Nancy Fowler, a veteran Midwest journalist from Missouri, is the 2021 Writer in Residence at the Daisy Pettles House for Women Writers. Selected from among applicants from 23 states and several foreign countries, Fowler will receive a $1000 grant and become the 2021 writer in residence at the Daisy Pettles’ House for Women Authors in Bedford, Indiana.
Fowler’s 30-day residency, slated for this spring, will allow her time and cash support to develop her winning work-in-progress, “I Would Have Loved You So Much,” a memoir about her personal journey as she ages without grandchildren—a cultural trend that is affecting life and aging for a growing a number of American women.
Fowler, now 65, previously received a news writing regional Emmy Award for her work with WXYZ-TV in Detroit and a Pride St. Louis’ Felton T. Day Award for her ongoing service to St. Louis’ LGBT community. “Gay Home Movie” feature coverage she created for St. Louis Public Radio which earned her an Edward R. Murrow award.
Her writing passions encompass the arts, culture, and social justice. Her lifelong body of work has spanned public radio, TV, and online media as well as print.
Q: Your winning entry, “I Would Have Loved You So Much,” a memoir in progress, chronicles your experience of aging without grandchildren. Is memoir a new arena for you, and why did you choose this topic as the focus of your own life story?
When I was 7 or 8, my much older brother, an undergraduate psychology student, told me if I were ever bored, I should write the story of my life. After I became an adult, certain chapters in my life seemed to emerge as memoir-worthy. In my late ‘30s, married to a man and raising three young children, I fell in love with my best female friend. My then-husband used the laws of Missouri to try and cut me off from my children, including one with special needs. For many years, I thought of that as “my story” and wrote many a memoir draft along those lines.
Now that I’m 65, my story has expanded. About a year ago, after confirming that none of my children wants to have children, I began grieving it like a loss. I also began to consider that perhaps loss and grief have always been part of my story, that they are part of everyone’s story. And the specific loss I feel now—not having grandchildren—is something I share with thousands of other older mothers. Having no grandchildren when you always thought you would echoes through the baby boomer generation, a consequence of a declining birth rate. It’s also a coalescing factor around which to wrap my entire life, including the irony that I fought so hard for custody of children who don’t want their own. My children know I respect their decisions and that I don’t hold them responsible for my feelings.
Q: You career began in the late Seventies in TV journalism. Unlike many of our applicants you maintained a lifelong interest in media as a career. But you did break your career to raise a family of three children. What advice do you have for women who may want a career in media but see it as a dying career with pay too low to support a family?
There’s all of media and then there’s the subcategory of journalism. I can only talk about journalism and even then most of my experience is of the back-in-the-day variety.
This may sound pessimistic, but if a young woman is interested in journalism, I might tell her to work in another, more lucrative field and become a citizen-journalist on social media on the weekends! Invest in your company’s savings plan, take the full match of the company’s contribution, save up in to fund your maternity leave if you want children. So few people, men and women, can actually make a living in journalism. It’s certainly not something they can count on to sustain them. Although, who knows? You might be an outlier and journalism will pay your bills. But have a backup plan.
Q: Much of your work has dealt with issues of social justice within the gay and lesbian community. One of your more notable projects, which won a Murrow award, was coverage of a documentary project that involves the reclamation of home movie reels that record a gay pool party at a private St. Louis home during WWII. What role do you think journalism plays today in recording the history of disenfranchised or marginalized populations within our culture? Has social media and reality TV and radio-to-podcasting swings doomed the diversification of American voices in media?
Look at the speed at which George Floyd’s murder traveled and how quickly it moved people to action this past summer. Social media was instrumental in prompting thousands to sustain a weeks-long protest against brutality against Black people.
I think the proliferation of social media has actually brought to the fore the voices of more people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. It’s one side of the coin of that changing face of journalism. Anyone can be a journalist now, a documenter of our times. That growing contingent means no one’s paying as much for news now but it also makes it harder for the power structure to silence diverse voices.
They say journalism is the first draft of history. Today, a robust history of many marginalized people is being recorded in more ways than ever before.
Q: You recently made the switch from full-time writing and producing on a salary to freelance gigs. Many writers find freelance writing and the gig economy greatly reduces their income while also taking away vital benefits—health insurance, pensions, etc. Any advice for women who choose freelance writing or media careers today and who also want to keep strong family ties?
Keep your expenses low is the best advice I can give. Do you really need a third bedroom which means a bigger, more expensive house? Or would you rather put away money for emergencies since you’re not making enough to do both? It’s a shame we don’t pay our journalists and artists enough to enjoy security.
Q: You’re a lifelong journalist—some might say the last of a dying breed in an industry that now embraces sensationalist reality media over hard-nosed reporting. What are the challenges facing journalism today, and is “news” a dying trend vs. “opinion” journalism?
I’m certainly no expert on this. But I think the biggest challenge facing journalists today is people have spent the last four years hearing that journalists aren’t reputable and news is fake. So I’m not actually sure I am part of a dying breed. Maybe more of a starving breed. There are so many ethical journalists working (or who would like to work) and so many reputable news outlets—radio, newspapers, digital—struggling to stay in business. But there’s no money in it.
Since maybe the early 2000s, reputable news outlets have struggled to sell what they used to give away for free in the early days of the internet. They were slow to get on the monetizing wagon, and outlets that existed to make money and push agendas began to proliferate. There’s so much information coming at us and we now want news that confirms our existing bias.
Q: Are favorite pieces of your own writing accessible online, and if so can you share their online links with our readers? Why do you like these pieces or what do they represent in your own evolution as a writer and a woman?
I’m still pretty early in my creative nonfiction journey and have actually just begun working on an MFA in Writing. So other than my “The Barbie Scale” essay which WOW (Women on Writing) so generously published, and one very short piece coming out in the Readers Write section of Sun literary magazine this spring, my published pieces are in the genre of journalism.
One of my favorite radio stories is about the value of music in hospice care. I connected with two families whose dying loved ones’ heartbeats became part of a personalized song they can listen to and treasure forever. The story is best told in the radio version (To hear the story, click the “Listen” arrow at the top left of the linked paged)
I am also proud of my coverage of a high-achieving college student on full scholarship named Ngone Seck, whose path once seemed assured. Then years of untreated dental decay began to threaten her success. After hearing my story, someone came forward to provide her dental care and the student is now a thriving engineering major. I’m so happy to have helped make a difference in her life, knowing she will go on to make a difference in the lives of others.
I also feel that both stories illustrate the work I put into learning a brand-new medium—radio—in my late 50s. In my television news days, I worked behind the scenes so becoming an on-air reporter who also worked solo to capture all outside audio and then produce each story was a huge challenge! Now that I’ve turned my focus more directly toward writing creative nonfiction, I am equally excited to have begun pursuing an MFA at the age of 65.
The Daisy Pettles House for Women Writers, sponsored by Cozy Mystery Writer and Indiana Author Daisy Pettles, is a project dedicated to encouraging older women writers, aged 40+ through cash grants and month-long writing residencies in a vintage bungalow in southern Indiana. Women writers may compete for a writer-in-residence spot or support the project through renting the house for their own month-long or week-long residencies or retreats. Donations are also accepted through Go Fund Me for those wishing to support older women writers.