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WAWA Finalists, Please Take A Bow 

A professional dancer in New York, a legal secretary in Ireland, a school teacher in Colorado and a Nature lover in the historic English town of St. Albans were all finalists in our recent ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ competitions on the themes of Love, Time and Beauty.

Erin Gottwald, a finalist in the creative non-fiction category of WAWA’s competition on the theme of ‘Time,’ is a professional dancer who crafts stories into both movement and prose.

Originally from Boston and still a big Red Sox fan, 45-year-old Erin lives with her husband and her two children in what she describes as “an itsy bitsy fourth floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn.”

While pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Bay Path University, Erin also writes personal essays that have been published in Snapdragon Journal and Pure Slush Books.

She describes her WAWA story, ‘Billy The Third,’ as “a tardy farewell to my late Uncle Billy.”

I came across notes from an interview I conducted with my grandmother but my long-forgotten notes revealed more about my uncle who had been sitting next to her during the interview,” Erin recalled. “Billy chimed in during lulls in the discussion and my appreciation and understanding of him deepened.”

Interestingly, Erin began writing her story while on a flight from New York to Manhattan, Kansas. “I was responding to a writing prompt: Saying Goodbye. I imagined people I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to and when my Uncle Billy died, I was thirty-seven weeks pregnant with my daughter and couldn’t make it to his funeral. Over the next five months, I edited it numerous times.”

Describing her story as “a reflective piece,” Erin said she wanted it to be three scenes to resonate with Billy’s third place in the family. “I envisioned the structure of a song with a repeating chorus,” she said. “It was challenging for each section to carry equal weight without extending into a longer story format.”

Her original title was ‘Bye Bye, Billy’ but she considered it sounded too whimsical and when writer friends referred to it conversationally as ‘Billy The Third’ she felt that was “a better phonetic fit.”

Finding our WAWA competition on Duotrope was serendipitous, she said: “My story was a perfect fit at 499 words and my protagonist has a strong connection to his Irish ancestry.”

Billy The Third

by Erin Gottwald

Billy was the third.

Barely on the podium from the start.

Third place. Out of nine.

Two brothers ahead and a combination of brothers and sisters trailing behind.

At nine years old, he was aware of his physicality: jet black hair, eyes that harbored shades of earth under a veneer of ice and a long, lithe figure able to dodge and weave its way between bulky bodies. Instead of yielding to an oncoming group of teenagers, Billy marched through them carrying an unwavering gaze. He shoved his hands in his pockets, bent his elbows, and transformed his lanky limbs into wings of steel, creating a wake that parted the older throng. From the sidewalk across the street, Billy's timid older brothers watched in disbelief: their jaws agape and eyebrows lifted towards their hairlines. They skittered up behind him after the teenagers disappeared around the corner.

Billy was the third. But he paved ways.

Safety ignited his discontent.

Brokenness sparked his imagination.

In 1962, Billy was eleven years old. His tenacious reputation preceded him. The children of Irish immigrants in one of the public housing complexes in Boston found kinship in Billy's disposition. Instead of his own tee-totaling family's free-standing home on a rare dead end city street, Billy began spending his time in the concrete apartment buildings on the other side of town. He was invited into all sorts of brokenness and thrived among the chaos. He made money by digging up whiskey caches that were buried in the woods behind the projects. The Irish dads hid their liquor, away from their wives who had fled their homeland and the disease of alcoholism that had infested their prior lives. In the midst of winter, Billy pounced on his shovel until it cracked through the frozen tundra to the treasure chests hidden below. He was a pirate. He retrieved bottles for his friends' dads and delivered them at designated times.

Billy was the third.

He was in demand.

The provider of solutions but not the problem solver.

On his first day of high school in 1964, he was held after school dismissal. “I’ve heard about you,” his teacher said. “Let’s make a deal.” For four years, Billy slithered his slender body in and out of his homeroom window, smuggling liquor and cigarettes to his teacher. “I’ll make sure you pass.” And he did. He did it while learning to smoke and drink.

Billy was the third.

He learned what wasn’t taught.

And he yielded when necessary.

In 2014, his cancer was vague and unmentioned. His broken body barely disguised under baseball hats and sweatshirts. The sparkle of his eyes detracted from his shrinking frame. His mother passed first. He held on in order for her to lead the way. Billy had seen her lose two children. He followed eight months later in her wake.

Billy was the third.

Third to be born.

Third to die.

Out of nine.

Two brothers ahead and a combination of brothers and sisters trailing behind.

Irish grandmother and part-time legal secretary, Caroline Stevens Taylor, 57, was a finalist in the creative non-fiction category of WAWA’s competition on the theme of ‘Beauty.’

Caroline said she has “yo-yoed” between England and Ireland most of her life, having being born in Coventry but moving to Wexford before settling down in Mohill, County Leitrim.

She focuses mainly on poetry, some of which has been published in Wexford publications, as well as The Galway Review, Pendemic and online platforms.

