Wichita State News
Photo: Shae West
Natalie Olmsted focused her master's project on her family's and community's experiences in Wichita from 1954 to 2004.

MFA student writes about her community's hardships

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Natalie Olmsted came late to Wichita State University, but her experiences shaped the focus of her master’s project and short story collection, “Voices from the North.”

Olmsted, who grew up in Wichita’s Hispanic community, worked at a dental office for 13 years. James Rhatigan, former WSU vice president and current WSU Foundation consultant, was a patient there.

She said he came in and talked about WSU. He read her work in the dental office and wanted her to go to college.

“He encouraged me,” she said, “and made it really easy for me to walk back through the door.”

She took her passion for writing to WSU’s creative writing department.

Rhatigan had encouraged Olmsted to major in English, but since she’d been in the medical field for 13 years, she chose health administration.

After the first year, she determined that major wasn’t right for her and went back to writing.

“I’ve always written short stories ever since I can remember,” she said.

When she entered the master’s program, her focus was on her short story collection, which was about the local Hispanic community.

Her graduate career got off to a shaky start, though. Her husband lost his job, and she had to work full-time while in school.

She said her first semester was tough. She lost her focus, couldn’t write and didn’t know what she was doing in Graduate School. Writing didn’t seem important.

Richard Spilman, associate professor of English and her faculty adviser, told her to give it time.

“He was right,” she said, “it came back.”

And her collection was under way.

“Voices from the North” is about her community, which community members call North Side, the area near 21st and Broadway in Wichita.

“She has found a subtle and supple style in which to render people we actually care about,” Spilman said. “Her stories have social and even political relevance, which will assure continuing interest.”

Her inspiration came from her grandparents, who moved north from Mexico to better their lives and raise their family. Her collection is also about her father, whose story she said needed to be told.

“When I realized my community and family had a voice, I really wanted to write (about) that,” she said.

She interviewed family members to get a better feel of the times and to understand the prejudice they faced when they first came to Wichita.

Her grandparents and parents were highly discriminated against, and she said she can hear the effects of that discrimination in their voices today.

She used her family’s experiences and what she remembered from growing up to write her stories. She also researched Wichita’s earlier history.

“Even though it’s fictional, I wanted historical aspects, streets and buildings to be as accurate as possible,” she said.

She said some short story collections are random pieces put together, but hers tells the story of a community over 50 years through different voices.

Olmsted has had some of her short stories published.

Mikrokosmos, WSU’s literary journal, published “The Bread Maker.” And Today’s Latino Magazine, a bi-lingual magazine in the Mid-Atlantic area, published “Los Patos,” a story about her father’s golf group.

She hopes to have her collection published after graduation.

After midterms, when her manuscript is due, she plans to pull her three strongest stories and send a proposal for publication to the University of Arizona Press.

Olmsted began working full-time at the WSU Foundation as the planned giving associate in fall of 2006. She works with families when they establish memorials at WSU.

As a student, she was brought in to work on the “Spirit of the Gift” project focused on the histories behind WSU scholarships.

Her fantasy goal is to make a career out of writing. She said people have asked her where she would move to make that happen.

“I wouldn’t move anywhere,” she said. “I love Wichita.”

And, more than anything, she enjoys being on campus and working at the foundation.

“If I’m here in some aspect and able to write, I’ll be content,” she said.

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Created on Tuesday, September 15, 2009; Last modified on Tuesday, September 22, 2009