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.”