I hear NYC is the place to be (even for Sophie Kerr).

Posted on 17 May 2011

This is my invitation to the Sophie Kerr Prize ceremony, which will be held in New York City tonight. As a past winner, I was invited, but I won’t be attending because I’m currently eating lots of donuts and guzzling organic microbrewed beer attending a conference in Portland, Oregon. If I’d been available, I might have been tempted to go to see firsthand how this change plays out. I also imagine it would be a lot of fun (someone please tell me there is an open bar, at least for the finalists).

Yesterday, I described my experience winning Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize. Today, I’ll talk about the big changes to the prize this year, including naming finalists; awarding the prize the week before graduation; and holding the ceremony in New York City instead of at the college.

When I first learned of this change, I had very mixed feelings about it – and I still do. I can safely sum up my thoughts in the following categories: disappointment, rock and roll, hypocrisy, and, of course, unsolicited advice.

When Sophie Lets You Down

Some argue that announcing the Sophie Kerr winning in a separate ceremony will protect the other students from the disappointment at graduation when they don’t win. At first, I was on board with this perspective. The prize definitely overpowered commencement for me (in a good way, fortunately, but still) and I thought it might be a relief for graduates to be able to focus on graduation itself instead of the prize, too. And I hate to think of students leaving campus on that day upset that they didn’t win.

On the other hand, for anyone who is going to pursue the writing life, the letdown of not winning the Sophie Kerr Prize is likely just one disappointment of many to come. Yes, I know how negative that sounds, but it’s also realistic. (If you want to read about the particular disappointment and rejection I faced after winning the Sophie Kerr Prize, check out my Nov/Dec 2010 Poets & Writers personal essay, “The Pressure of Young Promise.”)

Stephanie Fowler Burt, who won the prize in 2002, put it this way:

“We all knew what we were signing up for when we decided to submit for the prize. We all knew the rules – we all knew how it worked. We understood that there could only be one and we’d all find out the same way, just as the college had done in years past. We just all knew the rules and we accepted it. You do not arrive at your senior year of college as a child – you arrive as an adult, graduating from one era of your life and ready to face the challenges of a new one.”

While Stephanie largely disagrees with this year’s change, she did stress that she supports the addition of finalists and anything else the college can do to support its student writers. Clearly, the finalist idea is a popular one all around, so kudos to the college for implementing that.

Rock n’ Roll & Sophie Kerr

Aside from graduation day disappointment and the addition of finalists, the bigger issue is announcing the winner in New York City instead of at the college in Chestertown. When I heard about this New York plan, the first thing that came to mind was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While the Rock Hall is located here in Cleveland, the annual induction ceremonies were typically held in New York City, something that made many Clevelanders kind of bitter. (Please hold your jokes on the relative difficulty of making Clevelanders feel bitter.) The inductions are now held in Cleveland once every three years, but it still seems kind of lame.

Look, we get it. New York City is bigger and more exciting than Cleveland. Not to mention Chestertown. And yes, the publishing industry’s home is in NYC. But Chestertown — and Washington College — is a special place in its own way. And the Sophie Kerr Prize is unique to Washington College. The prize sets the school apart from others and the college should be proud to award it there instead of shifting it to the big city to try to drum up more attention or publicity or whatever it is that might be going on.

“In my heart, I feel like Sophie Kerr should stay in Chestertown,” Stephanie said. “It breaks my heart to think that the student body will find out who their winner is via simulcast … the winner won’t be able to see the sea of smiling faces and hear the roar of the crowd. I can’t imagine not having that moment.”

Which brings up another point: I wonder if the finalists’ families can join them in New York City for the ceremony? At graduation, your family (not to mention your friends, and the professors who helped you get to that moment) will presumable be present when the winner is announced. After my graduation, my brothers related how they jumped up from the stands and carried on when I was announced the winner. They also told me how my friend’s mother, who was sitting near them, started crying because she was so happy for me.

With the New York arrangement, even families who may want to attend the award ceremony may be unable to make the trip, especially since they’ll already have plans to travel to Chestertown that weekend for the graduation. Of course, students are fully capable of receiving the news whether their families are there or not, but that was just one more part of the prize that made it so exciting and touching. It wasn’t just about the winner — it was about his or her family, too.

But I’m Also a Hypocrite

From what I’ve seen so far, the people upset about the change tend to be those who aren’t current students vying for the prize. In my extremely non-exhaustive and unprofessional “research” (read: Twitter/Facebook searches, etc.) into the general buzz surrounding the prize’s change of scenery, it looks like students are excited by this move to NYC. And why not? Instead of having to wait until graduation day when only one person is announced the winner, they now have a larger shot of being named a finalist – an honor itself – and traveling expenses-paid to New York City to mingle with publishing professionals, and where Colum McCann will present the keynote speech and announce the winner. I would have been thrilled to have that opportunity.

