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A Great and Powerful Thing: The South Carolina High School Writing Contest IV

by Aeriel Lee


Ask a room full of South Carolina’s most talented high school students how many want to major in a writing-related field and this is what you’ll see: a few hands lost in a crowd of almost 71 students, their parents, and teachers.

“Well, hopefully we’ll change that today,” said novelist and short story writer Pam Durban, who with USC poet and professor Nikky Finney is judging the fourth annual South Carolina High School Writing Contest. Durban’s words became a mission statement for the event, during which speakers sought to reaffirm the importance of writing and reading for the teens gathered in the Hollings Library Program Room.

“How can we make South Carolina better?” is the question that brought them there. Each had written no more than 750 words in response to the prompt, posed annually by the South Carolina Honors College, which presents the contest in partnership with the University of South Carolina Press, the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and the South Carolina State Library. The students submitted entries in poetry, fiction, drama, and essay; their work was chosen from about 300 submissions, making them finalists in the competition. Winners are selected based on their original submissions and a timed impromptu writing contest held on campus. Their work is collected in an anthology that also includes contributions from the judges—heady stuff for people younger than 20.

“My mom and dad were avid believers of books,” Finney told the students, describing how the shelves and counters of her childhood home were covered with them. Librarians were equally influential. “I remember combing the shelves of the little library in Sumter. I would search for books that had the power to teach me of human beings.”

Finney, whose Head Off & Split won the 2011 National Book Award for poetry, could not attend in person but was present in a pre-recorded video. The Conway native holds the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at USC.

For a shy child, books became “a source of magic and refuge,” Finney said, affirming they still are.

She also learned books could provide powerful lessons on how human beings could live together more harmoniously. “I didn’t understand how people could be so mean. I didn’t understand why we seemed more different than alike,” she said. When she took the conundrum to her mother, she suggested they turn to books.

While Finney knew she wanted to be a poet by age 16, she didn’t tell anyone for fear of being teased. She made an exception for her 10th grade English teacher. The young Finney presented her with her first complete manuscript of poetry—“the worst poetry ever written,” she said, laughing.

When her teacher gave her an anthology of poems by great American poets, she wrote, “Dear Nikky, one day I hope to see Nikky Finney’s name right here on a contents page like this one.”

After she achieved success, Finney sent her teacher an anthology that included her work. “Her words became something to set my name on,” she recalled.

“Have great fun with language and words today,” Finney advised. “To be able to write and create new and powerful words is a great and powerful thing.”

Pam Durban had her own message. “Read, read, read, and read,” she said. “Writers are here to show us what it is to be human, what we all share. You have to read no matter what you do.”

An Aiken native, Durban is the author of three novels and two short story collections. Winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award, she is the Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Unblinkingness” is a practice she upholds. Writers must always pay attention to their surroundings. “Stay open, stay curious, welcome uncertainty. Think of other people—who are they? What do they believe? Practice empathy.”

For her, writing is a way of thinking. “I won’t leave a piece of writing without knowing something I didn’t when I started,” Durban said, emphasizing the importance of doing that work individually. “I think you have to look for the truth. Don’t accept what you’re told—find it yourself.” Then, “bring it to others in an authoritative way.”

She offered one of her everyday writing practices: Spend 10 minutes writing freely. “Never censor yourself. You can say anything you want.” Now on her sixth notebook, Durban says the exercise is a way of “priming the pump,” a way to get ideas moving.

Like Finney, Durban was encouraging. “Be patient with yourself and with other people, and with yourself as a writer and thinker coming to your own conclusions. We need you and your voices and individuality and thoughtfulness.”

Durban also told the students of not growing up with computers, and stressed composing by hand as a meditative way to truly understand what it means to write. At 2 p.m., the room cleared, leaving only the students, their pencils, and bluebooks. It was time for the second, impromptu round of the competition. They would have 40 minutes to respond to topics chosen specifically by their judges. The prompts began to flash on the big screen, and the students’ chattering quieted to the textured silence of pencils on paper.