Good Grief: Thoughts on Loss, Joy, & the Art of Writing
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
featuring stories from prizewinning authors from the first annual
Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship for Excellence in Writing
Winning entries are featured below as well as on our website.
NARRATIVE: Tell a story about someone coping with loss or taking a leap of faith.
META: Describe a major turning point in your evolution as a writer.
WACKY: Complete the 20 Mad-Lib-style fill-in-the-blanks below, then craft a story that includes each of your chosen words at least once.
_____________ (singular noun)
_____________ (item found on a nature hike)
_____________ (positive personality trait)
_____________ (action verb)
_____________ (number between 1934-2019)
_____________ (type of food)
_____________ (plural noun)
_____________ (verb ending in -ing)
_____________ (mode of transportation)
_____________ (plural noun that ends with an apostrophe)
_____________ (TV show)
_____________ (random word you like the sound of)
_____________ (article of clothing)
_____________ (something comforting)
A note from Jessica:
A hearty round of applause and many congratulations to this year's winners in the competition for the first annual Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship for Excellence in Writing! What a healing process coordinating this scholarship competition has been, y'all: you have my lifelong gratitude for creating laughter, tears, and a sense of closeness to those no longer present in physical form.
When I began this competition to honor my grandmother's passion for the written word, I did not imagine it would garner such an overwhelming and deeply humbling response: 1,442,365 words worth of artful, incredibly touching tales from creative spirits all over the world! Because there have been so many outstanding entries, we are expanding our prize repertoire to include a special surprise for all of our finalists: the option to allow LearnCurious to publish submissions as part of a compendium of young authors' thoughts on grief, joy, & the art of writing. We hope this honor will serve to provide a unique edge to college applications (for those who've yet to submit them) as well as a point of artistic validation: knowing that these beautiful stories are out there being read and helping others.
A massive thank you to all who participated in this year's competition and a big welcome back to anyone not yet graduated who wishes to participate in next year's contest. Thank you as well to those who chose to subscribe to our updates. We will continue to update the PJM archives, blog, resources, and vocab pages every so often. Author profiles will continue to grow as we hear back from our featured artists. We look forward to taking your thoughtful feedback to heart and improving this competition each year. Writing is one of the most powerful forms of communication we have and one in which we never finish developing our skills.
After enjoying the prizewinning stories below, I welcome you to learn more about Phyliss's history and read some of her writing in our archives. I believe she would be floored by the amount of time and thought clearly reflected in the entries we've received, and I like to believe that she's read them all with me.
Warmest wishes and heartfelt thanks,
Phyliss's Granddaughter & Scholarship Coordinator
Featured Stories 2020 ~ MEET OUR WINNERS
Class of 2022
To Sophie—because saying goodbye to you was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do
Notes from Zoie:
Notes from LearnCurious:
Leave your legacy in imagination.
a short story by Zoie Morgan
Alice Hinsley is seventy-three years old.
I’ve never been assigned the same child twice, much less when the child is grown up, and waiting for the whisper of death to take them home.
It’s why I’m so confused to be back in a body I’d nearly forgot I used to be.
The gray skin itches at first, but I get used to it by the time I materialize in her room.
The hardest part about being an elephant, imaginary or not, is that no matter where you are, your trunk is always in the picture.
My breath catches when I realize I’m not just an elephant, I’m her elephant. Again.
“Alice?” My voice is barely a whisper, and I worry if I say anything louder, she might crumble under the weight.
Her smile. Even after all these years, her smile and her eyes are the same. I still see the young eleven-year-old girl underneath all that age. It pains me to see her like this.
“Humphrey.” Her voice shakes, rattles. If you’ve ever heard the creaking sounds of an old house, she sounds somewhat like that. Like a whisper, like I’m still here. Breathing, alive, don’t leave me.
“Alice,” I say again, braver this time. “Alice, you grew out of me nearly sixty years ago.” She reaches for my trunk, taking it in her hands and stroking it. I’m glad her room has no windows. No one will laugh at her like they used to when she was young. “I needed you again.”
I watch her. Take in her skin, nearly as pale and saggy as mine. Her white hair, loose at her shoulders, but nearly gone. The way the green of her eyes fades away when seconds before, it was brighter than anything you’d ever seen.
