel and have an orderly house with the scissors always where they're supposed to be and a shoe-free entryway.

But suddenly, on a regular Sunday evening, what can only be described as divine changed that. At home, I said to my ever-supportive husband, "You know how I always volunteer us for things?"
He laughingly rolled his eyes.
"This is different," I said, "I want to adopt an eight year old boy."

Even knowing me as he does, he didn't think I was serious and threw out reasons why this was impulsive, impractical, and frankly, a bit crazy.

I could understand his protests and reasoning, but in every part of me, I felt peace, completely assured and calm. I felt a calling. Not to be just any little boy's mother, but this little boy's mother. I couldn't be dissuaded.

I googled things like "How to adopt a child from foster care." I read and read, I filled out online forms requesting information, printed articles and started a file. I was suddenly on a path to motherhood not everyone takes.

I laid awake that night, and the next, envisioning the emotional aspects of meeting him, building trust, and learning to parent a child I hadn't known from birth. A child whose young eyes have seen things that I haven't, a child whose story I haven't been a part of. During all those nighttime thinking sessions, I considered every practical angle too, like figuring out where he would sleep, settling him into our schools, paying for another child's activities and college. I thought of him in all my waking hours.

Nick and I talked more. A lot more. And we talked to the kids - this would have to be a family decision. Making us proud, each of our children was not just open and welcoming but eager and filled with love at the idea of having a new brother. Within one week of that ethereal December moment, we were on the way with trainings and forms, background checks and interviews, fingerprints and more forms.

Finally, we got his name. Only his first name, and I hold that name in my prayers, in my smile, in my being. I think of him - all the time. I think about him and yearn to know more. What is he doing today, right now? Does he like science and math or does he prefer reading? As I'm grocery shopping, I wonder, does he like eggplant, or pineapple, or cucumbers? I am eager to know him: When is his birthday? What makes him laugh? And what makes him cry?

I crave details about this child who may one day be my own. I hungrily absorb and record the tidbits gleaned from his counselor and agencies we're now involved with, treasuring every nugget. We're told he's sweet and appreciative, an old soul.

Since the day this little guy burst into my heart, I've pondered in a whole new way, what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a family. I impatiently wait for the privilege of meeting him and getting to know him. And while I wait, I wonder what's ahead.

Will this even happen? Will we have the gift of him being a part of our family? How will I jump into becoming a mother to a kid who doesn't know me?

In some ways, mothering him will be like being a first time mom all over again. I may have over eighteen years of parenting experience but I am inexperienced at being his mom. I won't have the baby photos or the birth story to retell on his birthday. I won't have the details of his first steps, his first words or his first day of school.

We'll have different special dates to celebrate and new traditions we create. I think about our family videos and the stacks of photos without him, and I think about those he'll become a part of as we make memories together.

We may not have a shared history and I may not know him yet, but I do know that being a good mom isn't related to how we enter motherhood. I cannot wait to tuck him in and read him bedtime stories, to hold his hand and kiss him goodnight, and good morning, and welcome home from school.

I may sound idealistic and naive, but with any decision in life, we never know how it will turn out. With our own pregnancies, our births, our biological children, our choices for schools, marriage partners, or careers. We do our best with what we know at the time. We have faith.
We calculate the risks or we dive in feet first, we wing it or we plan it, but the outcomes are never guaranteed.

Early on, I told Nick, "I hope we get the privilege of loving him.". He said, "You already do love him."
And he's right. I do. I already love him.

As we move along this path, only months since I read that tiny snip-it of his story, I feel total peace, complete calm and utter love. I feel a rightness, the sense that if this is our road, we are on it and ready to be his family.

We've never met him, but I am ready to be his mother.

About the author:
Leah DeCesare is the award-winning author of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS and the nonfiction parenting series NAKED PARENTING, based on her work as a doula, early parenting educator, and mom of three.