When I read the WAWA theme was ‘Beauty’ I thought straight away about the beauty of friendships and the interactions and experiences we have, good and bad,” she said. “I wanted to show how an almost tragedy could turn out to be a thing of wonder and beauty.

Caroline wrote only one draft of her story, ‘The Congregation,’ with a few text edits to ensure she didn’t go over the word count. “It took me only a short time because I wrote it from an experience that had happened and the joy of spending time with my friend and in Nature. The title came easy to me as the setting of the story was a place where people and creatures would congregate and get lost in their day, in whatever activity they were doing.”

This is the first time Caroline has been selected as a finalist in a writing competition. “My first reaction was of shock, followed by being delightfully surprised, then utterly thrilled.”

The Congregation

I remember going under. It happened in an instant. Slip, whoosh, plonk and I was in. Going down, down, down. What to do? Legs and arms flapping. My mind a succession of quick fire thoughts of how to get up, get out, not drown, but survive.

The water, dirty, dark, grease like scum floating along and underneath full of weeds and grass like plants, and God only knows what creepy crawlies. Fish, frogs, newts, rats.

Cans, bottles, coins and stones lay embedded in its floor. I don’t want to slip away, thrown away like sluice in the great vat of water. I don’t want to become part of the trash so I kick, and pull and flail and reach and pray that I get out alive.

It is at that point, just when I start to believe I am to be forever lost, that I feel the push, the thrust upwards and my fingertips cling to the cold stone of the walkway, and before sheer exhaustion takes over, adrenalin lifts me out.

She is standing there, frozen to the spot, my friend. Tears rolling down her cheeks, words caught in her throat. She cannot speak. She cannot move. She is a statue.

I move toward her and wrap my dripping wet arms around her, bringing her stiff body alive and she folds into mine, sobbing, and shaking. We are both 9 years old and playing down at the canal, a place where we are told to never play. Neither of us knows how to swim.

I start to laugh. I almost wet myself and I say so, then I laugh some more and say ‘who will know anyway, I am already like a drowned rat’ and we both laugh so hard and then we cry and then we laugh again.

It is a beautiful moment and the area by the canal is one of our favourite places to play. We know we shouldn’t, but we do. Children always do what they shouldn’t. It is usually so peaceful down there, just walkers and their dogs, and us. We play on the grass, do hand stands and cartwheels, make daisy chains, race along the gravel path to the end where the bridge is and be the first to touch it. I win!

It is our garden of wonder, vast, open, lush green grass and wild flowers. Rabbits, dragonflies, butterflies and bees all congregate here and ducks glide on the water like ice skaters. The heron and the kingfisher come to play, and duck and dive. We are alive!

When the barges pass by, we run beside them and wave and say hello, admiring the pretty colours of the painted vessel, its name, written on the side, in swirly font, in Gold or black or blue.

What is not to love about this place that we are told to stay away from. It is our little bit of heaven, and not even a near drowning will put a stop to that.

A fan of piney IPAs, remote streams and ancient cities who also likes tinkering with his handmade pasta recipes. Denver school teacher Matthew T. Petersen was a finalist in the flash fiction category of WAWA’s competition on the theme of ‘Love.’

Passionate about the power of literature to connect generations and inspire people to think deeply about the world around them, Matthew, 36, writes short stories and poems. He has also completed his first novel, ‘The Walk Down,’ about a broken ex-detective drawn back into his justice-seeking role by a scream deep in the Virginia Appalachian backcountry.

Originally from Maryland, Matthew said his WAWA story emerged out of necessity. “I participate in a weekly writing workshop and I was struggling to think of something new to write for the workshop. My wife, Theresa, suggested I write a story about a plant.”

After eight revisions over about four months he managed to reduce the word count in half, from 1,000 words. “It was really good practice in economy of language, but difficult to make final decisions on what to keep and what to cut.

On choosing a title? “My first was ‘A Bottle of Wine With Greenie the Plant.’ Then I went to ‘Greenie the Plant’ before finally deciding on 'Plant' because I like the ambiguity between the noun meaning and the verb meaning.”

Matthew’s reaction when he read the email announcing he was a WAWA finalist? “I yelled and jumped out of my chair. It’s very exciting and rewarding to be selected, an honor. Sometimes you send out a short story, a poem, or a manuscript and you don't really know what readers thought.


“I need a plant,” he said, dripping wet by the bathroom door. It was their first time together.

“Have you ever grown anything?” she asked, smiling.

“No. But plants clean the air.”

“You don’t even dust.”

“Since I moved to the city I’ve been missing the green. I need something fresh.”

“Get your plants. They’re hard to keep alive though.”

With the promise of lunch afterwards, he dragged her to the nursery.

“Go get your silly plant. I don’t leave the car until lunch is involved.”

He smiled and retuned twenty minutes later with a peace lily.

“The last one.” He buckled it into the backseat, wedging a stray book under the pot to keep it level.

“Looks wilty,” she said.

“Just needs some attention.”

“And the seat belt?”

“So it won’t fall over.”

She smiled. “Next you’ll tell me it’s going into the restaurant with us.”

