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Ellicott City resident wins Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize

Mary Sprague, an English major from Ellicott City, is this year’s winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize, an award for promising writers graduating from Washington College in Chestertown.

Mary Sprague of Ellicott City is the 2020 winner of Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize. (Handout)
Mary Sprague of Ellicott City is the 2020 winner of Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize. (Handout)

Sprague was awarded the prize, and nearly $64,000, for her portfolio of writing. Themes focused on interpersonal relationships, sexuality, sexual assault and isolation. But they also sometimes were about “bricks and ducks,” according to a description form the college of her work.

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The honor is in its 53rd year, and Officials say the honor is the highest-paying literary prize for undergraduates in the nation. It was established with an endowment from Kerr, a novelist and Eastern Shore native, left to the college in her will.

The funds also pay for scholarships, visiting writers and scholars and library books. College officials say it enables the school to bring in many students with creative potential in writing and literature.

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The award was handed out on a Zoom call this year that was streamed to the public on YouTube. It was moderated by Sean Meehan, chair of the department of English and the Sophie Kerr Committee.

An online audience of more than 100 was able to comment and send congratulations in real time, though the presentation had some intermittent technical difficulties. Some finalists were asked to read their work more than once.

Christine Lincoln, the prize winner in 2000, gave the keynote address to the six finalists. Meehan said she rose from a difficult childhood to become a professional author. More than a dozen of her short stories written while in college were published in a book called “Sap Rising.”

Lincoln spoke of the difficult time everyone is having now, but how words can be healing for both writer and reader. She also said it was easy for writers to feel like they don’t measure up, but she said everyone’s work matters.

“Winning the Sophie Kerr Prize or not winning does not determine whether you are a writer,” she said. “It does not validate what’s done and what you can do. You get to decide that for yourself.”

She added, “The whole world is in need of your gift.”

The finalists were majors in environmental studies, English and art, art history and sociology. During their time at the college, they wrote poetry, short stories, articles and other pieces. They had different goals after graduation, including journalism and creative writing.

While in school, Sprague became editor-in-chief of the Collegian, a student literary magazine, and a copy-editor for The Elm, the student newspaper.

She cited the mystery novel “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead as having an outsized influence on her since she read it at basketball camp the summer before seventh grade. She also said the writer Jennifer Cheng shaped the way she writes, which she said was “short and boxy.”

In her own writing sample, called Best Part of Golf, Sprague wrote:

“Best part of golf is the smoking: sneak a cigar from grandaddy’s bookcase — rolled as fat as your thumbs-up knuckles — and toilet paper wrap it, zip it in your tampon bag in the valuables pouch (velvet lined and “waterproof” slippery as dew) closet to the top of the on the underside of your lime-green golf bag, hidden. Save it for the fairway — eighth hole, farthest from the starter’s — when the grass carpet flattens, thins, and pools muggy green water and grey mud for the larvae’s wriggles and fits. Light it like a sermon. Crouch prostrate between those puddles — red flag blurring in the smoke, in the heat of the afternoon — and spell your name before the exhale. This is a gentleman’s game. Take pleasure in the bug’s repulsion.”

Sprague said after she was named the winner that she was “beyond honored to accept this gift and grateful for my peers. ...Thanks for making this the most fun it could possibly be.”

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Her acceptance speech was cut by a scream from out of view, which Sprague said was a note of delight from her mother in the next room.

Sprague thanked her parents, the English department and, she said, “Thank you Sophie."

She has not yet made post-graduation plans.

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