I had been planning on posting a piece today about the management of time in narrative, which is a common stumbling block for so many writers, but I’m going to save it for next week because I want to write about the awards ceremony I attended last night for the first annual Allegra Johnson Prize in Memoir and Novel Writing at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. Everything that is good and noble and uplifting about writing was present at this event, and it made me very proud of what I do, and proud to be part of a community of writers. You guys are part of that community, too, so I wanted to share a bit about the evening so you could feel some of the love and inspiration.
I know that this post comes on the hills of my gushy piece about my dad last week, but I guess June – the season of graduations and weddings – just brings that out. I’ll post some nitty-gritty nuts and bolts writing advice next week, I promise!
Allegra Johnson was a student in one of my memoir writing classes at the Writer’s Program. She was young and vibrant and a talented writer who won several Scholastic Writing Awards as a teen and was an enthusiastic devotee of the Writer’s Program. A few months after my class, Allegra died. (I wrote in these pages about the shock of her untimely death here.) Her parents, Roberta Olsen and Alexander Johnson, decided to establish a writing prize in her honor, and they invited me to join them in helping to design the prize and in being an inaugural judge, which was a huge honor.
All Writer’s Program memoir instructors were invited to recommend students, and students were required to submit 25 pages of a work in progress, plus additional materials (an outline of their book and an essay about the Writer’s Program role in their development). The initial rounds of judging were done by a group of instructors who did not know the names of the entered writers.
It was a delightful surprise to learn that the writer I put forth, Henriette Ivanans, was selected as one of three finalists for her memoir, Every Pill Has a Story – a memoir about illness, addiction, and how to save a marriage -- and it was a thrill when Roberta and Alexander selected Henriette for the grand prize.
Roberta and Alexander flew in yesterday from New York for the awards ceremony, which was an intimate dinner that included the other two finalists, Elle Johnson and Raluca Sanders, their inspiring teacher, Erika Schickel, and Linda Venis, Program Director or the Writers' Program.
So here’s the scene: we’re in a little room at the back of an Italian restaurant on the Westside of Los Angeles on an evening when President Obama’s visit has caused the city even worse than normal traffic gridlock. We are there because a young woman met a tragic end, and we are there because every one of the finalists is a writer who is trying to make meaning from something tragic in their own lives -- addiction, sexual abuse and murder. It hardly seems like the set up for a celebration.
Except that it was.
Roberta and Alexander are true patrons of the arts. They clearly believe that art can transform lives, and the way they have lived their own lives reflect this belief. Roberta is Curator of Drawings at The New York Historical Society and the author of many books herself, including several on the work of John Audubon. Both she and Alexander spoke with passion and eloquence about painters, dancers, musicians, and writers, and it was dazzling to hear them connect the dots between creators and their creations. These are people who know what it takes to create something from nothing – the courage, the passion, the persistence and the pain – and who know that the act of creation can serve as a powerful counterpoint to the difficult realities of being alive on this planet. I was so moved by the brave and gracious way they turned their own heartache into creative possibilities for other people.
With their joy in the creative process at the center, we had a fabulous, wide-ranging conversation about books and writing and writers and movies and TV cop dramas and the opening pages of The Goldfinch and the genius of the Writer's Program, but my favorite part was listening to each of the finalists express their gratitude for being selected. There really is no greater gift to a writer than being seen, being heard. We need that more than air and water. We need than more than paper and ink. It’s why any of us bothers to write to begin with.
Allegra will never get to see her books published or to hold them in her hands. She will not have the privilege of hearing a reader say, “Your book touched me,” “Your book inspired me,” or “Your book made me laugh.” But thanks to the generosity of her parents, her spirit lives on in these writers who still have the chance to make that dream come true.
None of us knows how many days we have left to do all the things we want to do in our lives. The clock is ticking for all of us. You may not win a prize this week, you may not have a toast raised to your work anytime soon, but the fact that you can even do it? It’s reason enough to celebrate.