This isn’t to say that I think Sophie Kerr finalists are going to have a shot to land an agent (or more) because of one NYC trip. Personally, I wasn’t ready for an agent when I won the prize, and I don’t think I was alone. I’m not saying it’s impossible – for all I know, one of this year’s finalists may have written a memoir or something that’s going to get snatched up and become the next big thing; who knows. But let’s just say it’s a very long shot. Rare, rare exceptions aside, things just don’t come that easily in the writing and publishing world, whether you’re a Sophie Kerr winner or not.

Of course, I doubt anyone expects the NYC trip is going to be the equivalent of a literary fairy godmother wand. But it will still be a wonderful experience and you never know how the connections you make today might resurface in three or five or fifteen years.

Stephanie adds that “there are already literary awards given in New York – how will the college ensure that Sophie doesn’t get lost among the others?”

In the end, I still feel conflicted but can’t seem to come up with a better argument than: “But…but…it’s Chestertown. The award belongs there! And it’s supposed to be awarded at graduation!”

But maybe that’s enough.

My Totally Unsolicited Advice to the Finalists

We don’t know yet if the changes instituted this year will stay put or if things will go back to normal next year. Either way, I’m just glad this prize exists and that the college continues to support its writers.

In the meantime, I have a few words for the finalists. Isn’t unsolicited advice the best? Oh, wait. It’s actually the worst. Whatever – the finalists should be enjoying their open bar (I hope) right now and probably won’t see this, so I will advise away:

  • Have a blast in New York. Feel all the anticipation leading up to the announcement. Whether you win or not, this is still an unusual and special experience that most college graduates will never have.
  • If you win, have fun and enjoy the whirlwind of interviews and attention, but keep in mind that in all probability, the Sophie Kerr Prize is not going to change your writing life. Like any writer, you have to put in the hard work every day. Like many of us, years might pass after you win the prize without as many external achievements as you’d like. But you know what? None of that really matters. Just keep writing.
  • If you don’t win, or if you weren’t named a finalist, so what? Lots of excellent writers did not win the Sophie Kerr Prize and in the long run, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s definitely not going to be worth the agony in 10 years anyway.
  • If you don’t win and you’re angry or upset or very sad, get some good revenge writing in. Not revenge against the winner, and not writing about revenge; I’m talking about revenge against the world all of us writers have to live in (what with the rejection and the struggle and the publishing industry’s focus on the bottom line) that can only be accomplished by writing often, writing honestly and writing well.
  • Also, if you don’t win, no matter how upset you might be, refrain from complaining about the winner (or encouraging your friends to complain) or concocting wild theories about possible political reasons that person might have won. This is not worth it, either. But of course you are above this anyway.
  • You already know this, too, but the Sophie Kerr curse does not exist.
  • Finally, win or lose, be nice to cats. Sophie would approve.

My regular blog readers are mostly writers who are not connected to Washington College at all. I wonder what you think about this change? Is it a shame it’s not being awarded at the college this year, or is New York a fresh and smart idea? Or do you just want me to stop yapping about this prize and get back to my regularly scheduled programming? Don’t worry, that’s the plan. I have some upcoming posts focusing on: a dedication that affected me so much I had to pretend I had something in my eye; the most mind-blowing coffee shop reading ever; my most recent writing-related humiliation that took place 30,000 feet in the air; and more.

Have a great day…whether you end it $60,000 richer or not.

4 responses to I hear NYC is the place to be (even for Sophie Kerr).

  • Paul Lamb says:

    I suppose the terms of the endowment restrict creative ways to award the prize, but it would seem that a little “wealth redistribution” would be appreciated. Instead of one winner who gets the honking $60,000, why not four winners who get $15,000?

    In my utterly uninformed opinion, I suspect the move of the prize to NYC is an attempt on the part of the College to get itself some higher profile and credibility in the writing universe. I suppose that’s a good thing in the end.

    • The way Sophie Kerr left the money to the college ensures it is given as only lump sum and can’t be split up into multiple, smaller prizes. Even if it were possible, I doubt the college would do it — the high dollar amount is what gives the prize its allure and gets people talking. Of course, I believe Sophie also specified it would be awarded “at graduation,” but I suppose that stipulation is easier to get around.

      You’re right, if the NYC change gives the prize a higher profile, or brings about other positive change, that would be a good thing. I’m trying to have an open mind about it, even though my instinct is to disagree with the change.

  • Averil says:

    I’ve enjoyed these posts, Laura. And this is wonderful advice from a graceful and deserving winner. They chose well that year.

  • Lyra says:

    Wait. Can we go back to the eating donuts and guzzling microbrews part? Can I come?

    Another unasked opinion on my part, but I think it should stay at the school. I love the heritage of it, the pomp and circumstance. I get the NYC thing and it has it’s merits, but yeah, I love the literary tradition of it being in Chestertown.

    Back to those microbrews…my kind of conference.

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