Annie Johnson almost didn’t enter The New York Times second annual personal narrative contest when she learned about it in October. “I knew I wouldn’t win,” she says. “But one night around three days before the deadline I was in a good mood and thought, ‘Oh, what the heck, might as well! I’ve got nothing to lose.’ ”
She crafted a story entitled “The Bottom of a Swimming Pool,” a descriptive reflection on overcoming shyness. Three months later, Annie discovered that her piece had been selected as one of the top seven winning narratives out of 9,000 entries.
She was stunned. “After hitting the submit button, I distinctly remember reading back over my story and thinking, This is never going to win. I was crazy to submit this. Better luck next year,” Annie says. “When I checked The New York Times contest results, I scrolled down the list of stories and something caught my eye - ‘The Bottom of a Swimming Pool by Annie Johnson.’ I had to reread it three or four times to make sure it wasn't just my eyes playing tricks on me!”
The Impact of Power of the Pen
According to The New York Times, the winning pieces were selected for their superb storytelling, moving messages and artistic use of language. Writers were given a 600-word limit.
Annie wrote her winning narrative in about 30 minutes, and she credits Power of the Pen with teaching her how to make the strongest emotional impact in the fewest number of words. At Power of the Pen tournaments, writers are given a prompt at the beginning of each round, and they have just 40 minutes to create a compelling original story.
“Power of the Pen showed me that sometimes the smallest moments can make the greatest impact,” Annie says. “A feeling, a moment, an object, even a pool can tell a great story, especially when you're working within a word limit or time constraints.”
Annie participated in Power of the Pen as a student at John Sells Middle School in Dublin, Ohio, under the leadership of writing coaches Rachel Polacek and Melissa Voss. As a Power of the Pen writer, she was published in the 2019 Book of Winners and received the 2020 Powerful Pen Award. Currently a sophomore at Dublin Coffman High School, she plans to continue writing even as she pursues a career in psychiatry.
The Power of Observation
Her advice to Power of the Pen participants is to never stop writing – not necessarily literally on paper, but in their minds.
“If you're sitting on a bus or standing in line with nothing to do, think to yourself, How would I describe this setting in my writing?” she says. “If you're feeling a strong emotion, focus on how it makes you feel and how you could put those feelings into words. If you go somewhere different, or even somewhere familiar, pay attention to what you're seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting.
“Keep these words in the back of your head or in the margins of your notebook, and it will help out your writing so much more in the long run.”
No matter what you are writing, if it is high quality and makes an emotional connection, the work will find an audience, author and Power of the Pen alum Justin A. Reynolds told the Solon Middle School Power of the Pen team at its December 14, 2020, meeting. He says that the most effective authors explore questions about life’s meaning: “Why are we here? What are we doing? What is the best way to live?”
Justin stopped in for a Zoom chat at the invitation of Solon coach Emilie Macek, who is also a former Power of the Pen writer. Emilie and Justin connected after the virtual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference in November 2020. In one of his panel discussions at the conference, Justin talked about the influence of Power of the Pen on his writing. Emilie reached out over Instagram, and Justin was thrilled to meet the Solon team.
Connecting With Other Writers
“Power of the Pen has a special place in my heart,” Justin said. As a member of the Elyria Westwood Middle School team, Justin loved the camaraderie, sense of fun, and serious competition in Power of the Pen. His two stints at the state tournament, which was then held at Denison University, were his first trips away from family and a chance to meet other young authors from throughout the state.
The lessons of Power of Pen have stayed with him, particularly the practice of writing a complete story in just 40 minutes. “Learning to write, problem solve, think critically – Power of the Pen exemplifies all of that,” he told the Solon team. “You have to process information quickly and dispense it on the page in a short time.” Such skills prove invaluable in any field.
Pursuing a Writing Career
Justin didn’t go straight from Power of the Pen into his writing career. He started out as an engineering undergraduate and NASA intern, but ultimately decided to follow his passion for writing. He changed majors and colleges and moved to New York City to “chase writers” that he wanted to learn from. A series of jobs from pest control operator to carpet flooring installer followed, as he continued to develop his craft.
A Twitter contest led to the publication of his first novel, Opposite of Always. He has since published a second novel, Early Departures, with new projects including a graphic novel, middle grade series, and screenplays on the way. Twelve- to thirteen-hour writing days are typical.
Trusting Your Own Voice
His best advice to young authors is to trust their own voice and not try to emulate someone else. “Your voice is unique, special, necessary, and urgent,” he said. “We will all write a different story even if we live the same circumstances at the same time. No one can tell a story like you do.”
Learn more about Justin and his writing at https://www.justinareynolds.com/.
