By Marcy Stamper
Judy Brezina had to convince herself to spend $40 to enter the Write on the River contest, but the investment snagged the first-place award for nonfiction for “Eliot,” her tender, humanizing portrait of a social outcast.
Brezina has always been a passionate reader and has dabbled in writing for decades, but this is only the second time she’s entered a contest, she said last week in her Carlton kitchen, surrounded by some of her other passions — cooking, baking and the early-spring bounty from her garden.
Brezina writes both nonfiction and fiction (she favors science fiction, often with a creepy edge). But she waits for inspiration and, more often than not, keeps her stories to herself. “The only time I ever write is if it resonates with me, or if I’m passionate about it,” she said.
She was already working on “Eliot,” but tailored the story for the contest. “It made it a stronger story,” she said. “There’s not a lot of fluff — it’s meat all the way through.”
As a child, Brezina took refuge in books. “Libraries saved me,” she said. She was so hyperactive that she would finish the entire summer reading list in a week. But she never finished high school or studied writing. “I feel sorry for people who don’t read,” she said.
“Eliot” recounts a time when Brezina owned a restaurant in Seattle, a neighborhood gathering space where the regulars included some “lost and forgotten souls” who lived in a group home nearby. Brezina sometimes cooked them a special meal after-hours.
Brezina has a vivid memory for sensory details and human interactions. “I never take notes — things just stay in my memory,” she said.
As she described the group in “Eliot,” “They were turned out en masse to wander the streets in their slow shuffling gait. Puffing cigarettes and staring at the ground as they circled not unlike a school of heavily drugged fish.”
“On one bright sunny spring day Eliot walked into the coffee shop. It never failed to shock me how the medication took a toll on him … His were eyes sunken, his hair was in a buzz cut that gave him a maniacal look that belied how gentle he really was,” she wrote.
But on that day Eliot opened up to Brezina, describing his time as a student in France, his close friendships there, and a picnic in a pear orchard. Eliot’s reverie gave Brezina an insight into a completely different person, even after he had retreated back inside his shell. “Never again would I look at that group of souls the same way,” she wrote.
This is the ninth year of the Write on the River competition, which is open to anyone in Washington. The judges look for “a compelling theme or subject, memorable style and a strong clear voice,” said Susan Lagsdin, a Write on the River board member, events coordinator and contest organizer.
“I really appreciated the vital of the link of the town and the story and the final three-part connection of the narrator, the main character and the reader,” wrote one judge about Brezina’s story.
Another called it “a well-crafted story that starts as one around a campfire might, with a strong setting I could see in my mind.”
Brezina wasn’t able to attend the conference and awards presentation last month in Wenatchee, because she was already booked for another of her interests — selling vintage auto parts at a swap meet.
Her only previous contest entry, which she submitted (on a lark) to the Dreyer’s ice cream company on the theme of “Why I Like my Neighbors,” also won a prize — a big ice cream bash for those very neighbors.
Brezina has also been published three times in The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write” section, and in the magazine of the retirement association AARP.
Brezina has written about 100 stories over the years. “Some are polished and ready to go, and some are half-baked ideas,” she said. “Their encouragement [from the contest] is what’s making me get serious about this.”
“Eliot,” along with the other winning stories, can be read online at writeontheriver.org.