A yearly highlight of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program is our James Kirkwood Literary Prize in Creative Writing, which gives intermediate and advanced level instructors the chance to nominate their very best students. First round judges David Samuel Levinson, Kate Milliken, Yelizaveta Renfro, and Matt Sumell narrowed the 27 outstanding submissions down to 6, and final round judges Cary Groner and Michelle Meyering chose the 3 very deserving finalists.

Andrew Morse, benefactor of the award, then determined the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners from the 3 nominees that made the cut: Lisa Whitmore, nominated by Colette Sartor; Ella Martinsen Gorham, nominated by Edan Lepucki; and Ron Darian, nominated by Lou Mathews.

First place went to Lisa Whitmore for her short story, “The Safety of Water,” about the challenges of social work. First round judge Yelizaveta Renfro calls it “an honest, unabashed, and unflinching look at the gritty and often tragic world of Child Protective Services where sometimes babies die horrific deaths at the hands of their parents, and the caseworkers are ultimately separated into those who can tough it out and those who cannot.”

Like many Writers’ Program students, Lisa thought about writing for years before taking a class. “If doubt is a locked door, I was standing on the cold, rainy side of it my entire life and writing was on the other side, unreachable. I just didn’t know how to start so I never did. When I walked into my first class, it felt as though someone handed me a key.”

Ella Martinsen Gorham took second place for “I Have Jonah,” told from the perspective of a mother of a developmentally disabled child. Says Ella: “I wanted to write a story about how mothers identify themselves through their children, how they depend on their children to give their own lives meaning. I was also interested in exploring how two spouses can experience parenting so differently that it distances them from one another. I strived to present their story in neutral terms, and with compassion.” Renfro describes it as “a poignant story that convincingly captures the claustrophobic existence of a parent and full-time caregiver to a special-needs child. The narrator, a former attorney turned stay-at-home mom, eloquently expresses the quiet hope and despair of her days with Jonah.”

Third place went to Ron Darian for his novel excerpt Dogwood, a madcap tale of small town radio. “Dogwood features a quirky, compelling narrator, an irresistibly desolate setting, and oddball, outcast characters suited to the extreme conditions of small town life in Alaska,” says Renfro. As Darian succinctly puts it, “I love that this whole big novel began as a three-page response to a homework assignment in a Writers Program class.”

Congratulations to this year’s winners and all of our talented nominees!

Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite). 

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