“Obviously. It’s too hot in the car!”

He carried the plant into the restaurant and requested a table for three. She refused to make eye contact with the waiter for the plant sitting next to her.

They drank and ate, and he talked to the plant, apologizing for ordering a salad. He poured water into the pot, and by the end of the meal the leaves perked up and he had named it Greenie.

Whenever people would ask when she knew that she would marry him, she would always tell the story of that day.

Two weeks before their wedding they fought. She cried, and he left for hours. He returned with daisies and an apology. The next day she gave him a heartleaf philodendron with a note: To clear the air.

A year into the marriage, after the miscarriage, he bought a aloe vera plant. No note.

The plants thrived together for two years. She would chide him: “Better water those things. They were your idea.” He would pretend to grumble and then dump ice cubes into their pots and sing to them, and then ask, “How else would we have all this clean air around here?”

She never got the chance to tell him, but she talked to the plants when he was not around.

The last plant came after his funeral. He had ordered it online weeks before and it was at the front door when she returned from the service. She picked the thing up and read the note: An angelwing begonia for another year of fresh air. Happy Anniversary.

She walked the plant into the apartment and threw the pot against the wall. She smashed two more plants. Violence and guttural screams.

“I don’t even want air. I don’t want it without you.”

She sobbed. The memories the pots held jumped into the atmosphere. Only Greenie remained.

She grabbed one of the open bottles of wine from the counter and sat on the floor, the dirt covering her jeans. She raised the bottle to the lone plant left on the table and sipped.

Switching from the fast-moving world of business to the more contemplative world of Nature, Vanessa Wright was a finalist in WAWA’s creative non-fiction competition on the theme of ‘Beauty.’

Originally from London, Vanessa, 50, now lives in St. Albans in Hertfordshire, though she says “my heart is in the Hebrides.” She enjoys writing about birds, butterflies and beachcombing and completed her Masters in Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University.

Her story for WAWA entitled ‘The Calm’ emerged on the Outer Hebrides. “I had just arrived on the islands at the time of year when the sun barely sets and it was a stunning evening. As soon as I took in the sea air, a calm washed over me, and I wanted to capture the moment. It was as if I was writing a love letter to the place. I keep a nature diary when I am in the Hebrides, and it was from these notes that I crafted the piece. It doesn’t always happen like this, but it was one of those lucky occasions when the first draft was quick to write.

Having found out about WAWA on social media, she said, “The words ‘Wild Atlantic’ caught my eye. I love writing about the Outer Hebrides and thought it would make a great fit.”

As for the actual writing, “The first draft didn’t take long, but editing has always been time-consuming for me. It’s like a pebble polished by the sea, smoothing the rough edges back and forth over several weeks.”

Selecting a title is also challenge at times for Vanessa. “I often agonise over them. Sometimes they pop into my head immediately, while on other occasions I am still not happy with what I end up with. I originally wrote this as a partner to another piece titled ‘The Chaos’ about a visit to the beach during a winter storm. I didn’t change the original title for ‘The Calm’ as that was how it was initially conceived.

The Calm

by Vanessa Wright

In the aftermath of every turbulent weather front and the passing of the storm season, calm returns to this Hebridean island once more. As the days grow longer, twilight lingers through the night.

Arriving on the ferry in the week of the summer solstice, we hurry to the beach for a late evening walk. It is as bright as midday. The lochs and lochans on the approach are brimming with licking flames; a thousand tiny tealights of floating water-lilies. We park up at ‘our’ beach, where a Bronze Age community once lived. This is Hallan. Or Cladh Hallan, in Scottish Gaelic. Mounds and middens of roundhouses undulate underfoot, and two oystercatchers stand sentry on the tower blocks of rabbit high-rises. Specks of skylarks shower us with clouds of aural confetti.

Paths trodden over many centuries weave through a sea of machair, which stretch as far as the eye can see. We stand between the white waves of daisies and the yellows of buttercups and bird’s-foot-trefoil. The sea winks in the distance, blinking back the sunshine, as we clamber over the dunes onto talcum powder sands.

The faintest of breezes kisses my cheek and twists loose tendrils of hair, like the comfortable companionship of an old friend. The ocean has the glow of sun-kissed skin, and the shush of waves is as calming as a mother soothing a baby.

Hugging the high-tide line, shooting stars of sand martins flash their white bellies as they skim the shore, hoovering up flies before disappearing underneath the dune’s puckered lips.

An oystercatcher circles me, its red-beak squeaks like a creaky well-worn mattress, wings signposting a welcome party. Its call is pure joy, a sound that takes me back to visiting these islands for the first time fifteen years ago.

Any traces of clouds have dissipated now, and the sky is still-ocean blue. Inhaling the fresh salty sea air tinged with a tang of seaweed, my breathing slows, and our walk becomes a meander. It’s been too long.

As the sleepy sun drops its head onto the horizon’s pillow, the sky glows orange and rose-gold, with just a whisper of silver in the ever-changing light. I am touching heaven. And my heart is touching home.

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