Sandra Worsham’s stories have been published in Memphis Magazine, Carolina Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, Ascent, and Chattahoochee Review, among others. She won First in Fiction in the Red Hen Press competition, and her story “Pinnacle” was published in the 2008 Los Angeles Review. Two of her stories were Finalists at Glimmer Train. After she retired from teaching writing to high school students for 30 years, her book on teaching writing, Essential Ingredients: Recipes for Teaching Writing, was published by ASCD in 2001. She was Georgia’s 1982 Teacher of the Year and a 1992 Milken Award Winner. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. In June, 2006, she received her MFA in Fiction from Bennington College. Her new memoir, Going to Wings, is being released this summer from Red Dirt Press. She lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, with her spouse and their two dogs.
You are about to publish a memoir? Is this something that you always wanted to do? Please tell us a little bit about it.
I never thought that I would write a memoir, except maybe a story of my experiences as a high school writing teacher. When I read Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, I thought that perhaps I could write a Teacher Woman book. My MFA degree at Bennington was in fiction, and I have always thought that my book was either a novel or a collection of related stories. I knew that I had a story to tell, and I tried to make my relationship with Mary-Louise Brown become a novel called The Musician. I worked on this idea for years, so that when I later told my Bennington teachers about my memoir, they said, “I recognize this story.” It was only later in my life (I am now 70) that I realized that The Musician was only a small part of my story.
My memoir, Going to Wings, to be released this summer from Red Dirt Press in Shawnee, Oklahoma, is a story of my journey of accepting myself as a lesbian, yes, but it is also a story of the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and the relationship of a woman who is seeking God. I realized that I could not hide behind fiction, that I had to tell my story as Truth. This story has ridden around on my back, developing and growing bigger for years. It feels wonderful to have now told it, and to know that others will be able to read it.
How did your work as a teacher and as a caregiver even, inform what you wanted to say?
For a long time I saw myself as a “good teacher” and a “good caregiver,” both for my mother when she had cancer and then for Elizabeth “Teeny” Horne, my friend and mentor, when she had a brain tumor. I couldn’t reconcile my being gay with being “a good person.” I gave my entire focus in my life to teaching and to caregiving. I loved learning ways to succeed with young black males, something that white females in the south often are not able to do. Growing up in a segregated society means that white females and black males learn to fear one another. Bridging that gap was important to me, and I loved bringing wonderful stories out of my students. My philosophy was “Love is the whole point,” but I found that I could not love the gay side of myself. It was only after my teaching and my caregiving had ended that I was able to begin the journey of loving myself and believing that God loves all of me, even the part that my mother couldn’t love.
In what ways do you see yourself as a distinctly southern writer? In what ways do you feel you transcend that label?
I am southern, and I am a writer. I am not a southern writer. I was accused of copying Flannery O’Connor before I had ever read her. I could never intentionally try to “write southern.” But because of where I grew up, in Milledgeville, Georgia, hometown of Flannery O’Connor, I cannot “get the southern out,” nor would I want to. It is part of who I am as a person and, thus, as a writer. The red Georgia clay, the southern accent, the kudzu covering the trees, my mother’s recipes using the pecans that grew around our house and fell into our yard, the way that people talk to one another on the downtown streets and in the doctors’ office, the sense of history and of place are distinctly who I am. The issues that I write about—relationships, sexuality, religion, loss, and love—are not “southern” issues. They are universal issues.