“Humphrey, I don’t have much time,” She pauses, to wipe away a stray tear. “I have no family, no friends. I made mistakes in life, Humphrey. I need you again. I need someone to stay with me before I go. I don’t want to be alone.”
It’s different, now that Alice is older. When she was eleven, she talked like a grownup, so
I did too. Now, she is grown, and I can’t bring myself to believe it. I don’t want to see her like this.
But I have to. I have to do my job. I was called here, I will be her friend until she doesn’t need me anymore. Then, I’ll start a new job, as someone else, to accompany another person until they no longer need me, and so on. That’s how it goes.
That’s how it’s always been.
“Humphrey, talk to me before I go. Tell me a story.”
“I’m not a story-teller, Alice,” I pull my trunk from her wrinkled fingers. I don’t want to watch her as she dies. I can’t watch another child of mine die when I can’t do anything to stop it.
It’s not fair.
“Humphrey,” She reaches for me again, and I see her eyes flash with determination. She’d always been the boss, no matter how I tried to reason with her.
I didn’t mind that she was bossy, in fact, most of my children were. It was the fact that she wasn’t one to think. She was the child that said let’s jump out of trees and throw eggs at Melinda Calkins because she made fun of me on picture day.
“I want to hear about her, dear. About the one before me.”
I am once again surprised. First, I am called back to a child I have already been assigned to, as an adult, then she wants to know about the child I was assigned before her?
“How do you know about her?”
She ignores me, with a flutter of her fingers, begins to talk again. “I wasn’t aware even imaginary friends grieved. I didn’t know they had other children either. Growing old has its perks, dear friend.”
I watch her intently, tiring to the point where she can’t look at me anymore.
“I began to see things as I got older, and maybe it was the Alzheimer’s, but I began to swear I could see you, working your way to different children as I aged. And every year I got closer to this moment, you became clearer.” She closes her eyes, breathes hard. “I know it was you, even with your new names, and costumes. One doesn’t ever forget their first and only real friend.”
“I always watch out for my children,” I say. It’s an odd feeling, talking to her again, about real things. About me. I’ve never been able to do that. “It’s why I’ve never left this town.”
She nods, absently. “What happened to her, Humphrey? To the girl before me. Why was she different from the rest of us?”
I swallow. Shrink down to the size of a house cat, and squirm in my chair. “She died.”
“You’re other children will die. I will die.”
“She was seven-years-old when she passed.”
Her heart monitor slows but doesn’t drop too much. She’s falling asleep. “Humphrey, do keep telling me. I want to know.”
“Her name was Polly.” I begin to unearth my secrets. Spilling memories of Polly like water from a spout. I have no choice really, Polly tumbles from my mouth like a trapeze artist, slipping from the bone of my teeth and rolling down the trunk of my nose. She lands in a heap on the floor of Alice’s room.
The wounds are open. I watch the blood paint the picture.
Polly was six when I first came. I was still sneezing out the remains of my cat fur when I plopped out of a tree and into the farmyard directly in front of Polly.
She immediately knew my name, Rutabaga, after her favorite plant her mother grew. I looked down at her, and then at me, at the purple scales in my claws, at the chubby legs that protruded from my large belly.
I’d never, ever, been a dragon before.
A snake, once or twice, a house cat more often than not, and occasionally a rabbit or a lion, but never a mythical creature.
She took me by the claw and I began to help her water the yard, and feed the animals.
Polly said she made me a dragon so she wouldn’t lose me in the sea of farm pets.
I told her she was very considerate.
Polly was one of my favorites.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I love all my kids, every single one—even Andre, who lit my tail of fire twice—but Polly was different. I often forgot I wasn’t real, because her family included me, so much I wondered if at first, they could see me, too. It didn’t take me long to realize, they couldn’t, but that Polly’s mother, Charlotte, had been one of my first children.
I was well-aware imaginary friends changed everything from name, to appearance, and even sometimes personalities when we were assigned new children, but I’ve always been a firm believer, that just like we remember and can pick out our kids, they can do the same with their imaginary friends, even if we are invisible to them. Especially since most of us do stay local, for that purpose exactly.
Back to Polly, she made me feel like I was there for more than just her. She was six-years-old, and her power of love was so strong, it nearly made me real. She loved me so much, her family could feel my presence. That was huge in my world.
