As the five young writers sat with bated breath, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda told them that a life of wordsmithing would bring them pain.
One of them would soon win the nation's most lucrative literary award, the Sophie Kerr Prize, and experience a moment of greatness. Dirda spoke to those who lost.
"You will feel heartbroken for a while, but if you pursue a literary career, it's best to get used to that feeling," he said.
On Tuesday night at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Washington College bestowed its annual Sophie Kerr Prize on Tim Marcin, a 22-year-old graduating senior from Wilmington, Del., who hopes to pursue a career in sports journalism. In his collection of poems and creative nonfiction, Marcin also made note of the difficulty in putting life into words.
"Writing is wrangling an overwhelming world," Marcin wrote in the introduction to his portfolio, "condensing it into something lucid, almost inherent. Like a tiny aperture capturing a big blue sky."
The prize is named for Sophie Kerr, a fiction writer and magazine editor who grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Kerr left most of her estate — $500,000 — to Washington College upon her death in 1965, creating the prize, a line of scholarships and a fund that brings prominent writers to campus.
Kerr stipulated that the college give half the income from the bequest annually to the senior showing "the most ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor." This year, that figure is $61,192.
This is the first year the prize was awarded in Baltimore. The past two years, the Kent County college sent its prizewinner to Manhattan, with the notion that the graduate would be closer to the center of the literary world. Before that, the award was presented at graduation, with no named finalists, but the school's leaders felt that added anguish to the already emotional event of graduation for those who did not win. The check for the prize will be presented during Washington College's graduation ceremony Sunday.
Marcin said he's not yet sure what he will do with the money and plans to attend Northwestern University in Chicago in the fall to study journalism. His writings included a story about life as a camp counselor, an account of being in Boston amid the recent marathon bombings, and poetry about teen romance.
"It's extremely exciting," Marcin said after the award was announced. "It's surreal, kind of like, you think it's a dream, have to process it all. ... You kind of try to make yourself think that you're not going to win, so I have no idea what I'm going to do with the money, but I guess that's a nice problem to have."
An 11-member committee at the Chestertown college pored over two-dozen portfolios from graduating seniors before picking Marcin's 42-page portfolio. The finalists were Emily Blackner, 21, of Perry Hall; Maegan Clearwood, 21, of Middletown; Jillian Obermeier, 23, of Gaithersburg; and Bond Richards, 23, of Norfolk, Va. Contestants were allowed to submit forms of writing including fiction, poetry, critical writing and screenplays.
"Right there, that's the heart of the thing, what makes the viscous words move," Marcin penned in his musings on writing. "So I thought, Springsteen and Dylan, not necessarily that they're my favorite musicians, but when Springsteen sings, it's authentic ... and Dylan, with a harmonica, and a voice like chalk. ..."