COLUMBUS, Miss. — Teresa Nicholas dislikes writing “I” so many times, which is why you might call her a reluctant memoirist.

Teresa Nicholas

Nicholas’ battle with personal pronouns is only part of the issue. Another problem she encounters when she writes memoirs is figuring out what to put in and what to leave out.

“Sometimes it’s hard trying to make a story out of a jumble,” Nicholas said.

The Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters (MIAL) doesn’t consider Nicholas’ latest memoir, “The Mama Chronicles,” a jumble. In fact, Nicholas was named the winner of the MIAL’s annual Life Writing Award earlier this month for her book about her mother, a child sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta.

Nicholas, a student in Mississippi University for Women’s MFA in Creative Writing program, said she faced many challenges in writing “The Mama Chronicles,” which she started in 2012, the year her mother died, and finished in 2020.

“I was surprised when I learned I had won the Life Writing Award,” Nicholas said. “After seeing the other books nominated in the category, I figured ‘The Mama Chronicles’ was a longshot.”

Nicholas will be recognized with the other winners and award recipients on June 11, 2022, at the MIAL Banquet at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. This is her first MIAL award.

Nicholas said she continued to write “The Mama Chronicles” even after her literary agent at the time told her it would be a hard sell to publishers. She said she took a break from the manuscript for a couple of years to write a biography of renowned Mississippi writer Willie Morris (the book is titled “Willie”) before returning to “The Mama Chronicles.” In 2011, Nicholas’ first memoir, “Buryin’ Daddy: Putting my Lebanese, Catholic, Southern Baptist Childhood to Rest” was published.

Dr. Kendall Dunkelberg, the director of The W’s MFA in Creative Writing program, called “The Mama Chronicles” a “gripping” memoir and said The W celebrates Nicholas’ MIAL award.

The Mama Chronicles cover

“We feel very fortunate to work with her as a student in our program,” Dunkelberg said. “Teresa came to The W after a long career with Crown Publishing and has brought a wealth of experience to our program. When she applied, her memoir was already well on its way to being published at University Press of Mississippi, where she had done two previous books.”

Ellen Ann Fentress, an instructor in the MFA program, agrees and said Nicholas’ “intellectual curiosity and lack of pretense” for someone so accomplished has been a refreshing addition to the program.

“She was drawn to the idea of a formal systematic study of craft,” Fentress said. “I have also heard her say The W’s low-residency format and support for studying across multiple genres also appealed to her.

“In class, Teresa is a careful reader of everyone’s work with low-key, kind yet astute insight to pieces being workshopped. Occasionally I’ve closed my eyes in workshop and imagined that what she’s saying was coming from the voice of an editor behind a desk in Golden Age New York publishing. She gives our workshops and writing that much respect.”

Nicholas credits Fentress for suggesting she enroll in the MFA in Creative Writing program. She said she had taken Fentress’ Continuing Education class at Millsaps College twice, and that everything she knows about writing, except what Fentress taught her at Millsaps, is self-taught. If everything goes according to schedule, Nicholas said she will graduate from the MFA in Creative Writing program in 2025 at the age of 71.

In the meantime, Nicholas said she has plans for herself as a writer.

“When I grow up, I’d like to write a horror story — fiction, that is, inspired by Shirley Jackson,” Nicholas said.

The W offers a Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. It is a 48-hour program that can be completed in two to three years (or longer if students choose to attend part time). Students take online classes, combined with two types of brief residency classes. Online classes include Graduate Writing Workshops in Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, Playwriting, Translation and Writing for New Media, as well as Literature and Form classes.

For more information about the program, email