Back home, it was nearly unheard of that a child could love their imaginary friend that much. It had happened maybe a total of four times in the entire lifespan of however long we’d existed.
I knew Polly was meant to change the world. I was with her for fifteen months. I stayed with children anywhere from a few months to a few years. It wasn’t unusual that I was with her for so long. What I couldn’t understand, was why.
As far as I knew, she didn’t need me. She had friends, a healthy family life. She was a good egg, as good and safe as it gets.
I began to dread that every day would be my last with her, because she just kept getting happier, stronger, growing into something wonderful. I was always prepared to say goodbye.
I was always prepared to wake up, back in my home. Ready for the boss to assign me another child and give me a day to prepare for them.
It wasn’t until the winter after Polly turned seven, that I realized what she would need me for.
We were piled into the chuggy little green minivan, looking at Christmas lights.
I was plastered against the window next to Polly as we took in the fluorescent lights of every house.
In all my life, I’d only ever seen them here, with Polly.
I loved them. They were by far my favorite part of human life; well except for the children themselves.
Polly took my claw in her little hand and pointed to each house that caught her eye. She’d say, “look at that one!” and I would.
We were driving home. Polly had fallen asleep, and I was shrunk about the size of a small dog, all tired in her lap.
Her brother, Cam, was nearly out, playing tough, like boys who are ten do, and trying his hardest not to let himself drop off.
It was nearly eleven o’clock as we turned onto that desolate street. The speed limit must have bumped up because the car picked up speed, getting fast enough that Cam stirred. “Are we going home?”
Charlotte nodded and reached for him, hand on his leg. “Almost, baby. Try to get some sleep.”
But Cam didn’t try to get some sleep.
Instead, he cried out, “Dog!”
Their father tried to swerve out of the way, and if it hadn’t been for that patch of ice, he would have. The patch was large enough that the car skidded a good ways off the road, in a haze, Mr. Jenson lunged for the breaks and somehow hit the gas, sending the car straight into a tree.
Polly never stirred. Never once, did she wake up, even when her little body flew from the backseat to the front, because I hadn’t even noticed she’d never put her seatbelt back on.
I sat there, in the seat, the only one unscathed, and wondered why I hadn’t fallen after her.
I wasn’t real. I couldn’t do anything.
I jumped from my seat to Polly, lying there on the floor. She moved now, her little body shuddering. I reached to wipe away the blood on her forehead, but it wouldn’t come off.
I wasn’t real.
I tried to tell her to keep her eyes open, she had to do that. Humans can’t sleep after they hit their heads. I tried to shake her, but I couldn’t lift her.
I wasn’t real.
Cam cried in his seat. He said, “Mom, it’s Polly!”
Charlotte was already stumbling out of the car, running on shaking legs to the house across the street.
Mr. Jenson had hit his head on the wheel, he wasn’t talking either. I saw his eyes, they were open. I saw him close them. I saw him shake away his son’s voice.
I turned to Cam once more, tried to calm him down. He couldn’t see me. I wasn’t real.
I put a hand on each of theirs and talked, even though neither could hear a thing I said.
I opened my eyes to a large man opening the door. I watched both of them get pulled onto large stretchers, too big for their bodies.
I slipped out of the car, jumping onto Polly’s lap. She never felt it.
I told her she had to wake up because she still had to change the world. I told her I still needed her.
I heard one of the medics say she’s slipped into a coma, that they weren’t sure if they could wake her. They said she shouldn’t have closed her eyes.
I shouldn’t have let her close her eyes.
The hospital was dark, empty. Maybe I just couldn’t see the people. Maybe I was too focused on Polly.
She was the only one who wasn’t okay. The only one who the doctors couldn’t fix in a couple of days.
I watched in horror as they hooked up her monitor, as the nurse shook her head at her little body and went to find a smaller breathing tube.
The machine breathed for her. She couldn’t do it alone.
I held her little hand and told her about the world she changed. I told her that she did change the world, she changed my world. I realized then, that she needed me because she was never meant to change the whole world. She needed me so she could change one life before she lost hers.
That was why I’d been with her so long, and why I was here, now.
I told her everything about all my other kids, and how she was my favorite because she made me feel real. I told her I was sorry I couldn’t keep her alive.
I told her every story I could, emptying every thought in my head until her monitor finally deadlined, and she was gone.
It was the only time I got to say goodbye to one of my kids.
