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Terry Miller


Picture of Terry Miller
Photo: Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine

Literature: Creative Nonfiction

By: Gail Obenreder

“My work is anchored in the belief that healing can take place in the interactive space between the reader and the writer.”

Unlike many writers, Terry Miller did not grow up with books. She was raised in a deeply troubled home where books were “not on high on the priority list.” There was no Dr. Seuss or beloved childhood classics like Charlotte’s Web or Goodnight Moon. “I did not learn to read for pleasure until long into my adulthood. When I did, I was hooked.” And upon discovering the world of books, Miller “read for both the child within me . . . and the young woman I was becoming. I am an accidental writer. Reading taught me how to write.”

Miller grew up in 1950s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where “the black and gritty smoke from the steel works was as dark and biting as the characters I encountered in this mid-century mill town.” Her family lived in the city’s Arlington Heights Projects, and (with two brothers) she was raised by a single mother in a strife-filled home. But the cycle of poverty, abuse, and addiction that characterized her life was broken when – at age 30 – Miller finally went to college. She attended the University of Pittsburgh, training as a social worker and community organizer and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. For the next 23 years, she led a policy center there (the Institute of Politics), founded nonprofit organizations dedicated to recovery and serving at-risk populations, and won numerous accolades.

The accomplished community leader and activist used her civic engagement as a pathway to recovery. At the Institute, Miller also worked as a writer and editor and continued to publish her own recovery-oriented nonfiction. “My philosophy of writing is to honestly write my story to be of service to my readers.” Her submission for the Fellowship was an excerpt from her full-length work Behind God’s Back: Finding Hope in Hardship.

1. Mrs. Wellington’s Party

In 1961, Mama found a coveted plot of subsidized housing on Salisbury Street in Pittsburgh’s Arlington Heights. Without any discussion, she announced to us kids that it was time “to move on and move up.” The distance from our then-home in the projects of Arlington Heights and Salisbury Street—barely a mile—struck me as an unbridgeable gulf: an expanse not only between the known and unknown, but between the black world and the white world.

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Miller has been working on the book for fifteen years, but now it is complete. “Writing memoir is very demanding, [requiring] by choice that I put an unrelenting lens on particularly traumatic aspects of my life.” But creating the book has also rewarded Miller with “a journey home to myself . . . to reclaim my spiritual core and be of service to others.” She plans to use her Fellowship award to “engage nonprofits that work to address the critical community and personal issues I address in the book.”

Miller has lived in Delaware for just two years, “but I have already come to claim it as ‘home.’” She had visited Atlantic Coast beaches throughout her adult life and always longed to live near the ocean, so “being here in the First State with its bounty of open beaches, beautiful bays, and estuary system is a dream fulfilled.” The support of the Division’s Fellowship will help Miller to move her book through the publication process while she continues to write, buoyed by Delaware and “the friendliness of its people [and] the abundance and accessibility of its natural beauty [that] touches and restores my body, mind, and spirit.”

Artist website: terrymmiller.com

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