When Stella M. Chávez was growing up, there was always a newspaper in the house. Her father would often ask about words he didn’t understand and whether he was pronouncing them correctly. While she was away in college at the University of Texas at Austin, he sent her newspaper stories he thought she would find interesting. Her father – a Mexican immigrant with little formal education – was always curious about the world and instilled that same inquisitiveness in her. Pay attention to details. Notice what’s around you, he would say.
Stella would heed that advice when she began her career in 1996 as a newspaper reporter at The Ledger in Polk County, Fla., covering small towns and migrant farmworkers. She also wrote the paper’s first weekly column about diversity called Faces of Polk.
Stella later wrote about local government, planning and zoning issues, and immigrant communities at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In 2002, she returned to her Texas roots to work for The Dallas Morning News, the newspaper she grew up reading. She covered education, municipal government and wrote columns about family life after her father suffered a stroke.
In 2006, Stella co-authored “Yolanda’s Crossing,” a seven-part narrative series published in The Dallas Morning News that reconstructs the journey of a young Mexican sexual-abuse victim across 5,000 miles from a small Oaxacan village through the Southern United States and to Dallas. The project received numerous national accolades, including the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence, the Associated Press Managing Editors International Perspective Award and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists print feature award.
Stella currently works for the Regional Director at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Dallas, focusing her efforts on educating the public about health reform. She continues to write in her spare time and maintains a blog, “My Parents’ Keeper,” which chronicles her experience as a caregiver to elderly parents. She’s married to Kevin Krause, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. They have a 15-year-old cat named Harold.
The Story Behind the Story - I have wanted to tell the story of my sister, Silvia, for some time but never could find the courage. Writing about her would mean opening old wounds. It would mean sharing a part of my family’s life that we kept to ourselves. But in recent years, I decided that it was important to shed light on the impact that mental illness has on the afflicted and their loved ones. My sister’s story, I hoped, might bring about better understanding of the complexity of the disease, and the challenges the sick and their family members face.
I began writing the essay in 2010 with the intention of entering it in the Mayborn’s writing contest that year. But after a churning out a draft, I thought it needed some work. Last year, I decided to submit it to see if I could at least make it into the workshop. If nothing else, I felt that would be a great opportunity to receive feedback from other writers. I finished working on the essay the last night I saw my dad alive – Father’s Day. And the night I learned I won third place fell on the one-month anniversary of his death. So receiving one of the Mayborn’s top awards meant much to me because I know it would have meant much to my dad, who in his own way inspired me to become a writer.
Telling Silvia’s story shows there is more to my sister than her illness. She, like so many of us, had dreams and aspirations. My hope is that because of Silvia’s story, readers will have greater empathy for the mentally ill and strive to treat them with dignity.
My background is in science journalism, and I’ve written about a wide variety of subjects- from golf courses to horses. My work has focused on agriculture, chickens in particular, including a book on raising traditional breeds in small flocks, How to Raise Chickens, in 2007. How to Raise Poultry followed in 2009. I’m a regular contributor to Backyard Poultry, Exhibition Poultry and other related publications. So it’s clear I’m fascinated with chickens. But I’m also fascinated with history. Along with my husband, I’m a “Living History” docent at the Hearst Castle in California, dressing up in 1930s finery and decorating the estate for castle visitors. I’m also fascinated with the ocean and the mysterious critters that live in it. That's why I’ve been an Elephant Seal docent at Piedras Blancas, California since 2007.
The Story Behind the Story - On the first weekend of May 2008, three elephant seals were shot in the head with a high powered rifle at Piedras Blancas along the central coast of California. Elephant seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because the crime took place in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA handled the investigation.
Three years later, the case remained unsolved. Rangers offered only the most general comments about the crime. I continued to press any local who might be connected to the investigation for answers. One day, a person close to the investigation responded. He told me how it had unfolded and gave me contact information for the lead investigator.
The lead investigator wanted to tell the story of the investigation but his superiors resisted publicity. Although the crime was considered solved, the perpetrator had died of natural causes before an indictment could be brought against him. The lack of legal resolution made the agency unwilling to make its findings public.
By charming my way up NOAA’s food chain, I was able to persuade regional supervisors and legal advisers to give the investigator permission to tell the story. They declined to release the perpetrator’s name, but all the rest of the details were disclosed. Solving the crime relied on persistent investigative work as well as scientific forensic analysis.
