Hershenow takes first place in both fiction, nonfiction
Methow Valley writers excelled in a regional writing competition this year, with local author Nick Hershenow of Twisp winning both the fiction and nonfiction categories — a first for the annual Write on the River competition.
Methow Valley residents swept the awards in the nonfiction category. Rebekah Jensen of Twisp and Ashley Lodato of Winthrop won second and third place respectively.
Two teams of judges reviewed entries for fiction and nonfiction in the annual writers competition, held each spring by Write on the River, a Wenatchee-based organization dedicated to encouraging writers and writing in North Central Washington.
“When the two teams of judges turned in their top picks from a very competitive selection, the top fiction writer was also the top nonfiction writer. That coincidence is both an unprecedented surprise for competition organizers and well-deserved compliment to the writer,” Write on the River said in announcing the winners.
For Hershenow, winning the top awards in fiction and nonfiction is an affirmation of his lifelong passion for writing. Hershenow has authored one novel, “The Road Builder,” a story set in central Africa, where he served in the Peace Corps. The book was published in 2001 and garnered an award (the Western States Book Award) and some attention, but “few readers,” Hershenow said.
His winning entry in this year’s fiction category, “Suceso,” is an excerpt from another novel he is writing, with the working title “I Followed Fire.” Hershenow said the 400-page book is “an adventure/family saga/coming-of-age/into the wild story” that draws on his life experiences, including working for the Forest Service in Idaho and at an orphanage in Honduras.
His nonfiction entry, “Little Chicken,” is an amusing account of a childbirth in a village in Ecuador that he attended with his nurse practitioner wife, Phoebe, along with a toothless old midwife who employed traditional — and, by modern medical standards, peculiar — birthing practices.
“Most people around here [in the Methow Valley] don’t even know I’m a writer,” said Hershenow, who is a preschool teacher at Little Star Montessori School. “I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. It’s something I’ve always aspired to do.”
He’s been working on his latest book “for quite a long time,” and says mornings are when he’s most likely to be sitting at the computer typing. “But a lot of my best work happens when I’m out walking or skiing in the hills or biking or something like that. That’s when ideas are most likely to come to me and when I am able to think through problems with the story or come up with a better way of saying something,” Hershenow said.
“I like making up stories and inventing an alternative world you can inhabit,” he said. “The writing is always fun. It always has to be refined or reworked, but as it comes together it’s a pleasure when you start seeing that you’ve accomplished something and there’s some kind of beauty or interest in it.”
The recognition he received for his work from Write on the River helps feed his passion for writing. “I’m obviously not going to produce many books in my life, but hopefully a couple of good ones,” he said.
Rebekah Jensen’s second place-winning nonfiction entry, “First Miles of the After,” recounts a hike in a Utah canyon with her younger sister, who was coping with the debilitating health effects of long COVID. The writing evokes the beauty of the canyon country and the love between sisters, along with odd encounters with bats and weird hikers.
Jensen said she began writing the story while in Utah with her sister, who was using the trip as her own writing retreat. At first Jensen tried to weave a fiction story, but changed to a nonfiction account at her sister’s suggestion.
Jensen earned a degree in creative nonfiction writing before pivoting to biology and forestry. An environmental consultant, she spends plenty of time at a computer writing technical reports, “with occasional right-brained forays into song lyrics and short memoirs … my creative writing is definitely in fits and starts,” she said.
When she read an announcement earlier this year about the Write on the River competition, “it was just the external motivator for me.” She resurrected her story about the hike with her sister, and worked on revising it to meet the contest’s maximum limit of 1,000 words. “I was happy with how it turned out. By the end it had the feeling of poetry to me — the spare words and phrases,” Jensen said.
Winning an award for her writing “definitely did inspire me,” Jensen said. “It’s the first time I’ve had such positive reinforcement. That’s a big deal for me.” Entering the competition “would be a wonderful annual tradition,” she said. “Maybe I’ll even try for fiction.”
Ashley Lodato’s writing is familiar to many Methow Valley residents who read her entertaining and informative weekly Winthrop column, as well as news stories and features in the Methow Valley News.
“Some people enjoy reading my column and say, ‘When are you going to write the great American novel?’” For now, Lodato said, she is sticking to nonfiction, and was recognized with third place for her entry in Write on the River.
Her story, “The Best Times of Our Lives,” begins as a humorous recollection of high school prom in the mid-1980s, complete with “Farrah Fawcett hair,” taffeta dresses, and students’ crude attempts to act as matchmakers and pair other students up as prom dates.
The matchmaking isn’t entirely benign, though, as Lodato explores the “racist assumption” among students that made them try to pair up two “African American students at a school with few others,” simply because they were both Black. The matchmaking efforts ignored the fact that in age, interests, and temperament the students “could not have been more ill-matched,” Lodato wrote.
“It’s something I’ve thought about often over the past 35 years,” Lodato said. “What were we thinking? If the racism had been really blatant, I wouldn’t have been a part of it. For me, that was part of my experience. Year after year we tried to connect these two Black kids that have nothing in common other than that they are Black.”
Writing about the experience, and acknowledging that “we all have these kinds of biases,” felt uncomfortable, Lodato said. “It was an experience that bothered me at the time, and obviously has continued to bother me. I struggled with even submitting it,” she said.
Need to share
But despite feeling “a little queasy” about sharing the memory, Lodato said she decided to write about it. “We’re never going to get anywhere with racial justice if people aren’t going to share their own complicated thoughts about it,” she said. “If we want to further the conversation about race in America, people are going to have to make themselves a little vulnerable, or we’re never going to get anywhere.”
Lodato said she was motivated to work on her own creative writing as she watched her two high school daughters immerse themselves in writing college applications and research projects for school. The deadline for submission to the Write on the River contest provided an additional motivation to submit her memoir.
In addition to writing for the Methow Valley News, Lodato writes freelance articles for other publications, and is Arts Education Director for Methow Arts, managing arts education programs in six school districts in North Central Washington.
Winners of the adult writers competition share $1,200 in cash awards. The annual contest, now in its 15th year, is open to any writer in eastern Washington. Entries must be previously unpublished original work under 1,000 words. Write on the River also sponsors a writing competition for teens.
The winning entries for this year’s competition can be read on the Write on the River website at writeontheriver.org.