And it was the only goodbye I wished I never had to say.
Alice stirs in her sleep, eyes blinking open. “Humphrey,” she says, she reaches for my trunk and I have to place it in her weak hands. “Humphrey, she was beautiful.”
I nod. I can’t really say anything else. I never thought I’d have to say goodbye again.
“I don’t have much time.” Her voice begins to shake. “There’s a man by my door, can you see him? He’s waiting for me to say goodbye so he can take me home.”
I look to the door. I see the outline of a higher power than even me. The same one I saw when Polly left. I nod in his direction. Feel a flicker of calm in the pit of my belly. His doing. His condolences.
Her hands grow softer in mine. When I turn, Alice is no longer an old woman, but a young girl again, with her hair in braids and her favorite boots back on her feet.
She slips from the bed and kisses my trunk. “I’ll say hello to Polly, dear. Thank you for everything. Goodbye, Humphrey.”
I watch her leave, and I feel myself evaporating from this world, waking up in my own.
Starting over, because that’s all you can ever do. Start over and keep going. Living for those who can’t anymore.
I take a deep breath, walk into the boss’ office. Pick up my new mission.
Take care, Polly, Alice. Goodbye.
FIRST RUNNER UP
Class of 2021
To my parents, Onyeka, Amanda, Olisa, Aunty Rita, and my grandparents. Thanks for never failing to inspire me with your love and kindness.
Notes from Mmasiolu:
I want to firstly say thank you so much for this opportunity and say that the narrative I wrote is based off of something similar that actually happened in my life so it is very close to my heart. I am a first generation American and am actually half African-American and half Hispanic so to get the opportunity to write a piece without being judged for who I am or where I come from is really something that makes me happy. I was able to show my parents my piece and tell them that I was entering for this scholarship and they were so happy that organizations like yours existed and were giving opportunities that they never had access to. I also really enjoyed being able to write this piece and take my mind off of the other things currently going on with the pandemic, even if it was just for a few days. Anyways thank you, thank you and thank you again.
Notes from LearnCurious:
Simple kindnesses paid forward create memories that last for generations.
Mr. Lazaro's Peonías
It was hard moving into a nice neighborhood filled with million dollar homes, people stopping to ask if you lived there, stopping to tell you that if you didn’t they’d have to call the police. They were stopping to stare and wonder how we, half African American and half Hispanic, could end up in a neighborhood like this. I disregarded their accusing faces as I continued on walking home, grinning at the passing cars, smiling and being as welcoming as possible even though they frowned back. Then one day I met him, Mr. Lazaro, an old man at the end of our street with a sweet looking house and a beautiful, purple Mercedes he took pride in. I put on the forced smile, a grin that made my cheeks hurt, ready to explain that I lived just down the street and wasn’t trying to steal anything. He wasn’t like them though, instead of frowning, he smiled back.
“How you doing today? You come back from school?”
My automatic smile suddenly shrunk, I was confused but answered.
“Yes, I’m walking back from high school”.
He looked at me quizzically, “You no drive?”
I paused, he wasn’t going to ask if I lived there? He didn’t want to know what my parents' jobs were?
“No,” I laughed, “I don’t drive, it's too hard.”
My smile returned but it wasn’t a forced grin, it was genuine now. The corners of his mouth also turned upwards.
“Well, tell me hi when you passing again,” he responded.
I was beaming now, excited to meet a neighbor who wanted to talk and didn’t need to see my house keys to believe that I lived there.
A “Yes sir!” excitedly escaped me and I continued on home.
“I love your garden” I said smilingly from behind him.
It had been a warm spring day, bees were flying and birds, chirping. His garden was beautiful, filled with flowers of all colors and shapes. The grass was greener than any grass I had ever seen before and fruit trees sprouted in all directions, they weren’t in season but I knew that apples and peaches would soon grow. I slowly took it all in and looked towards the ground.
“Those flowers, peonies, they are gorgeous” I smiled.
“Yes they peonies, in Spanish say peonías” he smiled back.
“Peonías?” I asked as if I didn’t already speak Spanish.
“Yes peonías,” he beamed.
He was clearly confused but impressed nonetheless by my already natural pronunciation.
“I didn’t know, I learned something new from you,” I said.
“I teach you something new?” he asked, grinning.