The community was relieved to learn that the case was solved. Publication of a narrative series was unusual for the newspaper. But the editor felt it was justified because the crime was unique and its resolution had been withheld for so long. The newspaper series focused attention on the forensic techniques used to solve wildlife crimes and the legal protections of the National Marine Sanctuary along California’s coastline. Stories of wildlife crime fascinate me, and I intend to explore other stories like “Death Before Dawn” in the future.
Christina Hughes Babb is the managing editor at Advocate Media, which publishes five magazines in Dallas neighborhoods. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, she lives in the Lake Highlands area with her husband, Joshua, and children Cole and Morgan.
The Story Behind the Story - I needed to write my story about addiction, recovery and the lesser-evil insanity that remains in my life for a few reasons. Maybe it will give some people hope. There was a time when my family was so hopeless regarding my prospects that my dad drew up my will and my husband and children made plans for a future without me. They have told me that news of my death would have been akin to the death of a relative suffering from terminal aggressive cancer — sad, but no shocker. And, kind of, a relief. But I lived and I am expected to keep living as long as I continue the treatment. Any addict at any time can accept treatment and get better. I also think that people and families in recovery should understand that even after nine years of sobriety, things don’t get easy. Addiction often takes root in a family and it can continue to do its work indefinitely, latching onto new family members or exhibiting itself in different forms. It’s an incessant beast. I want those who are suffering or who have suffered to know that life can be good again. Sometimes these days, I feel so happy that I worry someone has slipped drugs into my food. Naturally, I have learned, life can be that good! Writing, along with constant borderline-frenetic activity, helps me to unload some of the feelings and urges that still plague me. To put my story on paper was difficult. The process was embarrassing and excruciating. Knowing that I might have to share the story with people outside the walls of an anonymous support group was terrifying. I have been in some scary places — I’ve lived in institutions with hardened criminals, jumped from an airplane, bungeed off a tower and run along Area 51 in the middle of the night. But writing out the ugly, personal details and letting other people read my tale took, for me, unprecedented courage.
An abbreviated version of Christina’s essay was recently published with permission by The Dallas Morning News.
Vivian Morrow Jones loves a well-written story that shines a light on a bit of life—even better if the story starts a conversation. Not too long ago she realized her life, like everyone’s, is full of such stories. The challenge is to preserve them. Jones is especially fond of tales from the vast, wind-swept prairies of West Texas. She is a former teacher, newspaper editor and reporter. Her writing has recently appeared in Literary Mama, Big Bend Quarterly, Edible Dallas & Fort Worth, Chaos, and on the Sole Sisters Film Project blog.
The Story Behind the Story - I grew up at the feet of the greatest generation. I thought I was aware of the sacrifices they made during the Great Depression and World War II. But it was viewing Saving Private Ryan that made me wonder if anyone in my family had the sort of hellish experiences such as those depicted in the movie. I found service medals from two uncles and books about their achievements. But the story of my third uncle, Curtis Morrow, remained largely a mystery.
Researching and writing this essay taught me how war shapes events in every family and how many thousands of people are actively searching for information about relatives who fought or died serving their country. Clubs and websites are devoted to helping people trying to pull together stories about their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. The story I found was not the story I was expecting. It called for a storytelling voice that was unfamiliar to me as a writer. I struggled with it until I realized that I was the last hope for my uncle’s voice to ever be heard.
A soldier’s death often ripples through a family for generations, reminding us of the human cost of war. But unlike the entire town of Marfa, Texas that grieved and mourned alongside Uncle Curtis’s family almost seventy years ago, it saddens me to think that only a handful of my cousins will take much interest in our uncle’s war story.
Sarah Junek has worked in public schools in Fort Worth since 2009 teaching Writing and Computers, an elective class, to middle school students. She wrote as a general assignments reporter for the Keller Citizen, a McClatchy-owned newspaper for 18 months. She has written front-page narratives for the Denton-Record Chronicle and Dallas Observer. Sarah grew up on a cattle ranch along the Brazos east of Austin and completed her studies in Russian and European history at Texas A&M University in 2001 before earning a master’s degree in journalism at the University of North Texas in 2008 where she was a Frank W. Mayborn scholar. In between her studies, she lived abroad in Uzbekistan with a local family, learning Uzbek and working as a teacher and aid worker. That is where she developed a passion for telling true stories.
The Story Behind the Story - I was working as a journalist but sometimes felt disconnected from the story. Around a table with a cup of coffee I debated an idea with a few of my mentors. What if I enter a world where people hate to read and write and therefore don’t - the middle school classroom.
