2017 Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards

Read on for details of the award-winning entries in this year’s undergraduate creative writing details. Congratulations to Christopher Canty, Carolyn Aiello, Jenna Beebe, Meghedi Tamazian, Siggi Schroth, and Steven Waddell!

FICTION

Jensen Beach, this year’s judge, is the author of two story collections, most recently Swallowed by the Cold (Graywolf). He holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as well as an MA and BA in English from Stockholm University. He teaches in the BFA program at Johnson State College, where he is the fiction editor at Green Mountains Review. He’s also a faculty member in the MFA Program in Writing & Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His writing has appeared recently in A Public Space, the Paris Review, and The New Yorker. He’s a former web editor at Hobart. He lives in Vermont.

Sixty-two writers submitted stories. Below are the winners and the judge’s comments.

John L. Rainey Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Christopher Canty, “Delivery.”

This winning story is so full of energy and humor. I was immediately drawn in and held fast. The story is relevant in its cultural and pop-cultural references and themes; and though the story is about young people and seems to present certain plot elements that might seem trivial or immature, it remains incredibly resonant. Tonally, the piece excites in its colloquial approach. This voice generates a great deal of humor in thought as well as event; and yet the writer never sacrifices emotion for a joke. Indeed, as the story builds toward its tender conclusion I found myself drawn as much to the exciting and richly rendered phrases as I was to the gentleness of the protagonist. This is a character who, in spite of himself, is undeniably kind, thoughtful. And the story hinges on this quality even as it feints toward its protagonist’s haplessness, his ability to only ever do what is not right. It’s a surprising and pleasing irony of the piece and I was enormously impressed.

Josephine M. Bresee Memorial, $400: Carolyn Aiello, “Post-Thanksgiving Party.”

This is a fun, quirky story with a confident and compelling narrative voice. The writer works with some familiar tropes and milieux–the suburban household too full of parties to host and social and professional ladders to climb; and these spaces are, as they always are, occupied humorously and yet humorlessly by a male character about which are meant to laugh and cringe and, in the end, sympathize with. But this is a story that pushes its boundaries of these expected plot points neatly toward something rich and textured. Though I think at times the story hemmed too closely to territory in which it was, perhaps, too happy with its own oddities and jokes, for the most part I found the story delightful and accomplished.

Leah Trelease Prize, $300: Jenna Beebe, “All the Time in the World.”

Here is a quiet story that works well on a number of levels. The story of a young woman who goes home for the funeral of a loved one, “All the Time in the World” draws from a familiar well of lived experience. And yet it manages to transcend this set up, to burrow into its own humility, its own true account of what it is to be human. I enjoyed the story a great deal.

POETRY

Amie Whittemore, judge of this year’s contest and once upon a time a double major in English and Creative Writing here at the University of Illinois, is a poet, educator, and the author of Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). She is also co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series. An instructor at Middle Tennessee State University, she holds graduate degrees from Lewis and Clark College (M.A.T.) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (M.F.A.). Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Rattle, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere.

Seventy-five writers submitted poems. Below are the winners and the judge’s comments.

Folger Adam, Jr. Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Meghedi Tamazian, “Everyday.”

What immediately drew me to these poems is their study of transformation. In “Everyday,” the winner of this year’s poetry contest, the speaker inhabits a space of restless investigation, oscillating from a desire to “move toward hot water” and, on other days, “to cut off all my hair.” As the writer moves us through these indecisions and revisions, one clear wish, for “a heart that can take all of this,” emerges, vulnerable and unexpected. The poet wonderfully uses magical realism and absurdism in this poem and others, to investigate the nature of the self in relation to the world. In “A Sort of Pardon,” the speaker finds “a spider inside my mouth,” and a “house inside of a house, both harboring parched wood / and a familiar smell.” Thanks to the writer’s control, these startling images feel perfectly apt. The poet has created a unique and strangely unifying logic. It was a pleasure to enter into this world full of heart and verve.

Charles and Susan Shattuck Prize, $500: Siggi Schroth, “Arkansas Corn Queen on the Eve of Her Retirement from Teaching Contemporary Mathematics.”

