In "The Seduction of Miss Sestina," the first story in Mary Ann Henry's debut short story collection Ladies in Low Places, a sheltered middle-aged woman sees a startling reflection of herself — in a drag queen. In "Hellhole Swamp Queen," a college student enters a backwoods beauty pageant and finds out that it might not be as meaningless as she thought. And in "The Housewives of Charleston," a mother begins to come to terms with her own privileged, South-of-Broad upbringing.
These women, and the others who people Henry's pages, are of all different ages and backgrounds, but they are each forced to come face-to-face with a part of themselves that they've denied, or haven't even known existed. "I'm interested in writing stories about women who experience psychological growth," says Henry. "Growth doesn't have to be something huge. It can be very subtle, but still very powerful."
Henry's interest in personal growth, or as she also puts it, "being forced to deal with an authentic part of yourself," isn't surprising considering that she's a writing teacher as well as a writer. Henry, who grew up in Charleston, W. Va., taught public school for five years after finishing a Master's program in education at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She then transitioned into a career as an advertising copywriter and video producer, writer, and director, which lasted 25 years.
After moving to Charleston, S.C. in 2000 to focus on writing fiction, Henry spent another five years teaching writing at the School of the Arts (SOA) in North Charleston. "It was a wonderful opportunity to work with young genius writers in their formative years," she says. Henry's students seem to have enjoyed working with her as much as she did with them, for each year she was at SOA she was awarded an Outstanding Teacher of Creative Writing Award by the National Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
For many years she's taught writing to adults, too, through the Lowcountry Writers' Workshop. Geared mostly toward intermediate writers, the workshop brings students to Folly Beach for a weekend or several days of intensive learning and practice of the art and craft of fiction or memoir.
Recently, however, Henry's begun working with new writers as well. "I stopped teaching for a while because I know that if I keep teaching, I won't write," she says. "But then I got a call from, of all magazines, Ladies' Home Journal the August before last. They did a story about me and how I teach, and I got excited about that and created some workshops tailored toward new writers."
Henry has found the work to be very rewarding, even though it's quite different from the teaching she's always done with intermediate writers. "There were all these people who'd been holding back all their lives, literally. They wanted a safe space where they could open up, let loose everything that's inside them," she says.
This creation of a safe space for people to begin telling their stories ties in to Henry's interest in the spiritual — she's studied reiki, which is a type of energy healing, shamanism, and the Lakota Sioux belief system, and recently finished a draft of a spiritual memoir that she hopes to have ready for publication by spring.
But these endeavors, and her spiritual life in general, are inextricable from her life as a teacher and writer. "When I tried to stop teaching, basically the universe stepped in and said, 'You're not allowed to do this. This is your work — this is why you're here on this planet," Henry says. "All creative expressions are sacred. This is just my little plot of ground that I'm tending."
With a memoir to put through the editing process, a full teaching schedule, and a new novel in the works — it's based on the final story in Ladies in Low Places, "The Housewives of Charleston" — Henry has enough work to keep her busy for a long time. And that's just how she likes it. "I have a lot of books in me going forward," she says. "If you have that gift [of writing], I really believe you're supposed to use it. I think that's just part of who you are."