Leah's articles have been featured in The Huffington Post, International Doula and The Key, among others. In 2008, Leah co-founded the nonprofit Doulas of Rhode Island, and in 2013 spearheaded the campaign to build the Kampala Children's Centre for Hope and Wellness in Uganda. Previously, Leah worked in public relations and event planning. She now writes and volunteers in Rhode Island where she lives with her family.

by Sarah Rickman of Colorado Springs CO

Nancy Batson Crews walked into my life and everything changed.

"Sayruh" — she was from Alabama — "I want you to write about Nancy Love and the WAFS."

"How?" I asked, dumbfounded. I began to babble about why this was an impossible undertaking, why these women would never hear me out. "I'm an unknown, a former small-town journalist — I've never published a book."

I didn't bother to mention that I was enmeshed in this fantasy of selling my first book. I had left my newspaper editor's job to write the Great American novel. I had just acquired an agent.

Writing fiction was not Nancy's idea of meaningful work.

I was a professional freelance writer and wannabe author with limited resources to go running around the country. Besides, it would take an introduction, credentials, and travel money to interview the other eight surviving original WAFS.

WAFS stands for Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the 28 women who first carried that name were the nucleus of the larger group of women later known as WASP who, in 1944, played a significant role in the winning of World War II.

Why should these women take me seriously when I called and introduced myself? "Hi, I want to write about your time in the WAFS. May I come to your home and interview you?"

This was May 1999. By then, these women — 79 years old and up — had been burned by countless well meaning but clueless journalists and writers of books and films wanting to tell their stories and getting it wrong. Why should they trust me?

"I'll have a reunion in Birmingham," Nancy said. "How soon can you be available?"

Nancy was still flying. She had just qualified — at 79 — to fly copilot in a corporate King Air turbo jet with her pilot friend Chris. She fixed me with her keen gray aviator's eyes and waited.

This was a woman who had, over the previous 15 years, built a successful real estate venture on land she inherited from her father. Before that, she had run a glider-towing and small plane business in the California high desert. She had raised three children. As a young woman, she had flown the Army's fastest World War II aircraft.

To say that I felt simultaneously out-of-control and gratefully awe-struck is an understatement.

"Let me check my calendar," I managed to say.

That day, the rest of my life began.

Four weeks later, I met "BJ" Erickson London, Teresa James, Gertrude LeValley, Florene Watson, and Barbara Shoemaker. Counting Nancy herself, six of the remaining nine WAFS were sitting at a table in a hotel bar in Birmingham, Alabama, and we were getting acquainted. In a heartbeat, unlimited access to and personal contact with them was mine.

I listened to their stories. I earned their trust. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.

When the three-day reunion was over, I visited the WASP Archives at Texas Woman's University to do further research. TWU is Mecca for WASP scholars.

Then I started writing. I wedged some travel between my freelance jobs. I spent a week in Florida with Teresa James to gain additional insight. I visited two of Nancy Love's daughters in Virginia to learn about their extraordinary mother who birthed the idea of the WAFS back in 1940.

Nancy Crews and I spent a year-and-a-half working on The Originals: The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II. In the middle of our efforts, Nancy was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

My agent, Liz, was trying to sell The Originals to New York. "Great story, but we can't sell it in today's market," was New York's response.

Liz was ready to start the rounds of the mid-sized presses.

We didn't have time.

"I'll pay the bill," Nancy said. Liz and her husband Greg, who ran Disc-Us Books, a small press, would publish The Originals. Liz and Greg, like Nancy, believed in the book.

I believed in the book though reality kept intruding.

With the specter of the Grim Reaper pursuing Nancy across each page I wrote, I made four trips to Birmingham between June and December 2000. I watched Nancy's health deteriorate, but never her spirit. Doctor Jim — her physician and personal friend, Chris — the corporate pilot who tapped Nancy to be her copilot, and I — her coauthor — formed the trio that, along with Nancy's incredible strength of character and will to live, kept her alive.

"We know an airplane's not gonna get me," she quipped.

Nancy approved the finished manuscript on December 22, 2000. She gave me, and the book, her blessing. When I left to drive home for Christmas, we both knew it was our last meeting. Her son, Paul, was there to care for her. She died January 13, 2001.

I had to finish the job without her.

Released in July 2001, The Originals is Nancy's epitaph.