As a new teacher I wondered constantly: do I do it the way it has always been done? I turned the class day into a Petri dish for ideas. Could I change reading for my students, at least my 43 minutes-a-day of it, and balance the odds? After years of reading to the test, could I undo their hatred to read and write with the lure of a digital screen? My quest to address this question became an obsession, eventually giving birth to “Into the Classroom.”
I was an excited writer and reader, surrounded by adolescents enchanted by games and bored by reading. Yet the future of not just education but journalism sat in that room. They aren’t getting the critical information they need to make well-informed choices the same way it’s always been delivered. I wrote this story as a memorial to this realization, and to my moments of despair about it.
I don’t think of myself as a teacher, but as a storyteller. I hope this story engages a discussion on how exactly we can capture the imaginations of the next generation of storytellers.
Julia Love is a Teach for America corps member who teaches bilingual first grade in San Jose, California. But journalism has always been her greatest passion. She plans to return to the field after the corps. She will return to the newsroom this summer as an intern for The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, D.C. She had worked as an intern for the Los Angeles Times for a 10-week stint last summer during which her work was published in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. She graduated magna cum laude from Duke University in May. Her creative writing thesis, “Bloodlines,” earned her Duke’s Margaret Rose Knight Sanford scholarship and second place in the personal essay contest at the 2011 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
The Story Behind the Story - The inspiration for the story came early. At 10, while reading a diary my father kept when he began dating my mother, I learned of a disturbing crime my maternal grandfather had committed. After reading the words, I wished I hadn’t. I snapped the notebook shut wanting to forget. And for almost a decade, I did—until I arrived at Duke and a creative writing professor called upon my classmates and me to write about a family secret.
I could no longer dodge my discovery. But I was reluctant to put it on paper. The stories are somewhat benign as memories. Details are lost with the passage of years and, especially, the addition of generations. Gathered and typed, they gained a sense of permanency that I am reluctant to give them. I have asked myself more than once why I feel the need to stir up the old pain my mother and her family spent years trying to forget. Why not leave well enough alone? I asked myself, but never managed to answer. Yet I think there is value in the act of writing it all down. Life carries no promise of clearly marked beginnings and ends, resolution of conflict, emergence of theme—but stories do. Shaping our shared past into a narrative arc, I have found insights and meaning from the sadness in my family’s past.
A journalist molded in the tradition of my parents and grandfather, I crafted this story from primary sources whenever possible: yellowed letters, journal entries, home videos, photos in black, white and shades of color. Born decades after my grandfather’s transgressions, I often questioned my right to write about them. But my mother never did. She assured me that the story was something I had inherited—as much mine as my future children’s. I like to think this piece might help them comprehend our family history when they are old enough, though I am sure they will have questions of their own. I see strong evidence that curiosity is genetic.
Ellen Raff is a free lance writer and columnist in Dallas. She writes columns and articles for The Dallas Morning News and The Advocate, a hyper-local magazine. She holds a B.S. in Business Management. She worked in banking for over 13 years as an analyst of consumer behavior, community reinvestment, and bank compliance.
The Story Behind the Story - My stepdaughter was born in 1978, and despite her delightful eccentricities, she did all the things you’d expect of a middle-class American born that year. She was a child of America’s culture. At one time she idolized Madonna. She wore Doc Martens boots to emphasize her individuality, and graduated on schedule from New York University in 2000.
In 2010, my stepdaughter bought a house at a public auction, and quickly found herself swallowed up in the sub-prime mortgage debacle. During the time she struggled to hold onto the house she purchased, family members cheered her on. We hoped political tides might be turning in favor of homeowners, and we had a naïve belief that justice prevails in the U.S. more often than not. Alas, I didn’t realize until I researched this piece how systematic and widespread unlawful foreclosures had become. Over the past decade, laws meant to protect borrowers came to mean next to nothing, as those who chose to fight the banks discovered.
I have always been fascinated with the interplay between everyday people and larger economic forces. My background in business and banking led me to believe that free market principles work, at least in theory—but the theory presumes a level playing field.
