Conroy to judge USC writing contest

When Pat Conroy confessed his desire to be a writer at the age of 15, his high school English teacher took him to meet Archibald Rutledge, then South Carolina’s poet laureate and one of the state’s most famous and often-read writers.

Rutledge spent hours with an eager Conroy, showing him around the grounds of McClellanville’s Hampton Plantation and teaching him to see the details in the natural world. On the ride home, Conroy’s teacher, Gene Norris, asked what he had learned from Rutledge. The teen recounted the lessons of observation and the importance of little details. Norris corrected him, telling Conroy the day’s most important lesson was to remember how a famous writer treated people, especially young writers.

Conroy is having a chance to make good on that day’s lesson.

The South Carolina Honors College and the University of South Carolina Press are sponsoring a writing contest for the state’s high school juniors and seniors, asking them to answer this question: How should we improve the state of South Carolina? Their work will be judged by Conroy, New York Times-bestselling author of “The Water Is Wide,” “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides.”

“There are wonderful young writers out there, with great ideas and a yearning to express themselves. We want to find them. We want to hear what they have to say. We want to encourage students to write, and to see what other people have written,” said Steve Lynn, dean of the South Carolina Honors College. “Every student who enters will get something out of the contest because writing is good for you. It’s like running: you don’t have to win the race to get some benefit. But the students who do win will get some encouragement and attention — they’ll have readers."

The students’ entries, in 750 words or less, can be essays, short stories, plays, poems or any other genre. The work will be evaluated on originality of response and quality of writing, with the contest entry due by noon Oct. 4. Up to 30 first-round winners will be invited to the USC Honors College to receive their awards and participate in the second round competition Oct. 19. The second round will be an impromptu 45-minute essay response to be written and evaluated that day. Conroy will read the essays and choose the grand prize winners.

“We can imagine high school teachers using this contest to motivate and inspire students to become better writers,” Lynn said.

Contest winners will receive cash awards up to $1,000, autographed books, workshops with professional writers and editors and a tour of USC Libraries’ special collections and other campus highlights. Up to 30 first-round winners will be published in a USC Press anthology in the Young Palmetto Books series.

“USC Press is partnering with the Honors College on this contest and the resulting anthology of winning essays because we want to encourage young writers and give them the opportunity to engage with other writers and with readers,” said Jonathan Haupt, director of the USC Press. “We started our Young Palmetto Books imprint to discover and share great stories from South Carolina for younger readers here and beyond. Publishing a book of award-winning writing by young authors as selected by Pat Conroy is a great opportunity for the Press and for Young Palmetto Books.

“I’m eager to see what the contestants have to say about improving South Carolina, an intentionally open-ended prompt which should yield a range of interesting, creative responses,” Haupt said. “The ideas of young people are too often dismissed simply on the basis that they are young people. Here’s a chance to be heard and for the winning selections to be shared with readers everywhere in a published University Press book.”

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