The intelligence and sense of humor in these poems is marvelous. It’s clear from the title of the first poem, “Arkansas Corn Queen on the Eve of her Retirement from Teaching Contemporary Mathematics,” that we are in the hands of a poet whose inspiration is found in observation of the human condition, particularly its fallibility: the Corn Queen, “painted the boniest parts of her hoof,” “teetering on those sharp, flaking things.” Later, in the poem “he believes his hands are not visible,” the speaker criticizes a man who seduces women. However, the poet’s ambitions carry us beyond that subject, and we look at the very idea of “technique,” in terms of seduction, yes, but also elsewhere: “a tray is just /a technique for carrying / six things at once,” and later, “a technique / is just another system, / just another boss.” The way the speaker shifts our understanding of this word is sophisticated and provocative. This poet’s straightforward voice inspires trust, so that we can enter new territories, engage with strangers on the train, even observe a friend, passed out on the floor, who isn’t “as dead as we thought.” Strange, wonderful poems.

American Academy of Poets Prize, $100: Steven Waddell, “Then/Now.”

Writing a political poem is never easy and the writer of “Then / Now,” takes on this task with heart and grit. In the first section, “Then,” the speaker shows us a black man on the run from a possible lynching; a difficult topic, on multiple levels, that the speaker navigates through a mixture of startling, precise imagery and variations in line length that control the pacing and revelation of information. The man’s “purple feet” trail blood and “burst open…like an unripe plum.” The image of the plum, soft and gentle, in the midst of the terror of the man’s escape forces the reader to pause, to really see this man as an individual not an archetype. Later, in “Now,” the writer creates a parallel scene, featuring a black man in a tense confrontation with a police officer. Again, the precision of images grounds the poem: the man’s “ankles were magnets drawn tight displaying that he would not try to run” and his “mouth perched ready to explain his reason for existing.” Later the man’s blood “graffitied the pavement.” But first–first, the man’s mouth “was open wide enough to swallow galaxies.” To carry all of this weight, of the fraught past and the fraught present in a single poem, is to attempt to swallow a galaxy. I admire deeply this poet’s ambition to confront darkness.

Alumni Profile: Seth Fein, ’02, festival producer and online publisher

Seth Fein’s literary career began with (a) his creative writing professor’s refusal to write him a recommendation for grad school and (b) the alternative that stood ready to hand, being an “analogue troll” for buzz magazine (back when it still existed in print form).

If the word “career” conveys for you a beige cubicle in an office park somewhere, an hour talking to Fein is a welcome corrective. His career is one he created for himself, based on the things he loves doing: booking bands, writing, being a part of the local community. In 2005, he created the Pygmalion music festival, which has since grown to be a literary, tech, craft. and food festival as well, with more than 60 sponsors.

“Pygmalion is the main thing I do,” Fein says, but it is hardly the only thing he does. As Co-President and CEO of the Nicodemus Agency, he also promotes bands, consults, and offers design and photography services. He also runs Smile Politely, an online magazine started in 2007 to fill a gap in the Champaign-Urbana cultural scene.

Fein’s message to students? Spend your twenties doing what you love–or at least, figuring out what that is. Fein shredded the motivational-poster version of that sentiment and spoke frankly about the realities:start-up costs (working multiple paying jobs to support the not-yet-paying gigs), the inevitable cosethfeinmpromises (turning down well-heeled advertisers in order to build a coherent brand), the trade-offs (living with the limitations of the local community while working to make it better).

The bottom line? As Fein put it, “just start writing your own sh*t.”

 

Success Under the Poverty Line: A Guest Post

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Donna O’Shaughnessy (Creative Writing ’16) finished a degree forty years in the making this past year, but that’s only part of her story. We asked her to tell us the rest. With her undergraduate degree now behind her, along with extensive experience in nursing, farming, and running a small business, why is she now living in a converted grain bin and deliberately managing on less than minimum wage? Here’s her answer: 

Intentionally Living Under the Poverty Line: A Different Measure of Success

Yesterday, my husband converted a century-old shed into a cozy chicken coop using discarded windows, reclaimed wood and fallen tree branches, while I canned tomatoes for winter stew and hung out six loads of laundry to dry in between fits of rain. We neither spent nor earned one dime, but we considered the day a success.

IMG_20160825_120715013Our definition of success has morphed over the last four years from one calculated in terms of finance to one gauged by the less tangible and far less popular measure, of satisfaction. Where once we considered ourselves “successful” due to our six figure earnings (combined nursing and farming income), we also succumbed to the pitfalls of that prosperity: less time for each other, our children and grandchildren, serious health issues, and little opportunity to pursue hobbies or activities that gave us pleasure. We had, like so many others in our American society of More Is Best, worked ourselves into near collapse.

