Tag Archives: #creativewriting

A Teen’s Writing Contest is a Much Needed Distraction

NYC, New York – I saw how devastating COVID-19 was for so many people in NYC, particularly teenagers who had to adapt their lifestyles. From switching to remote learning to finding ways to stay active and engaged, there have been a lot of changes.  The one thing in common for many of the city’s teens was that boredom set in.  With all conversations and all the news focusing on the coronavirus, many people were also feeling depressed. Vishnu decided to take action and find a way to help other high schoolers cope – through creative writing.  

I decided to organize the Scribe Writing Contest, in the midst of COVID-19, to help provide a pleasant distraction from the current state of events and encourage teens to use their imaginations.  It did not hurt that prizes were also awarded to the winners.

Nobody could have expected or prepared for the devastating effects that the coronavirus would bring this year. Many of us have been isolated at home. Schools went remote. A lot of stores and businesses are closed. Aside from the security concerns caused by this illness, a lot of teens are just bored.  Creative writing provides an avenue for people to express their thoughts and their creativity and a space to imagine something different into being.

The Scribe Writing Contest is a free, online high school creative writing contest open to students all over the world. Students were given a 48-hour window in which to start their essay and had to submit either a poem or short story, within two hours, in response to specific prompts that were given immediately prior to beginning the contest.

For the poetry submissions, entrants were asked to: 

  1. Write a poem that evokes a sense of longing, whatever that might mean to you. 
  2. Write a poem that uses all the following words: “whisper,” “moonlight,” and “tomorrow.” 
  3. Write a poem that centers around nature and the natural world. 

For the Fiction portion of the contest, participants were given the following prompts:

  1. Write a story about two or more people whose pasts are connected. 
  2. Tell the story of a scar – physical or emotional. 
  3.  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time begins with the line: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” Write a story starting with that line. 

I personally reached out to distinguished English and creative writing professors from across the country and selected seven of them to serve as judges for the contest. In addition, six nonprofit literary publishing companies, whose titles have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, sponsored the contest with cash prizes and books for the winners.  They awarded $2,750 in cash prizes to three winners in the Poetry and Fiction Essays.

Creative writing offers many benefits that are often overlooked and undervalued.  They include confidence building, stimulating the imagination, artistic self-expression, thought clarification, empathy and communication skills, a better understanding of the mechanics of reading and writing, and improved mental, emotional, and physical health. Studies have shown that creative writing alleviates stress levels, and can ward off severe illnesses, among other things.

The contest received an overwhelming response, with almost 900 submissions from teens in 17 countries, spanning six continents.

The winners of the contest were: 

Poetry Winners:

First place: Isabelle Lu, South Side High School (Rockville Centre, NY); Second place: Janet Li, Columbus Academy (Columbus, OH); Third place: Anne Kwok, Milton Academy (Milton, MA)

Fiction Winners:

First place: Frances McKittrick, Saint Ann’s School (Brooklyn, NY); Second place: Alexis Kihm, “I AM” School (Mount Shasta, CA); Third place: Asa Khalid, Berkeley Carroll School (Brooklyn, NY)

The participants expressed their appreciation for providing a brief distraction from some of the stress they had been dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and in a changing environment, due to COVID-19.  There will be another contest next May to provide a creative outlet for more teens.

Creative writing has such an extraordinary capacity to uplift and inspire. If the Scribe Writing Contest enabled students to realize that capacity, even for a moment, then in my eyes it was all worthwhile.


Vishnu Bharathram is a passionate writer and a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.

Indian American Writer Learns From a 17th Century Dutch Woman

I recently celebrated the cover reveal for my debut novel The Company Daughters: A Heart-Wrenching Colonial Love Story. For me, it was the culmination of a long, difficult journey to publication.

I started writing this book nearly ten years ago. I was in the middle of a stressful divorce, raising three kids under the age of five, and I had returned to grad school for a career change from lawyer to English professor. By the Indian standards and expectations I’d grown up with, I felt like an utter failure. 

