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Bank Prize Winner Ponders Love and Language

Inspiration is a great place to begin writing a story — but not enough to sustain it.

Writer Camille Acker delivered insightful advice at a March 23 craft talk and selected Franklin & Marshall junior Grace Celi as the winner of this year's Jerome Irving Bank Memorial Short Story Prize. Runner-up honors went to first-year Nora "Francis" Williams.

"When you know your why, it can help you make choices about who your character is, what happens to them in the course of the story, what form the story takes," said Acker, author of short-story collection, "Training School for Negro Girls."

Celi's "why" centers around protagonist Norah, a young woman navigating a romantic relationship and troubled family history in the short story, "Tea Person."

"I had been thinking a lot about first-love," said Celi, an English major and dance minor currently studying abroad in Bath, England. "Not first romantic love, but literally our first experiences of witnessing love between, giving love to and receiving love from parents — and how this original love (or lack thereof) shapes future relationships."

Williams' tale, "Where Music Flared," follows Haru, a guitar player and Japanese immigrant navigating life in San Francisco and an internment camp.

"Mainly, it's about the disconnect between the expectation of the 'American dream' and the reality of 1930s and '40s America," Williams said.

Williams was inspired by the work of author Julie Otsuka, who presented a craft talk at F&M in September.

Celi, of Brooklyn, hopes to pursue a master's degree in poetry or fiction after graduation. Learn more about her writing process below.

Could you expand on "original love" and its impact on "Tea Person"?

When this original love is broken or insufficient, it may be passed down through generations. This is not to say you cannot break that cycle — Norah, my protagonist, desperately wants to, but her complexity emerges from this question of whether or not she is able to.

Could you talk about your writing process?

Everything I write goes through so many different versions and never turns out the way I expect. For this piece, Norah's character was a grounding, guiding force throughout the writing process. I had her intentions, habits and desires quite clear from the beginning — so everything unfolded around that.

I always need something to ground and guide me, even if I don't know exactly where it's guiding me to. In fiction, it's often character. In poetry, it's a through-line metaphor, or even an image, sensation or tone.

Do you have any advice about storytelling for other student writers?

Don't expect to get it right the first time. Let go of the idea of some perfectly "right" final version and instead let the story unfold to you. Try to cultivate a curious attitude toward it. Also, appreciate the rigor of revision. I think there's equal value in those (few and far-between) moments of flowing, "divine inspiration" and the grunt work of rewriting the same scene five times.

As for advice for fiction specifically, I have to steal [Alumni Professor of Creative Writing and Belles Lettres] Professor Nicholas Montemarano's repeated mantra: "Make them care; make them worry; make them wait."

Do you have a favorite author?

I love a lot of different authors for a lot of different reasons! [They include] Sally Rooney and Claire Keegan, and I am a long-time lover of Patti Smith — "Just Kids" was the defining book of my high school years. Some of my favorite poets are Mary Oliver, Alicia Mountain, Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong and Wendell Berry. Across genres, I'm drawn to simple language that can still be somewhat lyrical, but stripped of frills or excess.

2023 Bank Prize Craft Talk & Reading


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