Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award

Chelsea Bieker, on her way

The rising Portland writer, with a $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation award in her pocket, is making her mark in the literary world

Chelsea Bieker cuts a striking figure as she makes her way into a coffee shop in Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood on a recent Sunday morning. It is impossible not to notice how put together she is, rather apart from the folks already gathered there who adorn themselves in sweatshirts and wind-breakers and general day-off, will-it-or-won’t-it-rain gear. Chelsea, dressed in a full-length gingham coat and looking as flawless as if she’s come from a photo shoot, reminds me of a movie star who has just appeared out of thin air, perhaps from a big city, which, in fact, she has. Our meeting lands on the heels of her having accepted a prestigious $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award on September 13 in New York City. As we stand in line next to each other, my first question comes out rather underwhelming: “Did you get taller?” Chelsea smiles. “Nah, it’s just the shoes,” she says in a sweet, these-old-things kind of way, pointing toward her feet (the shoes are lovely).

Returning into conversation with a person you haven’t seen in some time can be a powerful experience. Our relationships with peers provide a mirror, high-powered enough to reflect us back to ourselves while taking in the subtle shifts and differences in the other. As we order our drinks (she has tea; I have espresso), it occurs to me that this is not the same young woman I exchanged ideas with in workshops in Portland State University’s MFA fiction program years ago. Though she retains the poise and centeredness I associate with her early training as a gymnast, there’s a new dimension to her now, owed possibly to the fact that, since I last saw her, she has married a man she credits with fully encouraging her compulsion to write, and with whom she started a family (she is a mother two times over). She finds herself in that most wondrous place, past the threshold of “dabbler” and “aspiring” and “amateur,” and into the realm of bona-fide writer.

Chelsea Bieker, in the catbird seat.

SHE’S LANDED AN AGENT SHE ADMIRES (“I love my agent so much; she is just amazing”) and a two-book deal with Catapult Books, and has grown into a woman who takes herself seriously as a writer and wields the sort of work ethic to prove it. On top of parenting and writing, Chelsea also maintains a full-time job as a composition instructor for the Virtual Campus of central Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College, a position that, she says, “takes a lot of time. It comes in waves.” The waves can be challenging: She teaches four reading-intensive classes a term, yet she enjoys the work and recognizes her luck in finding a position that allows her to work from home. Unlike many institutions that offer no job security for adjuncts, HACC provides yearly contracts, lending some peace of mind for her young family.

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