He looked so happy to teach me something new, little did he know he taught me something new everyday.
I walked home as usual, it had gotten a little cooler now. Pine cones, knocked down and partially eaten by squirrels, littered the streets. I walked past Mr. Lazaro’s house, he wasn’t there to greet me. His usually luscious, green grass to my surprise was browning a bit and now that I had thought about it, I hadn’t seen Mr. Lazaro for days. Days turned to weeks, weeks to a month and soon dead leaves covered his beautiful peonías. I quickly walked up to his lawn, got on my knees and patted them off. He’d hate to see brown, dead leaves on his beautiful peonías.
“Honey I bought a card earlier today, can you look at it and tell me if it’s alright. I grabbed it without even looking at the message inside.” my mom sighed.
I stopped scrolling through useless videos and peered up from my phone to see a purple card with some dainty flowers on it. I quickly lost interest and looked back down.
“A card for what mom?”
She took a minute to respond, she was busy scrolling too.
“The neighbor down the street died a few weeks ago. He had a brain tumor I think, at least that’s what the text says.”
“He what?” I asked springing up from my chair. “Which neighbor?”
“I don’t know,” she said without a care in the world.
“Which house,” I asked, suddenly pacing back and forth.
“I don’t know sweetie. The address is on my phone,” she responded.
She seemed annoyed, clearly oblivious to the reason I was so concerned. Could he have been the one who passed away, no it couldn’t possibly be. Mr. Lazaro seemed so healthy and happy and his garden was so perfect, but it was. I checked and it was Mr. Lazaro. I suddenly looked out of our big front window, a window that I hadn’t touched in years and hadn’t looked out of for even longer. Dust flew off the curtains, I couldn't help but cough a bit. Down the street dead leaves were all over his garden. There was no purple Mercedes in his driveway. His sweet looking home suddenly looked somewhat bitter. I finally understood when I saw a different neighbor, one that lived a few houses away from him, watering his grass. Mr. Lazaro was gone. Despite the neighbor’s efforts the grass was still brown.
I wrote the card to his wife, the wife who I never knew, had never met and had never seen. A dinky card it was. I checked the back for the price, it was expensive but worth nothing in my mind. “You are in our thoughts,” it said. I wished I could erase that ugly and convenient line. After staring at it for a while, wondering how bad the card would look with that line crossed out, I began. “Mrs. Lazaro, I’m sorry for your loss.” No, no.
“I’m so, so sorry for your loss.” You know what? Scrap that, they were too common, those words had become virtually meaningless. I tried “Your husband will never be forgotten by the neighborhood,” except I had never even met half of the neighborhood myself and I’m sure he hadn’t either. “Dear Mrs. Lazaro,” I started, “You don’t know me, unfortunately we have never met. But I did know your husband, I’d see him everyday as
I walked home from school. Our conversations were simple but meaningful, every word he spoke has had a lasting impact on me. We’d talk about his garden and school, our conversations never failed to make me smile and brighten my day. The care he showed me, his never ending kindness, the shining light he was in our community, everything he was, will forever be in my heart as something I remember and something I’ll always cherish. Please know your husband will not be forgotten for as long as I live.” That was all I could do. I reread it, closed it and sent it but never got a response back.
Weeks after his passing I couldn’t help it, I started to tear up. I cried because I wouldn’t be at his funeral, because I would never see his face again, because I didn’t get to say goodbye but most of all I cried because his peonías were dead. His beautiful peonías were wilted. They were browned by the scorching California sun, the California sun that never left and continued to shine so brightly even in one's darkest hours. Looking around almost everything was now dead in what used to be his garden. The pinks, reds and oranges were suddenly surrounded by a black aura of sorts. The once enviable grass, so green you’d think he had painted it, was now so dead that patches of it were gone. The once full fruit trees which held so much fruit that some of the poor things would woefully rot, barren because they no longer had any reason to produce. The once never ending bamboo so high and thick you couldn’t see past it from a mile away, cut down and weakly blowing in the wind. It looked almost like a graveyard. In it I thought I could see his regret and sadness, or was I seeing my regret in not telling him how important he was to me and my sadness in never seeing him again? Nevertheless everything he had worked for, everything he loved, it was all gone. All that was left was a young willow tree that I had somehow never even noticed. It sat in a corner, somber and quiet. I closed my red eyes and fell asleep.
