A petite woman with glasses perched on her nose, casual garb and dark shoulder-length hair sits at the front of the class in a circle of students.
She punctuates each word and phrase with a hand gesture. She often laughs at herself, letting out a cry of joy that begins and remains at its highest octave.
She leads the conversation but participates as if she were a student communicating with her peers.
She is Pamela Gerhardt, an award-winning author who combines her roles as a mother, professor and writer to create work to which readers can universally relate.
“When you’re growing up, you think that your family is normal,” Gerhardt said. “Then at some point, you sort of begin to realize we’re a little different. Then it kind of goes in a circle, and you come back and realize, ‘Oh no, we’re normal and everyone’s just weird.’”
Gerhardt said she strives to recreate moments like these that everyone can recall in his or her life.
Her book “Lucky That Way” was published by the University of Missouri Press in October 2013. This year, “Lucky That Way” won the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ best memoir award.
Gerhardt, 53, said the memoir is a “story about one family’s struggles with an elderly father and how they find humor and grace as they go through this journey together.” She said it is “imperfect humans grappling with life’s great mysteries.”
Gerhardt, who’s from St. Louis, Mo., lives in University Park, Md., with her husband and two children. She is also a professor of nonfiction narrative writing in the University of Maryland English department.
The Washington Post has published about 40 of her stories since 1997, she said.
She said she knew she wanted to be a writer from an early age. She began writing for publications but always wanted something solid that she could put on her bookshelf.
“A newspaper becomes kitty litter the next day,” Gerhardt said. “It goes in the recycling bin, and it’s gone.”
Though Gerhardt has always disliked the temporariness of journalism, she said she prefers to read and write nonfiction.
“Real life is weird enough. Why make up stories? There’s so much richness in reality,” Gerhardt said.
Gerhardt received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and her Master of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University.
She said Larry Levis, a poet and one of her professors at Virginia Commonwealth University, inspired her to break out of the constraints of the inverted pyramid style her journalism professors had routinely taught her.
“He is the one who sort of showed me that you can have a really strong voice and use all of the elements of fiction and nonfiction like character development, narrative arch, dialogue,” Gerhardt said.
Levis also introduced Gerhardt to Joan Didion’s work, and Gerhardt said she was “amazed by it.”
Didion, a “new journalism” writer, showed instead of telling her readers, Gerhardt said. Didion believed you could interview a guy at a gas station and find a story instead of reporting in the courts, Gerhardt said.
An opportunity for the permanence she had wanted came to Gerhardt with her father’s stroke.
After seven years of not talking to her father, Gerhardt flew out to Las Vegas to be by with him. She said she knew immediately the experience would be a great story, and her father was supportive of her instinct from the beginning.
“My dad kept telling me ‘you need to write this down.’ He kept saying ‘I hope you’re taking notes,’” Gerhardt said.
Before her father had his stroke, Gerhardt and her four siblings were estranged from him. Gerhardt said a little while after her mother died, when Gerhardt was 26, her father began abusing alcohol and grew mean toward his children.
But she said as soon as she got to the hospital, the two hashed out their differences within 10 minutes. They then began to reconnect.
“That’s the part I wanted to share with people,” Gerhardt said. “It’s actually some of the best moments I’ve ever had with my father, and I think other people have experienced it.”
Gerhardt said in “Lucky That Way,” she wanted to show the “gritty day to day triumphs and laughs” of taking care of an elderly parent.
“It’s kind of a rollercoaster ride,” she said.
Gerhardt’s father was a painter, and he would talk about just seeing colors all the time. She said as a writer she is constantly absorbing the details of her surroundings. It’s “noisy in your head,” she said.
“The way she sees the world is the way we all see it but we don’t know how to put words to it,” said Carolyn Lorente, Gerhardt’s friend. “And it’s so authentic— the good and the bad. She sees both the light and the shadow side of everyone and embraces that.”
Patti Kim, an author and Gerhardt’s friend, said Gerhardt’s writing is honest and fearless, tackling hard topics with humor and excellent prose.
“She’s going to tell it like it is,” Kim said. “She’s not going to sugar coat it. She’s not going to make things pretty, and she’s not going to hide dirty laundry. … That’s what makes her extraordinary.”
When Gerhardt isn’t writing or being a mother, she is teaching, a passion she found while in graduate school.
“It’s just so much fun. I love working with young people but it’s kind of weird I’ve realized. I’ve been working with 20-year-olds for 25 years. I don’t know what would happen if I walked into an office, and I had to work with adults,” Gerhardt said with a laugh. “They’d probably think I was nuts.”
Marybeth Shea, Gerhardt’s friend and an English professor at this university, said Gerhardt taught her a lot about teaching, encouraging her not to lecture but to engage the classroom.
“Going and watching her teach and knowing her gave me the freedom to use theater in the classroom,” Shea said. “When you first start teaching on a college campus, you kind of think you have to be whatever the stereotype is of a professor, but Pam is funny. She uses storytelling and metaphors.”
Gerhardt said she uses the Socratic Method and allows for an open, casual dialogue in her classroom, asking questions to prompt the class to discuss one another’s work.
“She’s really cool. … She is super laid back. It doesn’t really seem like she is teaching,” senior family science major Bobby Ruse said.
She also said she feels fortunate to be teaching what she writes and able to learn from her students.
“The relationship between the teaching and the writing is very interwoven,” Gerhardt said. “A student will write something or say something and the whole thing melts into one.”
She is currently writing her third book, the second she will publish — she wrote her first book while in fourth grade. She suspects her mother might have tossed it.
Jordan Branch is a junior multiplatform journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.