It is with deep sadness that we announce that our founder, Lorraine B. Merrill, passed away November 22, 2020. When it came to writing, Lorraine possessed a natural talent propelled by a driving passion. It was this, coupled with her love of teaching, that led to the creation of Power of the Pen, a program that has impacted hundreds of thousands of young writers for over 30 years. We extend our condolences to the family and will miss Lorraine deeply.
An endowment fund has been established in memory of Frank and Lorraine Merrill to support young writers participating in Power of the Pen. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Power of the Pen Founders’ Award at the Springfield Foundation at 333 N Limestone Street, Suite 201, Springfield, Ohio 45503.
Support Power of the Pen’s young writers on Giving Tuesday, December 1, 2020, at powerofthepen.org/Donate or GoFundMe. Share the GoFundMe page with friends and family!
Springfield Middle School Coach Amy Merrill-Wyatt, author of Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen, describes what mentoring young writers:
Watching my students grow over the course of each tournament year is one of the biggest rewards of coaching Power of the Pen.
Students always begin each year tentatively - you can practically see the doubts hovering over their heads. "Am I a good writer?" "What if I'm not a good writer?" "What if I can't ever learn to be a good writer?" "Should I just give up now?"
They turn their notebooks in shyly, afraid to meet my eye as they hand their stories to me. As they do, I know they might as well be handing me their self-confidence because no artist can ever truly, completely untangle themselves from the art they create. And so, I take those notebooks knowing that I have a sacred responsibility to those students; to help them find what they're doing well and give them a plan for how to get even better.
Coaches Are Students’ Lights in the Darkness
As coaches, we are students' lights in the darkness. It's our duty to guide them towards the best writing they are capable of doing. Encouraging them to take that next step by helping them to see how far they've already come. We can neither be too hard on our writers nor fill them with false praise.
"You've identified a thrilling idea for a story, and I wanted to find out what happened next!" is a frequent comment of mine early on in the year, followed up by, "In your next story, I'd love to see more details and descriptive language so I can feel like I'm really in the story." Reading story after story, watching my writers do just that, I glow with pride as I see them grow, becoming stronger, more confident writers with each prompt.
Power of the Pen Nurtures Empathy
Not all Power of the Pen writers will go on to write professionally someday, but all learn how to wield the power of words. How to engage in an experience and express it to someone else. To help the reader experience what it's like to be someone else, if only for a little while. In this way, Power of the Pen helps to create more empathetic adults, people who know how to reach out to another person and say, "I can imagine what you're going through."
All of those doubts my students have early on are ultimately about wondering if they are 'good enough' in every way. Power of the Pen helps young writers understand, "Yes, I am - and you are too. And together, we will continue to grow and get stronger."
Annie Morino describes the impact of Power of the Pen on her life:
Power of the Pen is an important part of who I am as a professional today and who I was as a student from 7th grade on. I had always loved writing growing up, but I didn’t know I was talented until I was picked for the Power of the Pen team in 7th grade. Middle school is a tough place to be for any kid, but when that prompt would go up, all of my other worries would fall away. Writing a story made me feel smart and creative, and our practices just made me feel like I was where I belonged.
Not knowing how I would do in a tournament, before we started, I promised myself that I would always go to the Power of the Pen practices for as long as I could, even if I wasn’t successful in the actual competitions. I was dedicated to the writing. In my first competition, I wrote a totally fictional story to the prompt, “In the middle,” about a student whose parents were going through a divorce. I left the competition without ribbons and without particularly outstanding scores.
A Mysterious Summons From the Counselor’s Office
About a week later, I was mysteriously called to the counselor’s office, who also happened to be my Power of the Pen coach. I panicked walking down the halls thinking I had invited some kind of intervention. There was nothing wrong at home at all. My coaches were all in the room when I arrived and they laughed as I tried to explain myself. They weren’t concerned at all. It turned out I had won a Best of Round! That story went on to win a Best of Best award, giving me an opportunity to compete at States. It was an all-around incredible experience. I didn’t place at States, but I was determined to go back the next year.
After a difficult start in 8th grade, I made it onto the team for districts, but did not make it to the Regional Power of the Pen competition. It was devastating, but I remembered the promise I had made from the start. As painful as it was to know I wouldn’t be attending any more competitions, I continued to attend practices even as others dropped off. I just loved writing, and Power of the Pen gave me the confidence to keep my head held high, even as school drama raged around me.
A Communications Career
I continued to pursue writing and communication through high school and college, securing a job as a communication strategist at a political consulting firm for five years. Now I am the Business Development Manager for a construction company, and I happily write our pitches and proposals for new projects. I also lead our marketing and research efforts.
Power of the Pen was the foundation for all of it. Better grammar and communication theory, political strategy and research layered on top of the confidence I had built. I could write a complete story from scratch, out of the blue, in 40 minutes, no matter how difficult the prompt. No essay or assignment was insurmountable after that. While I always wished I could have continued to compete in the eighth grade, not making the cut and pursuing writing anyway was so important to my development. I would encourage any student today to do the same. Power of the Pen is a totally unique experience you’ll never get the chance to repeat. My advice is to soak up as much of that world as you can. You won’t regret it.