It was a chilly day, winter had finally arrived.
“Sweetie, are you sure you’re alright? You’ve been staring out that window for four hours n-,” my mom began.
I interrupted her.
“Look mom, it’s weeping,” I said.
“What’s weeping?” she asked, coming over to look out of the window.
“His willow tree, it’s weeping,” I said quietly.
“What are you talking about?” she asked as she turned back around.
“The branches, they are sobbing in the breeze. The leaves, they are falling like tears,” I said.
“It’s just the wind child. Stop it with that crazy talk, you’re scaring me,” she said back.
Then she left and I was alone with the willow tree, the grieving willow tree that was swaying back and forth. It looked so lonely sobbing by itself, being ignored by the passing cars and the wilted grass. So I sobbed with it, I sobbed with it like a comforting friend and it sobbed with me like a final goodbye.
Five months soon came and went and then five more passed. Before I knew it it had been almost a year of being stared at and asked questions, a year without Mr. Lazaro. I walked past Mr. Lazaro’s house as I always did but this time, young children were giggling. The house had been repainted white by it’s new owners, it looked clean and boring. The driveway now had a bright white Tesla. I’d blink and the Tesla would suddenly become purple. The car emblem would morph from a T into an altered version of the three pointed star that was on the car that used to be there, but then a child's shriek would cause me to lose focus and the purple would be gone. The once beautiful garden was now replaced with turf, the willow tree had been cut down. Dead leaves covered the driveway and were all over the lawn. This time I didn’t step over to clear them, I had heard the kids say they were planning to build a pile with them. There were no fruit trees, no reds, pinks or oranges. There was no longer anyone to greet me on my way back home, no one to look forward to seeing and no one to talk to peonías about. A woman suddenly popped her head out from the door of the newly white house.
She smiled, “Hi, can I help you wi-,”
“No, no. I live down the street, sorry I was just distracted,” I said back.
There was a sharp silence. I wanted to look up but I didn’t want to risk longing to see
Mr. Lazaro’s caring eyes and sweet smile instead of her own.
“If you need proof, these are my keys. My parents are doct-,” I abruptly said.
“I don’t need proof,” she said as she interrupted me. “It’s nice to meet you, if you need anything you know my address” she smiled.
I looked up. Her eyes, although not as old as Mr. Lazaro's were almost as kind and her smile was sweet.
As I got home I sat down and closed my eyes remembering the times in which Mr. Lazaro smiled and laughed with me. He quietly appeared, standing right in front of me as my eyes became teary. He reached out to me, smiling as his fingers wiped away my tears and then suddenly, he bent down. He picked a peonía from his lawn and handed it to me but, I couldn’t lift my arm to take it. He grabbed my hand, stuck the flower in it and wrapped my fingers around the peonía with his own. He hugged me, shook his head and spoke.
“I’m okay, no need cry.”
His words made me flinch and the tears welling in my eyes fell like streams down my face. It would be the last time I saw the white Tesla turn purple and the last time I cried about Mr. Lazaro.
While I no longer think about Mr. Lazaro every passing moment anymore, I have not and never will forget him. I no longer stare out of the window for hours and I no longer resent the new owners of the now white house. Instead I play with their children every now and then and try to teach them all the wonderful lessons about joy and kindness Mr. Lazaro taught me. I also have peonías drawn in my notebook, embroidered on my backpack, hung in my room and planted in my own garden in the hopes that Mr. Lazaro knows he is missed and that his love and his pride still lives on. It was spring again when one of the children living in what used to be his house asked me about the peonías on display in my lawn. As I picked one and handed it to her, I began to tell her a story.
"There was a wonderful man that used to live in your house, he grew fruit trees and grass and best of all, he grew peonies. They weren't peonies to him though, he called them peonías," I said.
"Peonías," she said under her breath with the worst pronunciation I had heard in a while.
"Yes peonías," I whispered back, unable to control my smile.
She held the peonía close to her heart and shared with me a toothless grin. I shook my head as I watched Mr. Lazaro bring joy to yet another child and relief washed over me. I finally realized that everything would be alright. No matter what the sun would keep shining, the trees would keep growing, children would keep laughing, the world would keep turning and most importantly of all, Mr. Lazaro would live on in the hearts and smiles of more than just mine. That final realization brought a tear to my eye, just a single tear. It was a tear of joy, warm and ticklish. It swam down my cheek and fell into the peonías. I watched it as it rolled down the outside of one of the delicate petals, dropped onto a dark green leaf and finally slid down a skinny stem into the rich soil where it belonged.