Every morning I forced myself out of bed before my children woke up and wrote at my kitchen table, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and the familiar scent of the temple incense my father brought back from India. I wanted to write a story that addressed colonialism and other systems of power, and when I found a footnote mentioning a 17th-century picture bride policy of the Dutch East India Company, I couldn’t resist the pull of exploration. I shelved my fear of failure and the persistent feelings of inadequacy that often plague the immigrant offspring navigating community expectations. I plowed on. 

I read hundreds of articles. Studied maps. Perused books about 17th-century Dutch furniture, glass bead factories, shipping routes, forest glass blowers, and illnesses of the time. I traveled to Amsterdam, spending hours at the Rijksmuseum examining the furniture collection and still life paintings. I took a boat trip through Amsterdam’s canals and pretended to be my main character, impoverished, hungry Jana, trudging down the city’s narrow, meandering streets hundreds of years ago. 

At times, I thought, “How can I, an Indian-American woman in the 21st century, know anything about a 17th-century Dutch woman?” 

And then I remembered the books of my childhood, written by white authors who occasionally populated their books with Indian characters, mere props for white narratives. I wanted to know about these peripheral characters, to hear about their lives, their stories.

In writing The Company Daughters, I hoped to give my main character the complexity and humanity I often saw lacking in representations of Indian characters in books and on TV during my childhood. I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of white savior narratives while providing a glimpse into the colonial world and its hierarchies—structures of power that persist today.

And in connecting with people from other time periods, other cultures, other languages, I found shared humanity uniting us across centuries. Common desires for justice, love, freedom, and understanding that persist now. In my efforts to render a 17th-century Dutch woman sent across the world to marry a stranger, I began to recognize my own desire for agency, freedom, and a new life. 

I wish I could say that from that point on all went smoothly, but that is the fantasy of every writer, and the reality is much, much messier. Many people told me to give up on this dream. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t know anything about writing a book or getting an agent. But I loved reading, an act which provided comfort whenever I felt lonely or alienated. And the characters kept “talking” to me. And I kept listening. 

Writing saved me. The steadiness of my characters’ voices in my mind alleviated the crushing loneliness of single parenthood. When I could not share my daughter’s newest milestones with anyone, I recorded them in scenes of my book (later excised). And when I was without my children, the insistence of my characters’ stories gave me purpose even as my heart ached with each separation.

Change can be incremental, and other times change comes on like a monsoon—heavy and relentless. In my author’s journey, I had a mix of both. I had the encouragement of my Creative Writing instructor at Stanford, and I had friends and family, worried by the potential for disappointment, who advised me not to get my hopes up, to consign writing to a weekend hobby. 

As an Indian-American writer, I was often conflicted with the requirements of my culture and the desires of my hidden self. Shouldn’t I use my time more productively? Shouldn’t I focus on activities with an assured financial return? Was I being a responsible mother?

But that’s not what writers do. We pursue the impractical, the impossible, the incredible, in spite of—perhaps because of—our ongoing dance with self-doubt, inadequacy, and fear. We ferret away moments for writing like squirrels stuffing acorns into knotholes. Waking before the sunrise to write, writing in our cars, committing lines to memory while waiting in checkout queues, eking out moments for creativity from the myriad of mindless routines that comprise a life. Describe the smile on that woman’s face. Observe the shape of that shadow.

In the end, the “monsoon” of my writing career was being selected as a Pitch Wars mentee. I landed my agent soon after and was offered my book deal another year after that. 

A book deal sounds so easy when the journey is reduced to a few hundred words. It was anything but. My debut novel is about a young woman hungry for life, love, justice, freedom, and reprieve, as I was. But it was a long journey, with starts and fits, highs and lows–as it should be. Writing is an act of transposition. When we are writing, we are writing our lives onto the page in some way or another. Every paragraph and chapter deleted, expanded, revised, and revised again promises a transformation in our characters. But those same moments open us up to the possibility of transformation in our own lives as well. That process is what made me a writer, and brought me to myself. 


Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney, solo mother of three, and English professor in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, The Company Daughters will be published in the US and UK this October.