– Annie Morino, Power of the Pen Class of 2003-2005
Power of the Pen coaches and K-12 teachers from throughout Ohio gathered virtually on Saturday morning, November 7, for the third annual Kernels of Wisdom narrative writing workshop presented by the National Writing Project at Kent State University (NWP-KSU) and Power of the Pen.
A core belief of the National Writing Project is that writing teachers should be writers themselves, learning alongside their students as they hone their craft together. Keynote speaker Jean Kanzinger of Chagrin Falls High School began the morning with a prompt for workshop participants to write their own key scene. Their responses to the prompt provided a foundation for Jean’s presentation on story structure and the ways we can think through story plots to create the most compelling prose. Jean used examples from Power of the Pen’s annual Book of Winners to show how 7th and 8th grade writers’ works can be used as mentor texts to teach the writing techniques she shared.
Jeff Harr of Kent Roosevelt High School described strategies for beginnings and endings. He demonstrated the strategies by writing various hooks and conclusions for a single story, illustrating how different techniques affect the story’s emotional impact.
Katie Kerns of Norwayne Middle School discussed how to help students expand important descriptions in their writing. Three ideas include collecting impactful sentences from other writers, using a toilet paper tube to describe only what students can see through the tube, and using Bitmojis to teach character description.
Power of the Pen Executive Director Barb Tschantz wrapped up the morning with a judge training session.
Coaches who attended the workshop said they can’t wait to bring these strategies to their students. Disa Banker of Ann Simpson Davis Middle School, who tweeted these photos of herself and her notes from the workshop, said, “Start with the conflict! Duh!!! Why didn’t I think of that... great ideas about hooks and conclusions for our POP writers. I’m so excited to share this with our team on Thursday!”
Nearly a decade into guiding Power of the Pen writers, Ms. Jennifer Wolf of Dr. Henry Karrer Middle School looks forward to every new season with her writers and her co-coach, Mrs. Melissa Eddington.
The Karrer team had a fabulous 2019-2020 season, taking 3rd place in the 7th grade and 2nd place in the 8th grade at the Circleville district tournament before capturing 2nd place overall at the Otterbein regional. The season was capped off by 8th grader Anna Blasinski’s first place finish in the statewide poetry competition for her wistful reflection on how life changes as we grow up.
Ms. Wolf says that students’ favorite part of Power of the Pen meetings is when writers have the opportunity to share their work and get feedback from other writers. “We all relish the unique talents of our teammates while we get inspired to take new risks in our own writing,” Ms. Wolf says. “Students are looking forward to getting back into the routine of honing their craft while building friendships and camaraderie that bloom throughout the writing season.”
Power of the Pen participants from throughout Ohio say that being a part of a creative writing club has inspired creativity, improved their writing skills, provided a place to belong, and built their confidence! Over the summer, students submitted videos about their experiences. Mike Fejes, Power of the Pen board member and coach from Hudson Middle School, compiled their remarks into a video that can be shared at schools. Watch the video to find out why Power of the Pen means so much to these students!
Power of the Pen alum Alexis Moore develops innovative solutions for sports medicine as a biomedical engineer with Stryker, a global medical technology company that provides products and services for orthopedics, medical and surgical settings, and neurotechnology.
Biomedical engineers design equipment and devices that improve medical care and patients’ health. Much of what you see in a doctor’s office, from the examination table to the stethoscope, was designed by a biomedical engineer. And if you’ve known anyone who has had a knee replacement or an artificial heart valve, these life-changing devices began with a biomedical engineer’s research and design project.
Developing Confidence and Communication Skills
Alexis credits her writing team at Hamilton Middle School for giving her a place to belong and explore what she could accomplish. In fact, Alexis sacrificed the annual class trip in favor of the Power of the Pen state tournament, which was taking place at the same time. “There was no hesitation on which to choose,” Alexis says. “The class trip was practically a rite of passage, but that’s how important Power of the Pen was to us!”
Power of the Pen helped Alexis build the confidence and communication abilities needed for a successful engineering career. “Power of the Pen taught me how to harness my own power to write my own life story. Cheesy, but true!” she says. “I am a stronger person, engineer, and advocate because of the program. The language skills and attention to detail learned throughout the program have stuck with me.”
Thanks to the Kiwanis Club of Dayton for supporting Power of the Pen! Coach Mindy Hoffer and student writer Sage Spirk of Oakwood Junior High spoke on August 18 to the Kiwanis about the impact of Power of the Pen. Sage was invited to read one of her favorite pieces from the season.
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