Writing has been in Eros-Alegra Clarke's blood from a young age. At 7 years old, she compiled a box with index cards titled "books to write," "chapters" and "stories." A year later, she made her first attempt at a novel—a horror story about a group of children who climb over a stone wall and find themselves magically transported to another realm. Many of the words were written backwards and misspelled, but the enthusiasm was there.
"Is it cliché to say I've been writing since I was in my mother's womb?" Clarke, 32, asks.
Clarke's enthusiasm for writing is alive and well—and evident in her memoir, "Salamander Prayer," which took grand prize in the 76th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. (Read the story online.) The piece, which one judge called a "lyrical remaking of the world," beat out nearly 16,000 total submissions and was a unanimous choice for top honors.
Originally from California, Clarke is now a full-time grad student at The University of Waikato in New Zealand. She's finishing her first year of post-grad studies in English literature and will be completing her Master's next year. She's also a wife and mother to two children, and works part-time as a massage therapist. In the few minutes she has left in a day, she writes.
SAVING MORE THAN SALAMANDERS
Clarke was the type of child who worried about stepping on grass—she feared she might hurt it. So when she learned that boys from a camp near her home were killing salamanders for fun, she built a pond in her backyard and smuggled the salamanders there to keep them safe. She used this as a starting point to explore the way her young mind wrapped itself around the concept of death.
"When 'Salamander Prayer' first surfaced, it was simply a memory I wanted to explore about my childhood attempts to make sense of my first awareness of murder—in this case, particularly, the murder of a young girl in my neighborhood," Clarke says. "My childhood interior life was saturated with a sense of the world's kindness and I didn't know how to resolve this beauty with the horror that exists side by side with the awe."
From an emotional level, writing the first draft of "Salamander Prayer" proved to be cathartic for Clarke. Revisiting the memory of the murdered girl was a bit like putting to rest the ghost of something she had carried around inside her heart for years. She mourned what the girl had gone through and the reality of what victims must endure.
"Some drafts of this piece were a joy to work through, while others had me chewing my tongue," she says. "But for me, this memoir is about how the essence of a person or life can remain intact despite what evil might be forced onto it—even in the darkest moment, there is the possibility for grace."
Memoir isn't the only genre that Clarke has her focus on. She's currently working on two novels as well. One is a completed rough draft that she's in the process of rewriting through a graduate class and the other has a general outline and about 50 pages. While both are moving along, there's still a lot of work to do. But now that she has a plane ticket to meet agents and editors in New York (part of her grand-prize winnings), she wants to step it up a notch.
"I plan on spending the months from now until the trip pulling together a portfolio of my writing," Clarke says. "I hope to have a series of short stories from both memoir and fiction, the novel that I'm rewriting in good form and the second novel more fleshed out."
Clarke's other love is surfing—it's part of the reason she moved to the wave-filled beaches of New Zealand. During these trips she always keeps a journal and writes in it daily. In fact, it was on a surfing trip that she pieced together the memory that eventually became "Salamander Prayer." It's a combination that, for Clarke, seems like a natural fit.
"Like surfing, writing has its days when it's nothing but hard work paddling through the impact zone and I come out of the session with nothing but a gallon of saltwater shoved up my nose," Clarke says. "Other days, the process lifts me up, a perfect wave, and I glide along its surface, my body in a state of cellular celebration."
Right now, Clarke is gliding high.
To read Eros-Alegra Clarke's grand-prize winning entry visit:
Click on the category name below to see the top 100 winners in each area:
ABOUT THE CONTEST
Eros-Alegra Clarke's "Salamander Prayer" was chosen out of 15,845 manuscripts in 10 different categories. The top 10 winners for each are listed on the following pages.
As the grand-prize winner, Clarke receives $3,000, a trip to New York City with a WD editor to meet with four editors or agents about her work, and a Diamond Publishing Package from Outskirts Press.
To receive a booklet with all 10 first-place winners' manuscripts, send a check or money order for $10 to The 2007 WD Contest Booklet, 4700 E. Galbraith Road, Cincinnati OH 45236. For more winners and information about next year's contest, visit writersdigest.com/competitions.
ON THE WRITING PROCESS
"I write, edit and then see what the material has turned into and repeat the process. I do this until I'm so sick of the material that it's like mental chewing gum that's lost its taste—then I can look at it more objectively and decide where it belongs."