Yalies sweep non-fiction creative writing category of the Norman Mailer Prize

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(Photo from Norman Mailer Center website)

The National Council of Teachers of English announced on Nov. 13 the winners of the annual Norman Mailer Prize competition — and Yale students swept the Four-Year College Creative Non-Fiction Award.

“This sweeping of the nonfiction category is entirely unprecedented and is a testament to these talented students and their abilities,” said Richard Deming, a senior lecturer in English & director of creative writing. “The breadth of our students’ gifts, their clarity of vision, and the reach of their respective imaginations are represented in their essays and recognized by the awards committee.”

The annual competition began in collaboration with the Norman Mailer Center in 2009 and includes four awards in creative nonfiction writing for high school students, two-year college students, and four-year college students, as well as an award for middle and high school teachers and a college poetry award.

This year, the winner, four finalists, and five semi-finalists in the Four-Year College Creative Non-Fiction Award were all Yale students or recent graduates. Yale was also represented in the poetry competition, as two recent graduates earned semi-finalist and finalist recognition.

Fred Strebeigh, a senior lecturer in English, cites the English department’s emphasis on reading as a reason why Yale students are traditionally strong in creative writing, adding that over the six years of the competition’s existence, 50% of all winners and 41% of all honorees of the Four-Year College Creative Non-Fiction Award have been from Yale.

“Strong reading makes strong writing possible, and the teaching of writing in Yale’s English department prizes the sort of engaged and delighted reading, across many forms of literature, that makes minds voracious and writing powerful,” he said.

Contestants were limited to a maximum of 15 single-spaced pages and were judged on the collective body of work. Eric Boodman ’15, winner of this year’s creative nonfiction prize, submitted three pieces for consideration. The first was a profile of a violinmaker who used “unusual methods” to unravel the mysterious past of a violin made in 1704; the second was about a tarantula named Mabel at the Yale Peabody Museum; and the third centers on tuberculosis in New Haven. All three were written for classes at Yale.

When asked about his inspirations, Boodman said he loves to hear people talk, adding that his favorite writers are the ones “who capture those different patterns of speech and turn them into great stories.” In addition to the “amazing writing culture” at Yale, Boodman credits the nonfiction creative writing faculty for his success.

“I don’t think I would be working as a journalist now if not for the encouragement and teaching of Yale nonfiction faculty,” he explained. “Anne Fadiman, Fred Strebeigh, Carl Zimmer, and Andrew Ehrgood pushed me to try new things and think in new ways. The discussions that started in their classes continued long afterwards: Many of them are still going on one, two, or three years later. And I still turn to my Yale friends when trying to figure out how best to structure an article.”

For her part, Anne Fadiman, an adjunct professor of English, highlights the multiplicity of writing classes at all levels, professors who “don’t just parachute in and then scurry back to their own work,” the numerous student periodicals, and the writing culture as some of the reasons for the strength of Yale students in creative writing.

“It’s a thrill! I’m so proud of our students,” she said about her reaction to the news. “I know the blood, sweat, and tears that went into some of those pieces. On the day we got the news I felt happier than if I’d won an award myself.”

She added that she encourages students to enter writing competitions not because they might win, but because the competitions motivate writers to continually revise previous work and make it as absolutely as good as they possibly can. Strebeigh agrees and said he also encourages writers to begin writing for campus publications so they can expand their thinking.

“This achievement also speaks to the strengths of our various instructors of nonfiction writing, and the tireless, generous, and generative teaching they provide,” said Deming. “The English department’s holistic sense of the field and its commitment to the integration of the craft of writing and the study of literature helps our talented students to realize their potential as budding thinkers and authors worthy of such national distinction.”

In addition to Boodman, Jennifer Gersten ’16, Devon Geyelin ’16, Jesse Schreck ’15, and Yanan Wang ’15 were finalists in the creative nonfiction award. The semifinalists were Michelle Hackman ’15, Sophie Mendelson ’15, Katy Osborn ’15, Jacob Osborne ’16, and Katherine Lin ’18. In the poetry category, Cynthia Hua ’15 was a finalist and Jordana Cepelewicz ’15 a semifinalist.

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