Alumna Mesha Maren's Storied Life

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Mesha Maren

by Karrigan Monk '18

Mesha Maren was never a traditional student. She didn’t start college until she was 25. A double major in history and literature with a focus in creative writing, Maren graduated from UNC Asheville in 2012.

“My time here was really awesome. It was very inspirational to me,” Maren said. “I felt like in both of those departments that my teachers really recognized that I was hungry to learn and ready to take on big projects. They worked with me and it was a really fun and exciting time in my life being here.”

Maren’s big projects started while she was still in school. She and fellow student Matt Owens traveled to Portland via a research and travel grant in order to attend fiction writer Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing workshop.

After this trip, Maren and Owens came back to UNC Asheville with a new plan for the writing center. They used what they had learned in Portland to create something new for the center, which they called Redaction, a weekly writing group open to professors and students to get real-time feedback to improve their writing. Maren said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of her time at UNC Asheville, and she enjoyed interacting with people she would not have known had she not done this project.

Maren’s most recent project is her upcoming novel Sugar Run, out in fall 2018 from Algonquin Books. The novel follows 35-year-old Jodi McCarty after she is released from an eighteen-year stint in prison, unprepared for the world of lush beauty and harsh struggles that awaits her as she works to get her family’s West Virginia land back and adjust to post-prison life.

“The very beginning kernel of an idea for it started as part of my thesis work here at UNCA,” Maren said. “It’s changed drastically since then, but a few of those scenes that were in my thesis are in the novel.”

Maren said that while she worked on early drafts of the novel as part of her graduate program at Queens University of Charlotte, it was professor at UNC Asheville who truly pushed her to become a writer and publish her work.

“As a child I sort of thought that writers only existed a long time ago. I knew that in the past people wrote books but I didn’t really have any models as far as that being a possible career path for me,” Maren said. “I always wrote and told stories ever since I was really young but it was more of a personal thing for a long time.”

It wasn’t until Maren met Katherine Min, associate professor in the English Department, that she truly started to see writing as a career.

Maren said she first met Min when she was only auditing classes and Min told her to put her head down and work for what she wanted.

“What I noticed about Mesha right away was her intensity,” Min said. “She seemed serious about her writing and had interesting life experiences to use as subject matter. She stood out right away as someone who had both the drive and the ability to become a writer.”

Min said that while she has met many talented students at UNC Asheville, what excited her most was the dedication she saw in Maren. From the very start Maren had the drive to do what she loved and become a writer.

“She was the real deal and I was happy to help her find the confidence to commit to her vocation,” Min said. “Mesha would have been a writer anyway, I have no doubt, but I was privileged to have her as a student right at the moment she was figuring it out for herself.”

In 2015 Maren’s short story “Chokedamp” was selected as the winner of the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, a particularly exciting moment for Maren because she was living in Iowa City at the time and she said she was grateful to have the connection back to North Carolina where her writing career started.

When not writing, Maren spends her time teaching creative writing to students, some of whom are not entirely conventional.

“I have a few different part time jobs but my favorite one is teaching creative writing in a federal men’s prison,” Maren said. “Once a week I give an introductory level creative writing class and a more advanced level workshop. I’m living in West Virginia now and there’s a federal prison there where I do the classes and that’s been pretty fun and interesting.”

Though her life has taken her away from Asheville and she keeps busy writing at least five days a week and teaching, Maren said Asheville still holds a spot in her heart.

“I feel so much gratitude towards UNCA,” Maren said. “I got a really awesome education here and hope to come and do a reading here once my novel is out and share that since this is where it started.”