SECOND RUNNER UP
Class of 2020
Notes from Allegra:
I wrote this essay from a third-person perspective because it is more difficult to write a truthful self-reflection than it is to write a truthful narrative. All of the events in the essay are indeed true, but it made it much easier for me to write it like it's a short story because I'm a little self-conscious. I also enjoyed adding a layer of irony and self-awareness to the essay; the essay talks about how fiction is often more truthful than nonfiction, so treating a piece of nonfiction like a work of fiction is a way to reflect on that theme. I chose a high-fantasy-esque style of writing, mainly inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula LeGuin. I sincerely hope you enjoy it! :)
Notes from LearnCurious:
If you're mindful of magic, happiness will never be too far away.
In the strange land of New Hampshire, where all things are close yet far, there once was a young maiden. They called her Allegra, though she was known by many names, including “Leggy,” “Pegra,” and “Rica.”
Now this maiden was candid, perhaps too candid for her own good. Some called her “blunt.” Others said that she had “no filter.”
But in this society, ‘tis hard to speak the truth. In a world full of deception and “fake news,” falsehoods are often more readily accepted than truths. And, of course, sometimes it is wisest for men and women to hide their true intentions, lest they put themselves in peril.
The maiden enjoyed truth and transparency as a young child. But when she reached the perilous age of ten, she found that her closest comrades had been possessed by the peer pressure and dishonesty of adolescence. Instead of staying true to themselves, they donned masks to shield themselves from judgment and rejection. Allegra realized that she could no longer live an honest existence; her peers, in their desperate struggle to fit in, no longer listened when she voiced her true thoughts.
In times of great frustration, stories made her feel better. Even the most violent or disturbing of stories were an escape from the trials of life. Therefore she entranced by the mystical lands of The Lord of the Rings, the shadowy crypts of Dracula, and the ancient spirits of The Dark is Rising, among many other books. She came to love the characters of these books as much she could love any living, breathing person.
But eventually she realized that she would need an even greater escape. Thus, she began to write her own stories. Her creative impulse was so strong that she taught herself to type in order to begin. She was but ten years old when she finished her first novel, an epic of trials and tribulations inspired by games she had played with her friends. This tale is now buried deep in Allegra’s Dropbox, for it makes her cringe.
She wrote a second novel and then a third. But Allegra had been trained by her favorite books to have high standards for her own writing, and she found that her work was unsatisfactory. It was painful for her to read it.
She decided to look away from the stories that she had already written and look forward to the ones that she still had yet to write. And so she was able to find the strength to keep writing. At a critical moment, she decided to post a new project online. She was surprised to find that there were readers who enjoyed her work. Over the next few years, she posted several new writings online.
The Internet, for a time, was a safe space. But this, too, was a lie. Her online anonymity did not change the fact that her work was on the web for all the world to see, and all of the praise that she received from readers did not change the fact that her work had yet to live up to her high standards. The Internet was not real. She wanted her writing to become a real part of her life.
And so Allegra returned to her past. She rewrote her third novel from beginning to end. This book, which she will self-publish within the next few months, will be her first published work, visible to all.
Throughout the years of Allegra’s writing adventure, there were many weeks or months when she did not write a single sentence of fiction. But she always returned to writing; writing was the only way for her to express her inner truth, the feelings that she wished she could show in her daily life.
It may seem paradoxical to say that pure fiction shows the truth about real life. But even if nonfiction is a more realistic form, that does not mean it is more truthful. Nonfiction involves the warping and manipulation of real-life facts to show a narrative, while, according to Picasso, “art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” Through its crafty, deceptive structures, fiction allows people to be their most authentic selves in a way that they could not otherwise. Allegra discovered this truth early on, but only after years of struggle could she make it a reality in her own life. And thus Allegra embarked on her journey of truth armed with her strongest weapon: writing.
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Jessica Robinson is a scholarship coordinator & test prep tutor in New York. She has spent over a decade coaching students in standardized test-prep and anxiety-management. She’s a lifelong student, paraglider pilot, and usually thinks it ought to be warmer out than it is.