On Friday, the Norman Mailer Center announced the recipients of the 2015 Creative Non-Fiction Writing Award — and this year, all 10 honorees were former or current Yalies.
The Norman Mailer Center, in partnership with the National Council of Teachers of English, holds yearly competitions in creative non-fiction writing for high-school students, two-year and four-year college students, and high-school teachers, as well as one college competition for poetry. This year, the winner, four finalists, and five semifinalists of the Four-Year College Creative Non-Fiction Writing Award Competition were all from Yale.
“This is part of a pattern that has been going on, rather excitingly, for a long time and has built to this absolutely improbable climax of the sweep,” English professor Anne Fadiman said.
As Fadiman and Fred Strebeigh ’74, another English professor, pointed out, Yale has historically been successful when it comes to writing awards. According to Strebeigh, non-fiction writers at Yale achieved a similar sweep in another writing contest run by The Atlantic magazine in 2010. Throughout the history of the Norman Mailer writing awards, which began in 2009, 50 percent of all winners and 41 percent of all honorees in the creative non-fiction section have been from Yale, Strebeigh said.
The writing competition began as a way to acquaint young writers with the works of Norman Mailer, as well as his commitment to writing, according to Lawrence Schiller, president and co-founder of the Norman Mailer Center. The Center was founded by Schiller and Norman Mailer’s wife, Norris Church Mailer, after Mailer’s 2007 death, and the creation of the competition followed soon after. Schiller said that the only requirement of the competition is that submissions are in English. Competitors come from all over the world.
“It grew within the first three years to be worldwide,” Schiller said. “We were surprised ourselves when we started getting entries from English-speaking schools and foreign universities throughout the world.”
Schiller said there are typically between three and six thousand submissions from high school students, college students and teachers combined. The total number of submissions for this year’s five divisions of creative non-fiction and poetry was about 4,100, he said.
Schiller also emphasized that students from all disciplines can apply; in fact, several of this year’s finalists from Yale major or majored in something other than English. Five students and faculty interviewed agreed that the sweep in the competition is a testament to the quality of creative writing professors and classes at Yale. Several finalists mentioned classes taught by professors Fadiman, Cynthia Zarin, Strebeigh and Caryl Phillips as their inspiration, and finalist Devon Geyelin ’16 described English 120 as a “must-take.”
“There are these amazing professors … who really push students to think in creative ways and to do cool things with nonfiction,” said Eric Boodman ’15, winner of the four-year college non-fiction creative writing competition. “I think that’s part of the reason that so many students from Yale won.”
Fadiman and Strebeigh said another important aspect of Yale’s writing culture is the prevalence of student publications on campus. Fadiman said Yale’s “incredibly robust and exciting extracurricular scene” allows students to gain experience with reporting, writing and editing, fostering students’ creativity. Boodman said editing with other students at periodicals, such as The New Journal, helped him make his pieces the best they could be.
Boodman submitted three pieces, all of which he had written for writing classes at Yale. One was about a woman who restores violins, another on a tuberculosis epidemic at Yale-New Haven Hospital and a third about a live tarantula, Mabel, at the Peabody Museum. Contestants were judged based on all of their submitted work, rather than on a single piece of writing.
Almost all the other honorees’ pieces were either originally written for an English class or published in one of Yale’s many publications.
“I think if you’re interested in creative writing here, you’ll definitely find someone to support you and you’ll find venues on campus in which to publish and people who work for them who are excited to have you,” said finalist Jennifer Gersten ’16, a former editor of Yale Daily News Magazine.
Though Yale is known for its “tremendous non-fiction creative writing,” this had no influence on the results of the competition, Schiller said. The judges had no knowledge of school names, or even the names of the students, when evaluating submissions. Only after the winners, finalists and semifinalists were decided did they realize that all happened to be from Yale.
Students and faculty credit Yalies’ success in writing to the opportunities provided to them on campus, which are open to all.
“There’s no higher barrier to writing than thinking that you can’t write,” Gersten said.
Submissions to next year’s competition can be up to 15 pages single-spaced and will be accepted in the spring.