03/23/2020 ASHLAND, Ohio – When Deborah Fleming tells her creative writing students to persist, she speaks from experience.
The long-time Ashland University English professor sent her essay collection, Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio's Natural Landscapes, to 50 different publishers, to no avail. The collection eventually was published by the Kent State University Press, but only after two unsuccessful submissions.
And now that book is the winner of the prestigious PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay, one of the annual PEN America Literary Awards.
“In a field of writers eloquent about the pathologies of selfhood and modern life, Deborah Fleming’s Resurrection of the Wild stood apart,” the judges wrote. “It is a collection of essays about the nature and natural history of her native Ohio: on its indigenous inhabitants and their fate; on the settlers who displaced them, or who, like John Chapman—'Johnny Appleseed’—tried to protect their way of life; on the early ecologists, like Aldo Leopold and Louis Bromfield, who raised an unheeded alarm against the ‘desecration’ of the land by industry and development.”
Like Bromfield, Fleming is both author and conservationist, spending endless hours outside on her farm, working with her horses, observing the seasonal changes and the ecosystem as it goes through both natural and man-made changes. “I regret having not become a biologist,” she said. “I guess this is my way of going back to it.”
Ironically, Fleming considers herself primarily a poet, but does switch forms on occasion and, in fact, has been compiling the essays for her collection since before 2000. “But I kept editing them,” she said. “And then it took a while.”
Being published is nothing new for Fleming, who teaches courses in creative writing, literature and composition at AU, as well as serving as editor and director of the Ashland Poetry Press. She also authored the poetry collections “Into a New Country”, “Migrations” and “Morning, Winter Solstice”, as well as “Without Leave”, a novel.
Publishers, not authors, offer works for PEN Awards consideration and the competition is fierce, paling only to the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. With her PEN win, Fleming joins some pretty heady literary company. Previous award winners have included Philip Roth, John Updike, E.L. Doctorow and Tom Stoppard. Given for the past 57 years, the PEN awards recognize voices from diverse genres, including fiction, poetry, biography, drama and essays.
"This is the most prestigious, high-profile award that any Ashland English Department faculty member has ever earned,” said AU English Department chair Dr. Hilary Donatini. “We are thrilled for Dr. Fleming and in awe of this magnificent achievement."
Don’t think for a second producing winning prose comes easily to Fleming. Not only does she balance writing with teaching, she also engages friends to read her drafts and offer comment. And then, she said, there are the editors. It pays to have a thick skin and to consider incorporating suggestions, friendly or otherwise. “Sometimes negative criticism can be a very positive thing for you,” said Fleming. “Most editors have very useful things to say.” Balancing the praise and criticism helps, she added.
Fleming attended the awards ceremony earlier this month in New York City. The star-studded affair was hosted by Seth Meyers and attended by a bevy of celebrities, including Diane Sawyer and Steve Martin. “And then there’s me,” said Fleming, laughing. “How do I fit into this crowd of urbanites; me, in my Wellingtons and my overalls.”
Hearing her name announced as a winner was nothing short of exhilarating, she said, adding that there’s no way to recreate it, not even if she would win again.
Fleming is back at AU and back to writing while assembling more essays and shopping both a book of poetry and a novel to publishers. She hopes having the award on her resume will help, but is prepared if it doesn’t. “I tell my students persistence is the name of the game,” she said. “If you want to be a writer, persist.”
For more information on the awards, go to https://pen.org/literary-awards/
Ashland University is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students.###