2016 Winners of the Mimi Schwartz Creative Nonfiction Awards
First prize ($125): Ashlie Hyer for “Wishful Thinking”
Second prize ($75): Medgina Saint-Elien for “The Nature of Hair”
Honorable mention: Emily Dolhansky for “And You Will Survive”
Ashlie Hyer graduated cum laude with a major in Literature in May 2016. Her fiction has appeared in the national literary journal Hobart.
Medgina Saint-Elien is a junior majoring in Communication Studies and minoring in Writing and Sociology. Her journalism has appeared in national online magazines and blogs such as HerCampus, Adorned in Armor, and Byrdie. The Vice President of Stockapella, she also works at Stockton's art gallery and will begin tutoring in the Writing Center this fall. She received an honorable mention for the Stephen Dunn poetry award in Spring 2015.
Emily Dolhansky, a May 2016 graduate, is pursuing a Master of Forest Science at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, with a focus on climate change adaptation in relation to forests. At Stockton she majored in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Forestry and a minor in Writing. She enjoys nature writing in particular.
This year’s contest judge, Cynthia Inman Graham, is a retired teacher of English as a Second Language and Special Education. She has traveled the world, living and teaching in Israel, Kenya, Laos, and Outback Australia. After taking writing classes at Stockton, she has published creative nonfiction essays and opinion pieces in Brevity, FATE, the Notebook: A Progressive Journal about Women & Girls with Rural & Small Town Roots, Andrea Reads America, the Sandpaper, various blogs, and the Stockpot. She is the 2012 winner of the Mimi Schwartz Creative Nonfiction Award.
As Graham points out, artful storytelling makes readers feel as if they know the characters: “I read [Ashlie Hyer’s] ‘Wishful Thinking’ many times. Each time I thought, ‘I remember this girl. She was in one of my classes. She wore black and was so smart and funny, one of my favorites.’ The writer has created a middle school voice so true, as a reader I heard her even after I finished reading. I realized after my third reading, I was smiling as I read. The voice echoed with angst, humor, and the wisdom gained from the distance of time passed. The writer crafted descriptions of how it feels to live with Tourette’s, Asperger’s, and ever present anxiety.
“She plunks us right down in our graffitied desk during study hall. Through her use of interior dialogues—‘Please, please, please. Please finish the article before you get to me’ and ‘Holy crap! That’s a note! I’ve been passed a note!—we are allowed to travel the halls of Williams Middle School inside of [Ashlie’s] head and suffer along with her.
“The writer introduces us (or should I say reintroduces us, because we remember these kids) to [Ashlie’s] fellow students, Shane Hannigan, the mean boy, and Casey Wilson, the popular girl who tells [Ashlie], ‘If you wore a little make up, you might actually look pretty’ and follows up by asking her if she has a ‘death list’ (my very favorite part). Of course, Casey, like any good middle schooler, adds the classic ‘No offense.’
“[Ashlie], vulnerable as we all are at age twelve and thirteen, shares, ‘Here’s the thing about middle school me. I really hated people, but I also wanted friends. People terrified me, and I liked to terrify them, but I also wanted them to like me, to treat me like a human being.’ The interior dialogue says everything, as it should.
“As a reader (and a teacher and mother) I was relieved when [Ashlie] and Alice became friends and I cheered as she rose to walk at middle school graduation because I believed in her. ‘Courage,’ [Ashlie]. You made it.
“In ‘The Nature of Hair’ [by Medgina Saint-Elien] the writer explains, ‘I made a deal with Mother Nature to never give in to the straight hair rule created by society. I rebelliously owned my natural hair.’ The reader journeys with her to the ‘Spotless Unisex salon’ in Elizabeth, NJ and sits with her for hours throughout the process of having her hair painstakingly twisted into tiny swirls. We listen to the humor of Paul whose razor ‘is almost as quick as his comebacks’ and Sheilla whose side of the salon ‘speaks loud and brave which perfectly gels into who Sheilla is.’ ‘Gels’ is only one of the perfect verbs the writer employs in this piece. We hear the neighborhood cop comment on politics. ‘You got people shouting at these rallies: Go back to your country! But you can’t return stolen goods, sister.’ Crafting gentle dialogue, the writer introduces us to her complex characters and their histories. By sitting in the chair and listening with her ears, we understand why by the end of the process she feels ‘free and ready to conquer the world.’”
In choosing Emily Dolhansky’s “And You Will Survive” for honorable mention, Graham notes, “The essay begins with an experience of childhood bravery in the face of bee stings and not being ‘governed by the principle of death.’ Then moves into a realization of mortality that overwhelms the narrator. The topic of anxiety is a common theme in creative nonfiction and must be crafted carefully so that the reader does not perceive the narrator as ‘whiny’ or maudlin. This piece has achieved the balance necessary to allow the reader to remain sympathetic, carried along by the rhythms and structure of the story.’”
The Writing Program congratulates Ashlie Hyer, Medgina Saint-Elien, and Emily Dolhansky on their outstanding work and encourages them to keep writing and submitting.
The Mimi Schwartz Creative Nonfiction Contest is funded by donations and judged anonymously. Every year, the Writing Program invites the winners of its student contests to read their prize essays aloud at a Writing Program Showcase, which is open to the public. Please watch for the announcement of the next Showcase, which will be held on the Stockton main campus in Spring 2017.
Associate Professor, Writing Program