The way we saw it, we had two choices: get bigger by hiring staff for our organic IMG_20160912_145518287_HDRfarm business or get out. We elected the second option. I retired from nursing, we sold our big farm and bought a smaller farm without housing. Living in a 160 square-foot camper for six months while we converted a grain bin into a tiny home solidified our goal to live small on a tiny income,

How tiny? Under the poverty line tiny. Currently in Illinois this number is $16,020 for a family of two.

So, why would two college educated, able-bodied quinquagenarians elect to decrease their previous years income by 80%?

Because, we had grown tired of our definition of success. When personal success is measured by outsiders looking in, rather than through intrinsic inspection, feelings of satisfaction are diluted. We used to run ragged earning money to buy things which required more money to maintain. We were gone all day selling good food to others, while eating boxed cereal ourselves at 10 pm.  Now, a successful day is one spent donating time to charitable organizations, teaching grandchildren to milk a cow, preserving produce, or cooking meals for those who have no time to cook for themselves.

I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best when he wrote: To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; That is to have succeeded.

Donna O' Shaughnessy

You can read more about Donna’s Emersonian adventures on her blog, The Poor Farm. You’d think she’s busy enough as it is, but remember that degree in Creative Writing? She’s putting it to use and blogging about her writing endeavors as well.

 

 

Guest Post: Gaining Valuable Experience in Legal Writing

By Michael Chan (English ’14)

I began my undergraduate career as an Architectural Studies major before making the switch to English about halfway into my sophomore year. It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make, but after extensively consulting with family, friends, and several trusted mentors, I was prepared to commit myself to the new program (and to the condensed course load that came with it). What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was UIUC_Chandeciding upon a definitive career path within the next two years.

Throughout my junior year, I met with several professors, advisors, and grad students to discuss the possibility of grad school and to get a better understanding of what an academic career would entail. I also frequented the Career Center to explore alternative career paths outside of academia. I knew that I thoroughly enjoyed research and writing, but I also didn’t want to limit my options—especially since I had only taken a handful of English courses at the time and wasn’t sure if I wanted to dedicate another 6-8 years in pursuit of a Ph.D.

As senior year approached, I decided to look for a job after graduation so that I could gain some practical work experience; this would allow me to spend some time away from academia and to develop my skills as a working professional. After sending out numerous applications, I finally received an offer to work for an immigration law firm as a legal writer. I didn’t have any experience in legal writing, but I viewed this as an opportunity to expand my writing capability. Therefore, I accepted the offer and began my first day of work on November 11, 2014.

As a legal writer, I was responsible for drafting a variety of legal documents that communicated complex and technical information in plain and accessible language (all of these documents followed a customary form and structure that were taught during the training process). I also had to present that information in a compelling light in order to support the rest of the arguments being made for a client’s case. While I’m unable to provide any further details (due to the confidential nature of my work and also at the firm’s request), it’s clear to see that the type of writing I discussed above combines several key aspects of persuasive and argumentative writing (i.e. making a claim, citing supporting evidence to substantiate that claim and to make it more convincing) with technical writing (i.e. translating complex and technical information into more relatable terms for a more general audience). It’s important to note here that legal writing is just a type of technical writing that incorporates certain elements from both of these writing styles to serve a wide range of legal services/areas—immigration law being one of them.

Being an effective communicator is central to any genre, form, or style of writing; the ability to communicate your thoughts, as well as the thoughts of others, in a clear, concise, and effective manner is critical to your overall success as a writer and it is also one of the many skills you develop as an English major. Learning a new type or style of writing can seem daunting – and it will undoubtedly take some time and practice to achieve any sort of proficiency in it – but having a solid foundation of writing experience to draw from will take you much farther along the process. The countless papers that you wrote as an undergrad, the feedback you received on those papers, what you did to improve your writing based on that feedback, the range of elective courses that you took in Creative Writing, Business and Technical Writing, Rhetoric—these all make up your collective writing experience. These are all experiences that can be taken for granted as a student, but they are all imperative to the development of your writing capability.

Working as a legal writer has added significant value to my own writing experience and it has also added a new dimension of practicality to my writing. For any English majors who are interested in obtaining valuable work experience outside of academia (or for those who just need some time away from the books before reconsidering grad school), legal writing is just one of many options for you to consider and explore.

If you would like to reach out to Michael with any additional questions, you can email him directly at chan.michael.08@gmail.com.