A picture is worth a thousand words, but what are a thousands words worth?
In the case of Elena Passarello, the answer is $50,000.
Passarello, faculty mentor in the low residency MFA program, was one of 10 recipients of the Whiting Award: a $50,000 award given to young writers who show promising talent.
Each year, the Whiting Foundation appoints a committee of writers, editors and other members of the professional writing community to review works by nominated authors. Submissions include prose, poetry, fiction and nonfiction pieces.
Passarello was the only recipient to win an award in the nonfiction category.
She said her preferred genre is what she refers to as “essays,” otherwise known as creative nonfiction.
“The only one I know how to do is essays,” Passarello said. “I’ve tried others, but I always come back to essays.”
Originally from Charleston, S.C., the writer has lived, studied and worked across the U.S. as a writer, actress and voiceover artist.
While she was working toward her MFA in creative writing in Iowa City, Iowa, she acted in a number of stage productions.
She also spent time writing for Slate Magazine and has done voiceover work to fuel her creative fire.
“I was just a kid in middle school and high school who wanted to be in newspaper and literary magazine,” Passarello said. “I wanted to not just write but be in classrooms where writing was discussed.”
Though the Whiting Award is a great achievement, success isn’t unfamiliar territory to Passarello. She has achieved recognition through her writing, as well as a number of unorthodox accomplishments.
In 2011, she traveled to New Orleans to compete in the “Stella Scream” contest. Contestants flock to the competition to give their take on the Marlon Brando “Stella” scream, made famous from the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Passarello was the first woman to win the contest, much to her own surprise.
“Brando’s scream is one of the most interesting moments in pop culture, and I thought, what an interesting essay that would be,” Passarello said. “I thought it would be a good essay about losing, like a Bad News Bears kind of thing.”
The following year, another woman followed her groundbreaking victory and snagged the crown of the Stella Scream. Passarello later came back to judge the competition in 2013.
She has been published in a number of magazines and literary journals, but her first major publication was a collection of essays on voice, titled “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Published by Sarabande Books, the author is pictured on the cover screaming at the top of her lungs.
Currently, she is in the process of writing her next collection.
Passarello said she learned a few lessons from publishing her first book that she plans to keep in mind while developing her second.
“You have to start every essay new,” Passarello said. “At least I do. You have to have a new approach and a new language and a blank slate. One thing you really don’t want to do is write the same essay over and over and over again.”
“Animals Strike Curious Poses,” the title of her second collection, is set to be published in 2016. In the meantime, she continues to work as an assistant professor at Oregon State University and an online faculty mentor in the Murray State creative writing MFA program.
Story by Lucy Easley, Staff writer