Now, sixteen years later, I have written six additional books about the women who flew for the Ferrying Division. — Two are novels. — The Originals has out-sold them all. All 4,000 copies Nancy ordered are gone.

The second edition of The Originals will be released this fall (2017). This volume commemorates the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.

On September 10, 1942, Nancy Love took command of the WAFS. She and Colonel William H. Tunner, Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command, set out to recruit experienced women pilots who, with no additional training, could ferry small trainer aircraft from the factories to the newly established flight training schools around the country.

America had been thrust into a war we were not prepared to fight. The adjustments people had to make in 1942 in order to cope with that reality were far reaching. Who would have thought that women pilots would deliver military aircraft, thus releasing male pilots to go overseas and fight?

Gifted women like Nancy Batson, Teresa James and BJ Erickson joined Nancy Love and Colonel Tunner and made a difference.

I knew little of the WAFS story when I met Nancy, but she found in me a willing and enthusiastic pupil. She schooled me in the story of the women who flew for Nancy Love — the story she had lived — delivering increasingly more complex aircraft for the Ferrying Division.

In 1944, flying those splendid new fighters — the P-51D — became THE priority for the women ferry pilots. The P-51D was the "Game Changer," the tool that would deliver the killing blow to Germany. The women were called on to fly them to the docks at Newark, New Jersey, to be shipped to England and the war abroad.

P-51Ds could protect four-engine bombers intent on delivering devastation to the interior of Germany. P-51Ds could go the distance, escort the bombers to the target and protect them from enemy fighters on the return flight to England.

The women of the Ferrying Division delivered 926 of those P-51Ds in 1944.

Nancy had lived it and she wanted the story told. Somehow she decided that I was the one who could tell it for her.

About the author:
Sarah Byrn Rickman has been writing since she was five. She's written seven books about the women flyers of World War II. Number eight is due out fall of 2017. A journalist first, Sarah began her career at The Detroit News and concluded it as editor of the Centerville-Bellbrook Times (Ohio).

A graduate of Vanderbilt University, she majored in English and, in 1994, earned her Masters degree in Creative Writing from Antioch University Midwest.

She earned her Sport Pilot license in 2011 flying a sweet little Aeronca Champ, a taildragger that she lands on a grass runway.

The Tree of Life
by Debra Bowling of Stone Mountain GA

I dreamed that I drove my car up a tree and onto a limb. I looked down below, my heart pounding. This limb will not be able to hold my car. Then a new thought flashed, if the limb breaks, it will fall on my dog. I got out of the car, backed off the limb and down the tree. Once on the ground, I realized that now the car would probably crash down on me and my dog. Why did I not drive the car back down? Later, the answer to the question popped into my mind, because driving the car back down would mean defeat. The dream was a message and I wrote every detail down.

In my Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (1996), the tree quickly becomes the Tree of Life and is so significant that the dictionary notes that the information about it could fill several volumes. Most frequently, it symbolizes the cyclical character in death and regeneration through seasonal changes. It connects to the three levels of the cosmos — the underworld of roots, the earth's surface through the trunk and lower branches, and then the Heavens with the upper branches and tip top reaching out to the light. And a third symbol is that of the inverted Tree of Life — rooted in the heavens with the branches enfolding the whole earth - noted by some as the symbolic shading of the Tree of Life into the Tree of Knowledge.

I think about my early years literally climbing up apple and pecan trees and sitting on limbs. School years were spent with my mother and siblings on my grandparent's farm. Made tricky, in part, from my mother's mental illness and my grandfather's complicated authoritarian personality, both of which were repressive to one trying to grow into one's true self. My rebellious acts of freedom were usually small - mostly hopping out on the limbs of saplings that could bend low so it didn't seem that risky and well worth the risk to crack some of fear's grip. But the chance of going away to college was a climb on a big limb and I inched myself out, delighted when heroes guided me further out. And once on that limb, I knew I could not fall — there was no alternative. Later, when capable of seeing the patterns of the past, I saw the significance. Like the ancient trees with big limbs that grow out and then dip down to root with the ground before reaching back up in a new life trajectory.

