Penny Wolfson '00
- Faculty member, Graduate Writing Program, Sarah Lawrence College
Foundations/Motivations: Began writing about her son’s illness
Experiences: Did research to prepare for writing book
Results: Wrote award-winning essay, published book, became teacher
For years, Penny worked with words in everything from proofreading to journalism school to magazine and book editing. Even though she had produced plenty, she never considered herself a true writer. Then in 1988, her three-year-old son, Ansel, was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Penny began writing about her son with a passion and intensity that surprised her. “That became my writing life,” she says. A few years later, hoping to approach her writing in a more professional way, she took a course at the Center for Continuing Education at Sarah Lawrence, where she had spent her undergraduate years. In 1998, she entered the Writing program, focusing on creative nonfiction.
B.A., Sarah Lawrence (Literature and History) (1976)
Work before Sarah Lawrence:
Penny has worked for a range of magazines and publishers. She ran the copyediting department at American Lawyer. She was a copy editor at Psychology Today, Saturday Review, and New York Magazine. She worked for a book publisher in Phoenix, Arizona. And she wrote articles and proofread for several New York City weekly newspapers.
With all the raw emotions her son’s muscular dystrophy had unleashed, Penny knew she had a book waiting to be written. So she tailored her Sarah Lawrence experience toward that goal. To better understand the inner workings of muscular dystrophy, she audited a graduate genetics course. She took an elective course about chronic illnesses in children. And she wrote. A professor encouraged her to submit a travel essay about her son to the New York Times, and it was published before she even finished her master’s. Soon she began thinking of herself more and more as a professional writer.
Penny’s 100-page thesis, based on years of writing, explored the anguish and frustration of dealing with her son’s muscular dystrophy. It later became a 350-page manuscript and then a book.
After Penny finished her degree, a professor encouraged her to rework her writings about Ansel into a larger essay. That became “Moonrise,” a moving piece that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. “And I ended up with a National Magazine Award, which blew my mind,” Penny says. Meanwhile, she kept working on the book proposal she had started in one of her classes, and another professor introduced her to a literary agent. Soon, she had a book contract and Moonrise: One Family, Genetic Identity, and Muscular Dystrophy was published in 2003. The same year, Penny returned to Sarah Lawrence, this time to teach. “I hope I can help people as much as my professors helped me,” she says.
M.F.A., Writing, Sarah Lawrence College (2000)
- Faculty member, Graduate Writing Program, Sarah Lawrence College (2003–present)
Since her son was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, Penny has advocated for disability rights. After her daughter’s artwork was removed from a school exhibition, she’s also become involved with issues of art censorship. And she and a friend recently organized a poetry/prose marathon reading to defeat George W. Bush.
Penny Wolfson’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Exceptional Parent, and Good Housekeeping and is included in Best American Essays 2002. Here are some samples of her work.
Penny’s National Magazine Award-winning essay appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.
- Moonrise: One Family, Genetic Identity, and Muscular Dystrophy
Her 2003 book is available on amazon.com.
- “Balancing Act in a Wheelchair”
The New York Times published this travel essay while Penny was still a student in the Writing program.
- “Voice Lessons”
Penny’s essay, about finding her voice as a writer, appeared in the spring 2003 issue of Sarah Lawrence magazine.