September 27, 2012 |

Writing for the right reasons

A lifelong writer, EWU teacher earns second runner-up title for fiction award

By JAMES EIK

Staff Reporter

For Polly Buckingham, writing is a life-long intrinsic passion.

Buckingham, a Medical Lake resident and senior lecturer at Eastern Washington University, was recently announced as runner-up in the 2012 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction for her submission “The Stolen Child and Other Stories.” This is her second time receiving runner-up status in the contest, one that she's followed for a number of years.

Winners of the award receive full publication for their submissions from the University of Georgia Press.

Growing up in suburban Illinois, Buckingham recalls bringing some of her first stories up to her third-grade teacher and by the fifth-grade, she was writing regularly.

“I stayed up all night a number of times and then produced these 20-page handwritten stories,” she said.

At the age of 14, her family moved to Florida, where she eventually graduated from college and took a four-month road trip driving across the country, timing her stops in cities hosting writing conferences. At those conferences, especially in the different sessions, Buckingham said she fell further in love with writing.

Eventually ending her journey at the Oregon coast, she worked a series of jobs, including spending time at a public radio station in Astoria before moving to Seattle for four years.

A career as a writer requires healthy productivity, sending out stories for contests and publication letters. For Buckingham, coming to Eastern as a graduate student was an effort to increase her productivity as a writer. During her time in Seattle, she became editor of the annual literary magazine StringTown, which debuted in 1998. After being on hiatus for a few years, the magazine is set for its 12th edition this fall.

“I count my productivity in writing not by what I've done in a day, but by what I've done in a year,” she said. “What I noticed when I was in Seattle was my productivity was down for the first time ever.”

The move paid off in more ways than one. Her productivity increased and she also received a job at the university in 2001, eventually moving into her current position as senior lecturer.

“I did not expect to be teaching after graduate school,” she said. “I don't even remember applying.”

Buckingham teaches creative writing, short stories, fiction workshops and other classes at Eastern. At first, it surprised her how few students recognized what a short story was. Others had only one genre in mind when first starting classes. Buckingham is a firm believer in taking a multi-faceted approach to avoid getting grounded in one genre, which can lead to creative restrictions.

“If you want to write, you have to be super flexible about what you're learning,” she said.

Some students have a natural writing ability, but aren't able to regularly produce content, while others may not have the best set of skills at the beginning of the year, but are dedicated to the craft. Putting in those late hours, even all-nighters like Buckingham once did as a child, can make all the difference in growth as a writer.

“I've run into some fantastic student writers; marvelous. But if they're not writing, it doesn't make a difference,” she said. “I'd rather have a student who may not start out fantastic, but is just dogged, because that's the more important piece of it.”

Currently, Buckingham has around 100 pieces of writing in the mail, sent to various publishers and contests. The hope is to find a publisher that understands the character of the writing and respects the craft.

Since becoming an instructor at Eastern, the publishing world has changed dramatically. The introduction of e-readers and tablet computers like the Nook, Kindle and iPad have transformed the landscape in just the past three to four years, making it easier to purchase books on the go. Opportunities for publication have also increased for some writers through e-readers, but Buckingham hopes small publishers aren't relying on e-book sales.

“I don't think it's a reliable thing yet,” she said.

For Buckingham, using technology is meant to service a need. But, she stays on top of trends by attending conferences and workshops to help teach more effectively.

“You don't do technology just because it's there, you don't engage in it just because it's there. If it's there to serve a particular purpose, you use it to serve that purpose,” she said. “I don't have an iPod. On the airplane, I'm listening to a cassette deck, but I'm headed to a technology conference in which I'm going to learn how to teach online more effectively.”

Now living on lakefront property, Buckingham said the Spokane area is a perfect home. It's not too busy, not too quiet and access to various shopping needs is close by.

“That's the thing about Spokane, you can get rural really easily,” she said.

Looking at the inspiration of writers like William Faulkner, Joy Williams, Jose Saramago and John Cheever, writing is at the core of Buckingham's life. Living and working in Eastern Washington, she's happy.

“The reasons we write are all 100 percent intrinsic,” she said.

James Eik can be reached at james@cheneyfreepress.com.

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