Alumna awarded $30,000 for promising writing career

Inara VerzemnieksNonfiction writer and University of Washington Communication alumna Inara Verzemnieks (BA, 1996) received a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award for $30,000, along with five other women writers. Born in 1973, Verzemnieks is currently working on a book about the experiences of Latvian exiles in the aftermath of World War II, finishing her Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa and teaching two creative nonfiction writing courses at the university.

“I feel like I have three different full-time jobs right now,” Verzemnieks said. “After (I finish my M.F.A.) my hope is that this money from the foundation is going to allow me to have the time to focus on my writing and to focus on this book project. But I also have discovered how much I love teaching so I think a dream for the future is to be able to combine the two and be able to make a life where I’m able to teach creative writing and at the same time work on my own writing and my own projects.”

The award, which this year was increased by $5,000, has been given annually for 18 years to women writers of a variety of genres who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. They were presented to the recipients at a ceremony in New York City on Sept. 20. Apart from the waiters carrying silver platters and a room full of literary gurus, Verzemnieks was most impressed by the accomplishments of her fellow recipients.

“In every single case I was just completely blown away with the work they were doing,” Verzemnieks said. “It was like this extra little gift that suddenly I had made contact with…and was made aware of this really amazing work that was being done by other women who now I share this connection with.”

FROM THE BEGINNING

“I was interested in journalism from a really young age, from when I was about 8 years old or so,” Verzemnieks said. “I remember saying I wanted to be a reporter when I grow up. Someone must have given me the words for it, but clearly I loved writing and I loved other people’s stories.”

Verzemnieks grew up in Tacoma, Wash., and was raised in part by her grandparents who were Latvian refugees and much of the inspiration for her current book project. She wrote for the student newspaper in junior high and eventually became editor of Stadium High School’s publication.

Not sure whether she wanted to pursue a college path, Verzemnieks received a letter out of the blue from the editor of The Daily asking her to consider the University of Washington.

After visiting the newsroom, she said “it was absolutely clear to me in that moment – that’s exactly where I wanted to be and exactly what I wanted to do.”

Verzemnieks said The Daily provided her with an incredible training ground and she received mentorship and practical skill at the UW.

“I always admired the balance of things it offered me,” she said. “On one hand I recall having just really fantastic academic classes that I felt really challenged me…but then at the same time there was this wonderful opportunity to actually be writing.”

THE PURSUIT OF WRITING

Right after graduation, Verzemnieks landed an internship at the Washington Post in the feature section where she said she was surrounded by the best in the business. After they kept her on for an additional three months, she got a job at The Oregonian in Portland working as a police reporter in one of their suburban bureaus.

“Even though I knew my heart was in feature writing, I felt like it would be really good for me to sort of test myself by really throwing myself into the reporter side of things,” Verzemnieks said. “So it just seemed like a perfect opportunity.”

Verzemnieks eventually made her way to the downtown offices and bounced around the newsroom until she paired up with an editor in the arts section who she said understood her quirky sensibility and let her just go with it.

“He never freaked out if I came to him and said, ‘You know, I want to write about a street,’ Verzemnieks said, “or maraschino cherries…or a couple that loves velvet paintings.”

It was during this time that her editor also encouraged her to submit the work she had done over the past year for a Pulitzer. Not expecting anything to come of it, Verzemnieks became a finalist.

“The really special part about it was he was encouraging me to do this so that I would see that I was capable of more than I thought at the time,” she said, “and when I learned that I was a finalist it really did get me thinking that maybe I can write…and go forward with that in ways that I hadn’t yet quite considered.”

This got Verzemnieks dreaming and eager to write longer pieces and spending more time working on projects. So after working for The Oregonian for 13 years, she sent out her applications for graduate school three days before leaving. She was accepted to the University of Iowa, which she refers to as “a writer’s heaven.”

“I think about it like if you’re the kind of person who loves to read Us Weekly or something and always want to see the celebrity stuff and then you go to Los Angeles and it’s so exciting because maybe you’ll see all the people that you always wonder about and admire from afar,” Verzemnieks said. “Well if you love literature, then when you move to Iowa it’s like, ‘Oh my god there’s Marilyn Robinson in the co-op!’”

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE JOURNEY

In each stage of her career expedition, Verzemnieks has recognized key players that led to her confidence and success.

“I think for me it’s not even my accomplishments so much,” she said. “If I go back and look at every amazing phase in my life and the way everything has opened up for me…so that I could pursue my writing, it’s always been because of someone else’s unconditional support and belief.”

Whether it was the editor of The Daily sending a letter or the editor at The Oregonian pushing her to submit her work for a Pulitzer, her recent award was no different.

“With the Jaffe award it’s something you can’t apply for, it’s anonymous, and yet this idea that it’s also this larger sort of statement that someone believes in you,” Verzemnieks said. “Someone believes that you should continue to try to be able to pursue this thing that you care about and love so much. For me, if I look at that link between all those moments, that’s what feels really significant to me and really kind of amazing to realize the way that people will support others in wanting to pursue their passion.”

By Erica Thompson