English graduate Paige Moultrie begins new chapter as fiction writer

Paige Moultrie

Paige Moultrie graduated magna cum laude from the UMSL with a bachelor’s degree in English while working full-time as a stylist. During her time in the English program, she served as an editor for Bellerive and Litmag and earned three writing certificates. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Paige Moultrie didn’t think about going to college until she was 24, with an already successful full-time career as a hair stylist.

“What did that for me was, I’ve always written, I’ve always wanted to write, and I had absolutely no idea, outside of high school, how to do that,” she said. “The more that I looked into writing workshops and writing classes, it just made more sense for me to go to college.”

This past weekend Moultrie graduated magna cum laude from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a bachelor’s degree in English. During her time at UMSL, she served as an editor for Bellerive and Litmag and had her work published in the latter. Additionally, she earned three writing certificates and won the 2022 Robert Smith Writing Certificate Award – given annually to a graduating senior for outstanding performance in the Writing Certificate Program.

“I’m very, very proud of myself for that,” Moultrie said. “I worked very hard.”

Moultrie, who grew up in Pacific, Missouri, was always creative and seemed destined to become a writer one day.

“I have probably been writing nonsense since I was 7 or 8,” she said. “I used to keep a big box of all my notebooks, and as I would fill them, I would keep them in this tote thing underneath my bed. I refused to throw any of them away, and they were filled with poetry and short stories.”

She continued to write throughout her childhood and adolescence, but as high school graduation approached, she felt uncertain about the future. At the behest of her guidance counselor, she attended a career fair, where representatives from a cosmetology school caught her eye.

Two weeks after graduation, Moultrie enrolled in cosmetology school and began working as a stylist shortly thereafter. The cosmetology field has allowed Moultrie to express her creativity, which she’s grateful for, but her passion for writing persisted.

About four years ago, her desire to learn more about composition, editing and literature compelled her to enroll at St. Louis Community College. After finishing her prerequisite courses, she transferred to UMSL.

The university offered everything Moultrie wanted. It was close to her home, which made it easier to continue working full-time, and she was impressed with the highly regarded professors.

“It’s amazing to see all these grown people that have been doing it for so many years, and they still have this passion,” she said, highlighting the enthusiasm and expertise of the Department of English faculty. “You can tell that they care about what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching to.”

Initially, Moultrie intended to pursue editing or publishing, but with guidance from Associate Teaching Professor Kate Watt, she recognized that she really wanted to focus on developing as a writer. Moultrie is a natural storyteller, but in the past, she sometimes had trouble translating all of her ideas to her written work.

Watt helped her put a method behind her creative writing and hone her skills.

“I started to realize, ‘Oh, this is how you self-edit properly, this is how you would rephrase these things to make it more like all those novels that you’ve been reading,’” Moultrie said. “So, instead of mimicking what I’ve been reading blindly, what I ended up figuring out was why we do all of those things.

“That’s very important to me. I like to know the why. I like to know not just how we got there, but why we got there and why that’s where we needed to be and what that is going to do for us in the future. English is 100% about building blocks. You have to learn all the rules before you can break them, and breaking them properly is what makes a good writer in my opinion.”

Those lessons were useful as a staff member of Bellerive and Litmag, campus literary journals produced by the Pierre Laclede Honors College and the Department of English, respectively. During the fall semester, Moultrie was committee chairman for Bellerive, where she oversaw the editing committee and had a hand in editing every piece published. She also served as poetry editor for the 2021 edition of Litmag last spring.

She found both positions illuminating and noted that it was much easier to analyze and edit other people’s pieces objectively compared to editing her own work. However, during the submission process for Litmag, she had a front row seat to critiques from others.

The editing committee selected her piece, “Inhale and Exhale,” for publication. It started as a personal essay, but Moultrie reworked it into a creative nonfiction story. It details the day her older sister passed away as a teenager – her memories of that school day, being sent home and her family’s grief.

“It’s an emotional piece, but it’s supposed to be a little bit more uplifting and happier in reflection because I wrote it 10 years after that moment,” she said. “That’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to give to somebody else to read, and it’s probably one of my favorite things that I’ve ever written.”

At first, Moultrie was ecstatic that it was chosen for publication, but because of the raw nature of the piece, she became more and more nervous as the release date approached. The story includes real members of her large Catholic family, and she was unsure of how they would react.

She had nothing to worry about, though.

“I was very proud of it after it came out, and my parents were like, ‘Oh my gosh, it was so good. We loved it,’” she recounted.

In addition to her work on campus literary journals, Moultrie earned a Creative Writing Certificate, Professional Writing Certificate and Technical Writing Certificate through her coursework. She was especially fond of the “Business Writing” course, which is required for the Professional Writing Certificate.

Students learn the basics of business communication, such as memos and emails, but also how to write a business plan. Moultrie found that it was surprisingly satisfying and a welcome supplement to her creative writing. Her dedication to the certificate programs earned her the 2022 Robert Smith Writing Certificate Award.

“I’ve learned more in the two years that I’ve been at UMSL than four years of high school plus two years of community college,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

While Moultrie has the knowhow for professional and technical writing, she plans to focus on fiction writing now that she’s graduated. She’s drawn to the idea of writing a dramatic tragedy – potentially a period piece.

No matter the future twists and turns, she’s happy to begin a new chapter.

“I am going to try to submit my work everywhere,” Moultrie said. “My goal is to get 100 rejection letters. I want to submit 100 things, and I don’t care if anything gets published. I want to find my top five pieces that I really love, and I’m just going to submit, submit, submit and try to get something on the national scale. My end goal is to publish a full novel, so I want to really focus on writing and getting some of my shorter pieces published and eventually publish a book.”

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