Standing in front of a high school writing class Wednesday morning, award-winning author Nickolas Butler looked at the list he wrote of strengths and areas of improvement for a high school student’s story on which he was leading a workshop.
Then he took an eraser to the left side of the board, removing all the strengths the student’s classmates had shared about her fictional short story, leaving behind only what needed to be fixed.
“I like to think of fiction as a lie,” Butler told Eau Claire Memorial High School’s Writing With Style students. “Picture the cops questioning you on your story. Every detail in your story is like a detail the cops can turn against you. And you can always make things better.”
He and the students spent the next hour and 10 minutes — many of the students stayed through their lunch to continue the conversation — breaking apart senior McKenna Scherer’s story, focusing on specifics from the title, “Loops,” to the motives behind each character.
Scherer was the winner of “The Joel Raney Prize for Fiction,” a new contest Butler worked with the class’s teacher, Brandon Gullicksrud, to create. All 18 of Gullicksrud’s Writing With Style students submitted a short story to be judged.
English department staff members helped read and rank the submitted stories, and Gulliscksrud narrowed it down to five finalists. He sent those to Butler, who ranked his top three stories.
“I was very impressed, and a little bit surprised,” Butler said of the stories he read. “For people who are 18 years old, who have probably never taken a true writing course in their life, these stories are very accomplished. They are very well plotted and the character development is impressive.”
Seniors Marilyn Ihinger and Kalli Charles took second and third place, respectively, for their pieces “Jason and the Great Sea” and “Hopeful Reminiscence.” “Evaporar” by Martha Seymour and “What Crawls in Your Head” by Kelly Carlson were also finalists.
The top prize received $50 in cash and a plaque; second place received a certificate and $20 gift card to The Local Store; and third place received a certificate and $20 gift card to Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlor. The two finalists also received certificates of recognition.
Scherer’s “Loops” is about a high school girl whose life was turned upside down when a rumor started she had slept with one of the school’s most popular boys after drinking too much at a party. It touches on themes such as bullying, gun violence and sexual assault — mature themes that Gullicksrud pointed out have been making headlines lately.
“With all the headlines it feels we are almost becoming desensitized because these issues and tragedies occur on a frequent basis,” he said. “I feel fortunate we found a way through fiction to bring a catalyst to talk about some of these topics.”
Scherer, who spent a lot of time developing the piece, was proud of her work.
Spending an hour dissecting it, however, she realized how much she hadn’t thought about.
“I had known there was space for improvements, especially because we had a deadline,” Scherer said. “But with some of the minor characters, I hadn’t even thought about (those suggestions), so I will be going back and making changes.”
Listening to his students conversing with Butler, Gullicksrud said he was grateful they were able to work with a professional author.
“Not only is it good to have an accomplished writer come here, be a Memorial alum and an Eau Claire native, but on top of that go through the writing process and how to improve is such a valuable, authentic experience we try to capture as much as possible in a class like this,” he said.
It was an experience Ihinger said she will definitely be able to use in her future writing. Even though Butler only workshopped the winning story, she said just hearing ideas was motivating.
“It’s really amazing to hear what you can do with a story, how you can piece it apart and improve it,” Ihinger said after Butler’s workshop. “Getting the perspectives of classmates, plus a published author, we can really get a chance to see how you can keep building off something.”
Butler also shared stories of his own failures — of waiting for months to hear back from an editor who loved his piece, only to find out they had decided not to publish it at all, and of feeling as though he had failed as a writer even after his best-selling first novel “Shotgun Lovesongs,” when he still had to convince publishers of his second and third books.
Ihinger has already experienced some of those failures submitting to writing contests, and said it was encouraging to hear even an accomplished writer has to learn to deal with rejection.
She thought creating a writing contest for students was also a new way to experience writing.
“It’s invigorating for kids to feel this sense of competition,” Ihinger said. “Writing is almost this alone thing, but then you’re sharing it and competing with other people with this work you have. It’s a cool way to interact with other people.”
Gullicksrud and Butler worked together to create “The Joel Raney Prize for Fiction,” which was named after a former Memorial High School English teacher, who Butler said was one of many influential teachers he had while at the school.
Raney even sat in on the workshop, having adjusted his schedule to be there. He said it was “funny” to see Butler in his old shoes.
Butler was impressed with how well the workshop went over Wednesday, and said he definitely wants to continue the contest in the future as long as the school wants.
As a writer who had many opportunities in high school, he hopes this is another outlet students can use to follow their passions.
“I had such an overwhelmingly positive experience when I was a student here that to be able to give back at all is cool,” Butler said. “These are great writers. And that’s the most important thing is to help build a writing community in Eau Claire.”
He hopes the contest continues to grow each year, perhaps with bigger prizes and hopefully more entries — he even thought incorporating a reading to draw in family and friends would be a neat idea.
“A contest can bring out the best in the writer and I do think it’s important people are rewarded for the art,” he said. “The prizes aren’t extravagant, but it’s more like the idea you did something good and you deserve something for your art.”
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