I began writing in earnest in seventh grade - mostly poetry. I loved symbolism, it was like a kind of secret language between writer and reader. I was motivated by an English teacher and I decided to go out on a limb and show him some of my poems. After school, I sat out under a big pecan tree beside our house and began typing the chosen poem using a manual typewriter lugged outside to a chair. The slow mechanical pecking un-nerved my mother so much that she was sure the keys were striking her instead of the paper. I started again, this time moving to a back bedroom in my grandparent's house. A few lines later she was at the door insisting that I stop pecking her. So I copied the words and took the poem to Mr. Baker, the teacher. He read it several times, pointing out a line he liked and one that needed work. I took poems to him that whole year, convinced that my reader, unlike anyone else at the time, really understood me. Writing and sharing those poems opened a door.

After years of being disappointed in my experiments with short stories, I wrote a piece based on a story about my mother. After many re-writes and feedback, I knew this was the story I had to write. I would write about a character based on my mother's life — using events I had either heard or knew about first hand. The bigger part of the novel would be fiction. I got out on the limb, but I knew it would be painful. To keep myself from getting off, I told friends and family I was working on a novel. Only a few people knew what the book was based on, particularly my critique group.

The novel included several real events from my mother's life because I knew how she reacted and what she said, which gave me hints to her thoughts - this would help me remain true to her challenges. The dive into the abyss of her life and our family history tore my heart out over and over for years. I cannot adequately describe the various "techniques" I used to get grounded into her personhood and to stay in that space while writing, to do justice to the character that would highlight her experiences. I added a new character — the chapters would alternate point of view of both characters which required much re-writing. Once again, all kinds of doors opened when I allowed the second character to express some of my own experiences and interactions. It altered me and my perception of family.
I rewrote a chapter to submit to Playhouse 30, a program of Public Television that made stories into short movies. A contracted was offered for the piece and it gave me validation. The contact was cancelled later due to funding cuts. With increasing bouts of depression and anxiety, it became increasingly clear that writing this novel was just too much. With a simple press of a computer button, I accidently deleted the novel. Later, I retyped the chapters, but did not go back to working on the novel for six years.

I completed it 27 years after starting it. In the final draft, fiction made Marilyn and Ginny real characters and not just parts of the people who inspired them. The Memory of Flight was published in December 2014 by Little Feather Press. From that moment and most of 2015, I still worried that the limb might break — how would family feel or the public? The first radio interviewer pushed to know how I could write a story like this — was it based on a true story? After a moment of dead air, I managed a vague response. After The Memory of Flight won the 2015 Georgia Author of the Year Award, I was invited to speak at a library. With a dear friend in the audience for support, I started off talking about where the idea for this novel came from and a great discussion began and I didn't die or fall off the limb.

By now you may be wondering about the dream that started this story. It is about my second novel. After finding my story, I wrote several chapters, but stopped working on it for over a year. I lost my dear brother, had a health scare, and was too afraid to write again, and so on — life keeps moving. It seems that we have to be brave to be fully alive and especially to be fully creative, so keep climbing out on limbs.

About the author:
Debra Bowling grew up in Northeast Alabama with a love of books and writing. After graduating from The University of Alabama with degrees in social work and criminal justice, Bowling worked in the community with issues such as domestic violence, runway teens, child abuse, and other areas while also writing articles and stories, taking photographs, and producing video documentaries. She was a Finalist in the 1989 Home Town USA Video Festival for Stories of Survival, which was also screened by Amnesty International and Image Film & Video the same year. Her documentary, Walking Without Music: Raymond Andrews and the Storyteller's Tradition, was purchased by Emory University to include with Andrews's papers and books in a special collection. The Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs awarded Bowling a grant in 1991 to complete Three Southern Writers, video documentaries of authors Tina McElroy Ansa, Terry Kay, and Sara Flannigan. Bowling has published short stories, creative nonfiction (anthology), poetry and photographs. Her first novel, The Memory of Flight, was published in December 2014 by Little Feather Books (NY), and was awarded the 2015 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel by the Georgia Writers Association in June, 2015.