The 45th Winner

Posted on 15 May 2012

Today was the first day in weeks that I had a free evening to myself, and it was all thanks to a canceled writing group meeting. As much as I love a good critique session, this cancellation allowed me to 1. actually enjoy some time outside after work and 2. catch most of the live stream of the Sophie Kerr Prize ceremony.

I wrote all about Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize in a blog post last year. Here it is for anyone who missed it but is curious what the heck I’m talking about: Winning the Sophie Kerr Prize.

Even after all this time and distance, I still get a little nervous about this prize and for those students vying for it. Tonight, I watched the ceremony from the comfort of my bed, surrounded by the cats, while eating maple pecan granola out of the box. Spoken like a true winner. Nonetheless, this is how I rung in the news of Kathryn Manion being named the 45th winner of the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award, which this year was worth $58,000.

I don’t know Kathryn Manion, of course. I’m just an aging former winner creepily peering in on a live Internet feed from hundreds of miles away. With cats. Even so, as someone who understands the tension of that moment just before the winner is announced, I cheered on all the finalists — and completely recognized myself in the way Kathryn’s voice shook immediately after winning.

The Sophie Kerr Prize has been on my mind this week not only because the impending announcement, but because I discussed the prize last Wednesday during my author event at Lakewood Library. Talking publicly about winning that prize still feels foreign to me. It’s like admitting a secret. That’s probably because it’s not something I talked about a lot after graduation, not even with other writers, and certainly not with strangers. You don’t introduce yourself by saying, “Hey, let me tell you about the time I won $61,000 for my first novel when I was 22 years old.”

In the grand scheme of things, at least from a writer’s perspective, the Sophie Kerr Prize is not particularly significant. It likely won’t have any life-altering impact on the winner (except, of course, for the sheer amount of money awarded, or its ability to cause some winners to succumb to self-imposed pressure and anxiety, like what happened to yours truly). With that said, it’s also an interesting piece of trivia. In the last few years, as I’ve come clean about winning the Sophie Kerr Prize — first in a personal essay published in Poets & Writers,  then here on my blog, and now, in a presentation I will continue to use for future events and readings — people want to learn more. You won how much money? What did you do with it? And who was Sophie Kerr, anyway?

When I was creating my presentation and attempting to describe the arc of my young writing career so far, I kept returning to not only the Sophie Kerr Prize, but all the writing awards I won as a young adult and teenager and how they contributed to my unrealistic expectations. The truth is that I disappointed myself for years after winning the Sophie Kerr, and only recently have I begun to develop a healthier perspective. Winning that prize is fabulous, but it’s not the end of the road when it comes to building a writing career. It’s not even the beginning. It’s just a single bright flash along the way.

I can’t say whether other Sophie Kerr winners went through the self-doubt and the disappointment that I did after winning. I’m probably just more neurotic than most (always a safe bet). In any case, I certainly hope this year’s winner is more easily able to make the transition from the glitz of this prize into a real writing life.

So congratulations to Kathryn. To her and the four other finalists, I can only say: Write on.


12 responses to The 45th Winner

  • Josephine says:

    first, before i forget, your comment about being more neurotic than most writers made me think that could be the one writing award i would have a shot at winning–world’s most neurotic writer.

    “It’s just a single bright flash along the way.” what a lovely and honest statement. I think it’s true with everything. The good things and bad things that happen to us, whether they’re career markers, family events, whatever, they aren’t the beginning or the end–they’re single bright flashes along the way.

    isn’t money funny? how we talk about it, how we avoid talking about it. how it’s taboo. how it impacts our sense of well-being, our feelings of abundance.

    i was reading a shakti gawain book (i know, imagine that, me reading new-age books from the 70s) and she was talking about how it’s not how much money you have, but how money makes you feel. these are her words (interpreted by my memory). “many people who have a lot of money worry constantly about losing it. many people who believe they don’t have enough money worry constantly about getting more.” her point being that both groups suffered–it had nothing to do with the amount of money they controlled.

    (please note, i don’t think this has anything to do with you…your post just reminded me of the passage.)

    • It comforts me to know that in the Most Neurotic Writer contest, I’d have some stiff competition. At least we can all be crazy together.

      And I do think that quote has something to do with me, and with everyone. Money — and what it can do to people, either those who have it or those who want it or who think about the people who have it — is a bizarre and sometimes scary thing.

  • Teri says:

    Every little thing that tells you that you know what you’re doing HELPS. This prize is important. Absolutely.

    Last night I listened to my high school kids read their poems to an audience of 40 pp at our end-of-year celebration. They were fantastic. I was such a proud mama. The applause they received will spur them on. Every little thing ….

    • You are right, of course. The day after I won, I remember saying that maybe this would give me more confidence in my writing. On one hand it did, but on the other hand the pressure and my own expectations temporarily destroyed me. It would be interesting to see what would have happened had I not won — would I have set off on a pissed off and revenge-fueled writing period? Not that I’d actually like to find out; I am forever grateful to win that prize.

      • Averil says:

        I love Teri’s take on this but I completely understand how the pressure of expectation could undermine your writing. It may also have something to do with your youth at the time; it’s easier now to think as Teri does and realize that every small (or large) bit of encouragement is valuable.

        On the other hand (I have an extra hand, in case you were wondering), I’ve begun to believe that a writer’s life is necessarily full of moments of supreme confidence, followed by long periods of crippling doubt. I’ve yet to know a writer who operates on an even keel of self-regard.

        • Teri says:

          Oh yes, there is and will be plenty of crippling self-doubt. Thank goodness there can also be a few shreds of “you can do this!” along the way or I would have quit before I even started.

          The best poet last night was a 14 yr old girl who has already lived throug hell and writes with forgiveness. So mature, her work. At 14! I didn’t write my first anything until I was 35 yrs old. I wish someone had told me this was possible earlier.

          • During my library presentation last week, I projected, onto a huge screen, some actual lines from poems I wrote when I was 14. My favorite one ended with the phrase “…like a troll’s forgotten breath.”

            A troll’s forgotten breath? Are you kidding me? What does that even mean? I guess what I’m saying is that starting young doesn’t always mean a faster road to success or brilliance — the 14-year-old girl you saw clearly has something special.

        • “I’ve begun to believe that a writer’s life is necessarily full of moments of supreme confidence, followed by long periods of crippling doubt. I’ve yet to know a writer who operates on an even keel of self-regard.”

          Ding ding ding ding! You described it perfectly.

  • Lyra says:

    “…aging former winner…” I was laughing so hard after that moment, you, the cats, streaming internet. Ha! You do realize you’ve become a character in one of your fantastic short stories, yes?

    And you put the money away for a rainy day, yes? I can’t hear you Ms. Walter…

    • I am nothing if not a “Let’s save this for a rainy day” kind of person. I did allow myself the luxury of taking a solo, 3-week trip around Canada and the West coast after graduation. But I stayed in hostels and was super thrifty — for example, I started the trip by taking a 3-day train ride from Toronto to Vancouver, where I did not eat in the dining car ONCE. I lived off the peanut butter sandwiches and granola bars I brought with me. Seriously.

  • I live very close to Washington College, and I only heard about this magnificent prize when I moved here. I was awestruck by the possibilities it suggested to a young writer. Still, I’m not surprised to hear that its echo isn’t, perhaps, as wide or deep as might be imagined.

    I haven’t fully explored your blog, but are you writing a novel?

    • Yes, I’m working on a novel that was named a runner-up in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. And my debut short story collection, Living Arrangements, was published recently. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy the Eastern shore! I miss it and haven’t been back for a visit in years. Soon, I hope. Soon…

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