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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Q&A: Where science and creative writing collide

    The editors of the quarterly journal Creative Nonfiction chose two winning essays from a competitive pool of nearly 200 contest submissions — one of them was Chester Phillips’ “Heroes and Consequences: On Masculinity and Redemptive Violence in American Culture.”

    A tale of his teenage sister’s rape — and his struggle with taking his own revenge in the situation — is a commentary on American culture, particularly regarding men.

    “From the Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ to action movies, the scripts had been written out for us to follow,” Phllips’ essay reads. “We started making plans to go after Andy.”

    After writing the story as a master’s student in creative nonfiction, the doctoral student studying arid land resource sciences urges people to take heart from the message of his essay, and the path he’s chosen for his career.

    Daily Wildcat: What is the essay about?

    Chester Phillip: This essay is about a time in my life when I was tempted toward revenge because of family trauma. In American culture, we’re taught, when someone you love is hurt, what are you supposed to do? Go after them.

    We see it in countless movies, book, all over TV. Again and again, we see the stories and then it’s a revenge story — but in real life, revenge might not be the thing that brings peace or healing.

    How does it feel to win the award?

    That’s actually the second award that I’ve won through Creative Nonfiction. In the nonfiction area, it’s one of the bigger magazines. They publish essays and I saw the contest, since the first award I’ve won from them.

    They’ll have different themes and this is an essay that I had written while I was in the M.F.A. program, working with Allison Demming.

    Immediately, when I saw the contest theme, I knew that this essay fit the bill.

    How did you win your first prize with the magazine?

    I first learned of Creative Nonfiction while I was in the M.F.A. program and when I joined Association of Writers and Writing Professionals. They have a huge conference that brings people together. Two years ago, I was at an AWP conference in Denver and saw that they had an animals-themed contest and I got the editor’s prize for a different essay. Since then, I kept track, I have a subscription and saw the second contest in the magazine.

    What serves at the inspiration for your essays? Are essays your main focus?

    It’s the story of my life before I came back to school at the University of Arizona. I lived out in the San Pedro Valley and did ranch work and a homesteading life for about five and a half years and then came back and now I’m a Ph.D. student in arid land resource sciences.

    But writing and literature have always been important to me, and it’s about thinking through and making sense of them and voicing what I think about an issue.

    I think we, as humans, know each other through stories, but if you and I are to meet, we’re going to tell each other stories about who we are and what we’ve done and whether they are fiction or nonfiction are the ways that we connect.

    I also have written short stories but I think the nonfiction genre is what I’ve been most drawn to.

    How do you balance being a scientist and being a writer?

    One thing I’d like to say loud and clear, I got a B.S. in environmental science and a B.A. in creative writing, I got an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction and now I’m getting a science Ph.D. all at the UA. You don’t have to choose. It’s not a binary where you can do science and engineering or you can do something in the humanities.

    I refused to choose between the two and I don’t ever intend to quit doing either. My writing skills have helped me as a scientist tremendously, so of course there are choices we have to make, no one can do everything — but if you have more than one side to yourself, don’t limit it, don’t charge into your career if you have more than one thing that pulls at you.

    The essay will appear in the December 2011 issue of the Creative Nonfiction quarterly.

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