Name to know: Jen Grow, writer

Writer Jen Grow is drawn "to the small, almost imperceptible moments when subtle shifts occur between people."

As part of The Baltimore Sun's Fall Arts Guide, reporters and critics picked 10 up-and-comers whose names you should get to know. See the full list here

Jen Grow, 49, writer

Jen Grow's life as a mermaid began in the 1980s. Then a teenager, Jen sat down and wrote her first story, which was called "At One" and was about an old man smoking a cigarette and watching the birds.

Even then Grow could put herself into the head of someone who on the surface was totally unlike her. Even then, she was drawn, as she puts it, "to the small, almost imperceptible moments when subtle shifts occur between people."

"My Life as a Mermaid, and other Stories" her first published collection, contains a dozen stories full of those muted exchanges. In "Lawrence Loves Somebody on Pratt Street," a woman awaits news of her soldier brother, whose unit in has just come under fire. In "O.K., Goodbye," a woman makes plans to leave her cheating spouse.

"Writing is a way of pointing at something I'm trying to articulate," Grow says. "It gives me a sense of completion. I want to keep writing about these things I can't name but that are significant."

This has been a good year for the author, who lives with her husband, the painter Lee Stierhoff, in Baltimore County.

In May, Grow's book picked up the Mary Sawyers Baker Prize, which comes with $20,000. Last November, she won a $6,000 Ruby Artist Project Grant for a project to pair images taken by the photographer Craig Lammes with an essay Grow is writing about dismantling her father's house after his death.

"My father was really brilliant at his job, but he was so focused on his job that he overlooked it," Grow says. (Jon Grow, a former detective sergeant with the Baltimore Police Department, died in 2012.)

The parts of the detective's home could be seen from the street — the grounds and three sides of the exterior — were impeccably maintained. But on the fourth side and indoors, conditions were far different.

"My father absolutely loved his house," Grow says.

"It was his kingdom. But, chunks of walls were missing and what was left was stained with nicotine. I'd get there and I would feel so sad my emotions would shut down."

The project will be on display at Stevenson University in January.

Sonja Cendak manages the Rubys for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, and says jurors described Grow's proposal as "strong, lucid and vivid.

"They found her writing to be compelling," Cendak says. "They think she has a powerful creative vision."

Grow will be among a handful of Ruby literary grant recipients who will read from their work at 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Ivy Bookshop.

Despite the title of Grow's book, there are no actual mermaids in these stories. But the author has been an avid swimmer since childhood and slips into the pool about three times a week. Both swimming and writing seem to fulfill similar imperatives for her.

"There's some part of me that feels very safe in the water," she says. "It's almost womb-like. It grounds me, even though I'm floating. I know exactly where I am."

Yes, she does.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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