“All the conversations I hear, and everything that I see on the news, is focuses on the coronavirus. It is so depressing,” said one high school teen, a sentiment echoed by many. It is difficult to tear ourselves away from depressing conversations about the lethal disease and its consequences. However, one young Bronx student found a way to help other high schoolers cope – through creative writing.
Vishnu Bharathram, 17, a senior at Riverdale Country School, in Bronx, NY, organized the Scribe Writing Contest, in the midst of COVID-19, to help provide a pleasant distraction from the current state of events and encourage teens to use their imaginations. It did not hurt that prizes were also awarded to the winners.
“Nobody could have expected or prepared for the devastating effects that the coronavirus would bring this year,” said Vishnu. “Many of us have been isolated at home. Schools went remote. A lot of stores and businesses are closed. Aside from the security concerns caused by this illness, a lot of teens are just bored. Creative writing provides an avenue for people to express their thoughts and their creativity and a space to imagine something different into being.”
The Scribe Writing Contest is a free, online high school creative writing contest open to students all over the world. Students were given a 48-hour window in which to start their essay and had to submit either a poem or short story, within two hours, in response to specific prompts that were given immediately prior to beginning the contest.
For the poetry submissions, entrants were asked to:
a) Write a poem that evokes a sense of longing, whatever that might mean to you.
b) Write a poem that uses all the following words: “whisper,” “moonlight,” and “tomorrow.”
c) Write a poem that centers around nature and the natural world.
For the Fiction portion of the contest, participants were given the following prompts:
a) Write a story about two or more people whose pasts are connected.
b) Tell the story of a scar – physical or emotional.
c) Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time begins with the line: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” Write a story starting with that line.
Vishnu personally reached out to distinguished English and creative writing professors from across the country and selected seven of them to serve as judges for the contest. In addition, six nonprofit literary publishing companies, whose titles have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, sponsored the contest with cash prizes and books for the winners. They awarded $2,750 in cash prizes to three winners in the Poetry category as well as three teens who submitted fictional essays.
Creative writing offers many benefits which are often overlooked and undervalued. They include confidence building, stimulating the imagination, artistic self-expression, thought clarification, empathy and communication skills, a better understanding of the mechanics of reading and writing, and improved mental, emotional and physical health. Studies have shown that creative writing alleviates stress levels, and can ward off severe illnesses, among other things.
The contest received an overwhelming response, with almost 900 submissions from teens in 17 countries, spanning six continents.
The winners of the contest were:
First place: Isabelle Lu, South Side High School (Rockville Centre, NY); Second place: Janet Li, Columbus Academy (Columbus, OH); Third place: Anne Kwok, Milton Academy (Milton, MA)
First place: Frances McKittrick, Saint Ann’s School (Brooklyn, NY); Second place: Alexis Kihm, “I AM” School (Mount Shasta, CA); Third place: Asa Khalid, Berkeley Carroll School (Brooklyn, NY)
The participants expressed their appreciation for providing a brief distraction from some of the stress they had been dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and in a changing environment, due to COVID-19. There will be another contest next May to provide a creative outlet for more teens.
The contest judges included: David Baker, Professor of English at Denison University (Granville, OH); Matt Burgess, Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN); Sumita Chakraborty, Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI); Melissa Cundieff, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College; Andrew Grace; Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College (Gambier, OH); Michael Prior, Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College; and Orchid Tierney, Aotearoa-New Zealand poet and Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College.
Vishnu also created The Scribe Review, the only nonprofit journal in the world dedicated to publishing the academic English essays of high school students. Its first issue was published in August 2020.
Vishnu, a passionate writer, has been applauded by many of his peers for his efforts in trying to provide a positive experience for many teens during this difficult time. “Creative writing has such an extraordinary capacity to uplift and inspire. If the Scribe Writing Contest enabled students to realize that capacity, even for a moment, then in my eyes it was all worthwhile,” said Vishnu.