Hannah Louise Utter is an English major at Washington State University. She submitted the award-winning nonfiction essay titled “Viola sororia” that’s published in the 2019 edition of Scribendi. It’s an essay that explores the topic of sexuality and same sex attraction in both historical and personal narratives. Upon reading the essay, the WRHC nonfiction judge, Maria Jerinic-Pravica said that, “This piece begins in one place and takes me, the reader, where I do not expect to go and does it with grace and power in the prose. The research informs this piece, but is skillfully woven in, and that is difficult to do.” The following text is an interview with the author about her piece.
How do you describe yourself as a person? As a writer?
When describing myself as a person I usually tell people I love writing, reading, swimming, my dogs, and plants. In truth I am someone with a few very strong passions that guide me in life. In writing, I am not much different. I enjoy writing about things I love, which is why I really enjoy the genre of creative nonfiction, because it allows you to write about the real in a sincere way. I’d say I’m a writer who focuses on and favors prose, dreads dialogue, and overuses adverbs, much to the disdain of my professors.
What are your goals and dreams as a writer?
Like most writers I’d love to have a book published one day—whether it be creative nonfiction, short stories, or a novel, I think what I want most is to share my craft with the world. I want to continue to write things that I’m proud of, and I hope that I have the time and passion to continue writing after I’ve left school. The ultimate goal would be to one day be able to make a living off the writing that I do, and not have to do anything else.
What made you decide to write about the topic presented in “Viola sororia?”
The essay actually came out of an assignment in a class that I was taking on creative nonfiction, and the assignment was to write a creative nonfiction essay about “flora and fauna.” I had no idea where to go with it because it was such a broad topic, so I was trying to think of personal connections I had with nature. I happened to know that there was a history of violets being used by gay women to signify their attraction to one another, but I didn’t know much about it, so I decided to do some research on it and found it was something I was interested in writing about.
What were your goals in writing “Viola sororia?”
At the time, my goal was to finish the assignment I had been given. However, I also really wanted to do the stories I was telling justice, which is why I ended up doing a lot of research for this piece and spending a lot of time on it. It felt important as I was writing it, so I wanted to get it right.
What does your writing process look like? How many drafts did you make of this piece?
Honestly, it’s mostly a struggle—especially with a piece like this that incorporates so much research. I struggled a lot trying to make it not sound like a research paper and trying to keep the artistry of it while also utilizing all the information I had found to write it. The first draft of this piece took me a long time to write, and I ended up doing it in two sittings and staying up the night before it was due until about 3 AM trying to perfect it. I’m a bit of a night owl, so my writing process usually looks like staying up late to focus. I take breaks and then edit as I go, so I don’t have a set number of completed drafts, but there were probably three concrete phases of writing that I went through before I submitted the piece to Scribendi.
You originally submitted “Viola sororia” to Scribendi as an essay titled, “The Lesbian Flower.” Can you tell us about the decision to change the title?
There are really two reasons why I decided to change the title. The first reason is that, at the time I wrote the piece, I was going through a questioning process surrounding my sexuality and thought briefly that I might be a lesbian. This is pretty common for women in the LGBT community, as the relationships we have with sexuality and gender are very complex due in large part to living in a patriarchal society. I identify as bisexual now, so I wanted it to reflect that personal decision and change within myself. The second reason I changed it is because I wanted it to be more inclusive of the women-loving-women experience as a whole. Bisexual women and lesbians share many of their experiences, and so I wanted to make sure the essay rightfully reflected that and included us all.
Can you speak a little about the themes of “Viola sororia?” What should Scribendi readers who do not share in that experience know about same sex attraction and the LGBTQ+ community?
I guess the biggest thing that I hope people can take away from this piece is that those within the LGBT community, specifically bi women and lesbians, have always existed. I think there is a bit of a pervasive myth within our society that the LGBT community is a bit of a new development, and that gay and trans people did not exist before the 1950’s or so. A lot of women who had attraction to other women were erased or rewritten throughout history to change that narrative, so I wanted to sort of unearth those of us that I know existed and point out that the idea of women loving women really is timeless. There are a lot of LGBT stories that haven’t been told yet, but they do exist, and it’s important that people know that.
Have you ever thought of traveling to the Island of Lesbos where Sappho lived or to see Virginia Woolf’s house? If you were to travel there, what do you think the experience might mean to you?
I would love to go to both of those places one day. I love to travel, and I really enjoy history, especially history about things that are so important to me. I think it would be amazing to see those places and think about how things have changed since the times of Woolf and Sappho, and to feel them in the places where they had once been, and to know that we are intrinsically connected.
Does the girl you mention in your essay, Laurel, know you wrote about her?
No! We’re not even friends or anything, which is kind of crazy to think about because my interactions with her inspired a big chunk of the personal aspect of this piece. We just had the one class together a couple semesters ago and I had a little crush on her for a while, so it would be embarrassing to tell her I had written something like this about her.
How did you decide what parts of your story to include and what to exclude?
This was actually kind of tricky to navigate, because I knew that the essay would be mostly historical with the stories of Sappho and Vita and Virginia featured. But I wanted to subscribe to the “rule of threes,” which all good writers know, and round out the piece with a current story of the type of love I was describing. I ended up choosing my own attraction to someone because, even in the other two sections of the piece, the subject matter is deeply personal for me. For that reason, I wanted to include a piece of my own story. However, I deliberately included only a small anecdote because I didn’t want the personal to overpower the rest of the essay, so I tried to keep it short. It would have been quite a bit longer if I talked about other crushes I’ve had or what it was like to realize I loved women, but that wasn’t supposed to be the focus of the piece, so I left it out.
What do you mean by the “rule of three?”
The “rule of three” that I talk about in my writing process refers to a common piece of writing advice that a lot of professors/teachers have given me in the past, which is that there is basically power in the number three. If you are writing a list or describing something, having three descriptors, examples, objects, etc. is more powerful than having two or four or five. I’m not sure why, but I usually find it to be true, and it’s something I tend to keep in mind when I am writing. It’s not too few or too many.
What’s the most influential class you’ve ever taken?
Honors 380 with Professor Annie Lampman, which was the creative nonfiction class that I wrote this piece for. Not only did it give me the inspiration to write this piece, but it also opened my eyes to the world of creative nonfiction and actually gave me the final push I needed to change my major from biology to creative writing/English, because I realized how much I loved writing.
At what point in your academic career did you decide to make the switch in majors? What overall effects did it have on you?
I switched my major second semester of my sophomore year. That probably seems very late to some people, and it was, as I was already certified in my original major and was just beginning to take upper level classes in it. I’ve had to catch up in creative writing a bit, but now I’m on the right track. Overall, I’m much happier now that I’m in a major that I love, and I’m excited to go to class every day and talk about, read, and discuss writing, which is one of my favorite things in the world.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to tell my story and get my work out there.
Hannah Utter’s “Viola sororia” can be found in the 2019 hardcopy edition of Scribendi or online at scribendi.unm.edu.