St. Edward’s creative writing professor inspired by Nigeria

News Editor

“You must go into the House of Guns!” Mary Helen Specht proclaimed in an uncharacteristically deep voice as she narrated the metaphor her graduate thesis advisor often repeated when encouraging her to be confident in her writing. 

The phrase stemmed from one of Specht’s favorite short stories, “The House of Guns,” that she wrote while working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in Boston.

 In the early drafts of the story, she often found herself shying away from the dramatic moments, afraid of being melodramatic and overly emotional. Yet over and over again her professor used this lighthearted metaphor to remind her to be strong with her words. Even now, as she’s making the final revisions on her first novel, “Migratory Animals,” which will be released in January 2015, she still hears that voice saying, “I need to go in to the House of Guns!” 

Specht grew up in the same West Texas house for her first 18 years of life. As the daughter of two university librarians, she described herself as the girl who would ask to sit in the hallway and read during naptime because she just never got tired. The fondness Specht has for reading and literature is at the core of who she is, and this love has guided her many adventures since leaving her West Texas home.  

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Rice University, Specht decided to take a break from school to teach English in Ecuador. Unsure of exactly what she wanted to do, she spent the time writing and eventually decided to apply for graduate school. It was during her time in graduate school at Emerson that she first developed an interest in African Literature, which would inspire much of her later work. Upon graduation, Specht earned a Fulbright creative writing grant, which allowed her to spend a year and a half immersed in the indigenous literary culture of Nigeria. 

“Nigeria is really kind of a special place,” Specht said. “I really wish that more Americans, and just Westerners in general, would read more of these writers.” 

While in Nigeria, Specht generated ideas that have inspired non-fiction essays, short stories and a novel upon her return to the United States. Although she hasn’t been able to return to Nigeria for an extended period of time, she has maintained friendships with many of the young Nigerian writers she met. 

After returning from Nigeria she was awarded the Dobie-Pisano Fellowship, which is awarded to two writers every year and allows them to spend six months writing at a ranch outside of Austin. While returning to Texas wasn’t exactly in Specht’s original plan, she’s hasn’t regretted the decision in the slightest. 

“I kind of fell in love with Austin,” Specht said. “The writing community in Austin was really welcoming. It didn’t feel competitive like some of the other places. People had me to parties having read some of my work and invited me to events, introducing me to other writers and I just kind of fell back in love with this part of the country and the community here.”

Although writing is Specht’s first love, she has found that teaching undergraduates is also a rewarding addition to her career. In 2012 Specht began teaching creative writing at St. Edward’s University. While she admits that writing and teaching simultaneously can be a tough act to balance, she finds joy in sharing her passion for writing with young students. 

“Even if they never decide to try to publish anything, that empathy that we gain from stories, I hope that sticks with them,” Specht said.

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