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Meet Trailblazer Amanda Fletcher

Today we’d like to introduce you to Amanda Fletcher.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I have always been a storyteller. Before I could put words on paper, I told them with my mouth. I talked early and a lot. My parents called me Jabberjaw after the futuristic shark in that 70s cartoon. My first publications came in the 6th grade at the urging of my English teacher, Mrs. Wheeler. I placed in a couple of writing competitions and then I got to high school and forgot about writing for a while. Being a teenage girl in a house full of men was a struggle. Being a teenage girl at all is no joke. Sometimes I wonder who I would have been if I wasn’t so worried about what other people thought about me. How I presented to the world. Still, I was able to use my physical self as a shield for a long time. I got a degree in kinesiology and became a personal trainer. And a beauty queen, and a drug addict, and a bulimic, and a problem drinker. My mother committed suicide. Then my uncle. Next my cousin. I thought that if I looked a certain way, maybe the madness wouldn’t find me. Then I took a sloppy dive out of a boat, hit my head on a rock and broke my neck in three places. And. And. And…

And I found my way back to writing.

It took 20 years for my next publication. I placed a short story in a community college publication after taking my first creative writing class. I started a book from an exercise based on a Joyce Carol Oates essay. I started taking classes with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I was inspired by my instructors, writers like Samantha Dunn, who told me she loved the risks I was taking, and that she wished she saw more of my type of writing in memoir.

And I kept writing.

I applied to the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship (EV) at Sam’s urging. EV is a literary mentorship that has been providing professional tools to underrepresented writers since 1996. I made it to the interview round and didn’t get in. I kept writing, kept taking classes, kept going. I took part in a private workshop–a nine-month intensive. I went to the Skidmore Summer Writers’ Institute for a month. I applied to the fellowship again. I found out I’d been awarded at the same time that I found out I had breast cancer. I did six months of chemo and the fellowship together. The classes, the readings, and the writing all carried me through treatment, gave me purpose. I had a story to tell. I was learning how to tell it.

Writing is a solitary practice. It can be very lonely. And when you are writing about yourself, your own suffering, it can be easy to lose perspective. Emerging Voices placed me in the middle of a community of writers, exposed me to stories I might not have heard had I not found the program. It made me care about other people, simply by reading their stories. It cracked me open. I finished chemo and I got sober. As if I’d decided on living as fully as possible. When the opportunity came for me to work at PEN I jumped at the chance to be involved.

PEN awards the fellowship to five writers every year. These are writers who don’t have advanced degrees in creative writing and are marginalized in some way. They are paired with writing mentors, gifted with classes, private author events, professional photos, and specialty workshops, and are featured at three public readings around LA. You might think the ultimate goal is a book, and it is, but it is also about diversifying the mainstream cultural narrative. Of course, fellows go on to write, but they also work in the publishing industry, public relations, and film and television. Positions where they can pay it forward to other writers of color, LGBTQI+ writers, older writers, women writers, disabled writers, writers who don’t fit the status quo.

2020 marks my fifth cohort of Emerging Voices. That’s 25 writers and mentors, dozens of instructors and visiting authors. That’s scores of alumni gatherings and writing groups and book launches and readings and hundreds of professional celebrations.

And that’s one more book. Mine. I finished it.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
As you might have guessed from my first answer, it has not been a smooth road. More like the 5 Freeway after the Northridge quake. Murder, suicide, addiction, tragic accidents, disease, you name it, I know it. As much as a white woman from Canada can know things. Something else I know: My experience is limited by my skin color and my cis-genderedness. Any advice I have comes from that blindered place. That’s the first thing I wish I had known earlier in life. The next thing is that we cannot save other people and no one can save us. All we can do is be the best version of ourselves we are capable of being. The rest will follow.

How do we do that? Be an active listener. Believe people when they tell you how they feel. Read widely and often. Understand that you don’t have all of the answers and be okay with that. Get into therapy. Learn how to sincerely apologize and then let it go. Learn how to have uncomfortable conversations. Accept responsibility.

Find other women to look up to.
Stop worrying about losing weight.
Love yourself because you are human.
Know you are beautiful. Know that we all are. Know that this is not more important than being well informed.
Be politically engaged.
Ask questions. Be open to possibilities.
Feel compassion over pity.
Be okay with walking away.

Read. Listen. Therapy.
Read. Listen. Therapy.
Read.
Listen.
Therapy.

These are your takeaways.

We’d love to hear more about PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship, as well as your own writing.
I have worked with PEN America since 2015, managing the Emerging Voices Fellowship, or as we call it, EV. EV is a literary mentorship that was born out of a panel held at the Los Angeles Central Library in March 1994, which explored the issues and challenges faced by first and second-generation immigrant writers. It became evident that many of the culturally diverse communities of writers in Southern California were often isolated from the literary establishment. EV was initiated in 1996, designed to launch potential professional writers from minority, immigrant and other underrepresented communities. Since that time, it has evolved into a seven-month writing fellowship for writers who lack access to a traditional writing education who are seeking financial and creative support.

Every day I get to help other writers claim their purpose. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than the combination of these two things.

And PEN America is a membership organization, so if you want to support us, you can become a member or donate in support of the programs you care about.

And I can tell you that Emerging Voices helped me own the title of writer. It is the only thing I have ever wanted to be and even though it doesn’t pay me very much yet, it is my work and such a huge part of my identity. I have to remind myself of that again and again. (This is your purpose, Amanda. Don’t let it go.) The thing I am most proud of, that has taken me 15 years to accomplish, is my first book. I am still in the revision process, and I’m starting to query agents, and this is just the beginning, but I did it. I wrote my story: HALO.

I’ve been sober for seven years now. But, in August of 2002, I was a wannabe Playmate with addiction issues, still reeling from the recent death of my mother. On a debauched holiday weekend, I dove out of a boat, hit my head on a rock, and broke my neck in three places. I spent a critical 72 hours in intensive care and then the next four months in a cervical stabilization device, known as a halo. During that time, I learned that I wasn’t just recovering from this accident, but the physical manifestations of grief and violence that are my legacy.

While I’ve been working on the book, I’ve written for everything from a sober website to a premium cannabis retailer, and have been lucky enough to do some travel writing for Coast Magazine, the Orange County Register, and a few others. As a writer, it has been very important for me to see my byline in print and my name on a check. Along with the fellowship, getting paid has allowed me to say, see? I am a real writer.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give to a young woman just starting her career?
Make sure you have some computer skills–not just Office Suite, but graphic design, social media, and marketing–that stuff will serve you no matter what job you’re applying for.

And go for that job even if you think you won’t get it. My roommate, Brandi Neal, is the best at this. She says you can learn anything on YouTube.

Have a professional look at your resumé and cover letter. It is worth the investment.

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Image Credit:
Casey Curry, Khalid F., Melina Mae Castorillo, Charles Day, Jeff Reynolds

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