Brian Russell is an award-winning writer and director, the author of Meeting Dad: A Memoir (Accents Publishing, 2010), and a graduate of Spalding University’s brief residency MFA in Writing Program, named one of the top ten low-residency programs in the country by Poets & Writers. While at Spalding, he served as an assistant editor of The Louisville Review. His prose, critiques, and poetry have been published at public-republic.net and thereviewreview.net. His short story, Rutherford, won Roosevelt University’s Keenan/Kara Writing Award. He is a Visiting Professor at DeVry University, where he teaches English and Humanities. The Illinois Arts Council recently awarded him an Individual Artist Support Grant in support of his attendance at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. He is currently at work on completing a full-length memoir, My Own Best Father, and he is the “best person to write this book” because it’s about his near lifelong search for father, in the absence of adequate father figures.
Prior to earning his MFA in order to focus more on writing and teaching, Brian worked in the theater for more than twenty years, a highlight of which was serving as producing artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company from 1997 to 2002. There, he directed more than a dozen shows including Working, Scapin, A Lie Of The Mind, Medea, American Buffalo, and The Threepenny Opera. Other credits include My Old Lady, Three Tall Women, The Winning Streak and The Gin Game, all at Apple Tree Theatre; Always . . . Patsy Cline, A Perfect Ganesh, and All In The Timing, among others at Northlight Theatre; and the operas Carmen at Sarasota Opera; The Barber Of Seville, Amistad, Romeo Et Juliette, The Elixir Of Love, and La Boheme, all at the Ryan Opera Center of Chicago’s Lyric Opera. He served for eight years as an on-site reporter for the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Story Behind the Story - “Winter Garden” comes from a chapter of a memoir-in-progress that was my graduate thesis at Spalding University. The piece explores fear, anxiety, confusion and a sense of abandonment and isolation that marked many years of my childhood, indeed, also several years of my early adulthood. Writing my essay and exploring these difficult memories was painful, but also critically important to understanding what a 15-year-old boy goes through in the presence of a troubled marriage. It was also especially painful for me to have to ask my adoptive father, whom I would never want to hurt, to respond to this dark episode in our family’s history.
William Sheets is a journalism major in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. He’s written stories for his college paper, the NT Daily, but never thought of himself as “a writer” – until “The Great Outdoors” was picked by a panel of jurists as one of the 10 “best of the best” submissions to the 2011 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Now his identify as “a writer” has sort of grown on him.
The Story Behind the Story - When my professor George Getschow asked me to submit a personal essay I had written for his feature writing class to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in 2011, I was reluctant to do so. After all, I didn’t consider myself “a writer” even among my peers, let alone a writer able to compete with professional writers submitting to the Mayborn’s writing contests from around the country. I’m not a writer, I thought to myself. I am just some college kid who wrote a sob story about the time he shot a duck. How could I possibly compare to hundreds of more experienced writers from around the country?
Yet something in the earnestness of Professor Getschow’s suggestion convinced me to beg my mother for the money to attend the conference and submit my work. As the writer in residence and director of The Mayborn Conference, I wanted to believe him when he told me he thought my essay was quite good, and worthy of submitting to the prestigious Mayborn Conference. Alas, when I read the essays and reported narratives that were part of my workshop group I felt my poor self-assessment of myself as a writer were fully realized. I felt my work wasn’t even worthy of being in the same workshop with the other writers. So when the second day of the conference rolled around I opted to sleep in rather than make the thirty-minute drive from the campus to the conference center in Grapevine.
When I ran into Professor Getschow on campus the following semester, he asked me why I hadn’t shown up to accept my award, I was more ashamed and embarrassed than I had ever been. Except for the time I leaned too far back in my chair, fell backwards and promptly passed gas across the room of fifth grade students attending their first day of class. I consider having my essay published in Ten Spurs, Vol. 6, the most significant thing I have ever accomplished. Perhaps I am a writer after all.
Doni Wilson has a doctorate in English in American and British literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches literature and writing in Houston, Texas.
The Story Behind the Story - One day when it dawned on me that I had been teaching English at various universities for twenty years, I had what at least I imagined was a midlife crisis – at least for a time. But after I recovered, I started thinking about what wonderful professors I had in undergraduate and graduate school and how they influenced me in profound ways. So I decided to write about these professors who were and are true originals. Like many arenas in life, I think the university can often be a place that encourages standardization without even realizing it. I wanted to write about what it was like to have professors who were able to do whatever they saw fit in the classroom. I think in every profession, it is important to have people you look up to and want to emulate, while at the same time recognizing that no one’s perfect. But I was super lucky and wanted others to know about the superlative talent and knowledge these professors demonstrated. Having them as professors was humbling but also exciting-- knowing there was always more to learn from them.