CHESTERTOWN — With an offscreen exclamation of joy, Mary Sprague’s mom was one of the first to offer the 21-year-old congratulations on her Sophie Kerr Prize win of $63,537.
This year’s ceremony held Friday, May 15, saw Washington College’s Hotchkiss Recital Hall traded for a virtual platform given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Sprague, from Ellicott City, said in a telephone interview Monday, May 18, she got her start as a writer when she was young, but did not take it up seriously until her freshman year at Washington College.
“When I was very little, like elementary school, I wrote a whole lot. I continued with that in middle school. I wrote about everything but mostly dragons,” Sprague said. “And then I just stopped for a while and picked it back up in earnest my freshman year at WAC.”
Sprague chose to attend Washington College, she said, in part, because of her family’s connection to Chestertown. Her mom’s family is from Kent County.
“My mom grew up in Chestertown, my uncle went to (Washington College), and my grandmother worked in the library for — I don’t even know how long — a long time,” Sprague said. “So it was always kind of on my mind. Especially as a place of family history.”
Enrolling in an Intro to Creative Writing class taught by Robert Mooney helped Sprague “rediscover how fun writing could be.”
“This time there are less dragons, but it’s still fun,” Sprague said.
While studying at WAC, Sprague said her writing became more “purposeful — it’s gotten very short.”
“I started out writing a lot longer prose, fiction pieces that sometimes got a little too complicated, a little too metaphorical — too many words in them. So I started cutting them out and tried to see how short I could get things without losing their emotional punch or the beauty of the language,” Sprague said, who employed those copywriting skills at the student newspaper The Elm.
“To be read by Mary was to see how one’s grammar, use of syntax and deployment of craft helped establish the larger project. She is an integrative thinker, linking the micro to the macro, and vice versa,” James Allen Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said in a news release from the college.
Sprague submitted a collection of short prose pieces most often about interpersonal relationships, sexuality, sexual assault and isolation, the release states.
Sprague credited taking a fiction workshop that used fragmentation taught by Roy Kesey and Introduction to Poetry taught by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews for helping sharpen and shorten her writing. Hall’s Strategies of Editing and Publishing class was another important aspect of her development as a writer with Sprague saying Hall’s voice has been “very impactful” on her work.
Referencing writers she does know personally, Sprague said she is inspired by Lidia Yuknavitch, Julia Marie Wade and Lucy Corin — who was the subject of Sprague’s thesis. She also is inspired by musicians Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, saying she thinks “musicians are equally responsible for how short my work has gotten and how concise it can be.”
Because she “thought it needed one,” Sprague titled her portfolio “Diorama,” saying the definition of the word also fit her portfolio as it is a representation of different aspects of her time at the college. In addition to her studies, Sprague also served as editor-in-chief of the student literary journal The Collegian.
“When I was gathering everything together, it really felt like just pieces of my WAC experience. I mean I titled it ‘Diorama’ so it just felt like little shoeboxes of each moment of my life,” she said. “It felt like putting together a museum gallery exhibit, very curatorial. And I like titling things. It’s nice to have a name for something — it makes it feel more real.”
While Sprague said she had never attended a Sophie Kerr ceremony prior to this one, she’s live streamed the past few year’s ceremonies.
“Having nothing to really compare it to was, I think, kind of a good thing,” Sprague said.
Despite some technical difficulties, the ceremony followed the routine of a typical Sophie Kerr night with Christine Lincoln serving as the keynote speaker who introduced the six finalists: Kailani Clarke, Heber Guerra-Recinos, Gabrielle Rente, Saoirse and Abby Wargo, before announcing Sprague as the winner.
Sprague said she did miss being able to experience the ceremony in person with the other finalists. She “wanted to give all the finalists a big hug,” saying missing out on the face-to-face aspect made the ceremony more surreal.
The finalists attended the ceremony via a Zoom video conference, with Saoirse calling from as far away as New Delhi, India. The Zoom video was then livestreamed onto the college’s Youtube account for an audience, with more than 100 people watching.
From a technical aspect, Sprague said not knowing when the live stream was cutting in and out for the viewers was stressful, though she noted only needing to have a formal outfit from the waist up was “pretty cool.”
Sprague also said this was her first time reading her work online.
“But I think it turned out OK,” she said.
Now that she is finished with college, Sprague said she will “absolutely” continue to write. She’s submitted to literary journals and hopes to get a job in the field — though “maybe not right away.”
“That’s the long-term goal. In the short term, I would just love to be employed,” she said.
Sprague said she’s also applied to be a park ranger — on a whim.
“I think it would be a really cool job. I love working outside. I’ve missed working outside and that seems to be the most outside you can get,” Sprague said.
In the meantime, Sprague said her plans for the future include some traveling, some book purchases and taking her parents out to dinner — when it’s safe to do so.
“Well I think when all of this is over, when it’s safe to go to a restaurant again, I’m going to take my parents out to a really nice dinner,” Sprague said. “I’ve got a growing book list to add to my library and me and my best friend are going to go somewhere, but we haven’t decided where yet.”