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A Student’s Three Loves Converge in Prize-Winning Story

Published: May 3, 2012

"The three things that I really love are Spanish, writing, and being outdoors," said Clare Boerigter, a Grinnell College sophomore who spent last summer soaking in the great outdoors on an internship at the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona.

Clare Boerigter

Clare Boerigter in the Kaibab National Forest.

Back on campus in the fall, Boerigter's three loves converged in a Craft of Fiction class when she wrote "Gusanos" – Spanish for "worms" – a story set on a mountain in South America and inspired in large part by her experiences in the southwest.

This spring, "Gusanos" was chosen by novelist Gina Frangello as the winning story in the 40th annual Nick Adams Short Story Contest, and Boerigter went to Chicago to receive the award, along with its $1,000 prize, and give a presentation about her story and the creative process that went into it.

Motivation for young writers

"I think [the contest] is such a positive motivation for young writers to keep writing," said Boerigter. "It's really a wonderful prize that they have."

Encouraging fiction writers at ACM colleges has been the mission of the Nick Adams Contest since it was established in 1973 with funds from an anonymous donor. A highlight of the contest is that a professional writer chooses the winning story from among a set of finalists selected by a small committee of faculty from ACM colleges.

Clare Boerigter

Clare Boerigter

Saul Bellow served as the final judge in the contest's inaugural year, and the impressive list of writers who have been Nick Adams Contest judges over the years includes John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Dybek, and Audrey Niffenegger.

Chicago novelist and editor Gina Frangello, who teaches writing at Northwestern University and Columbia College Chicago, was this year’s final judge. Her books include A Life in Men (forthcoming in 2013), My Sister's Continent (2006), and the short story collection Slut Lullabies (2010).

In lauding Boerigter's work, Frangello wrote that "Gusanos" is:

A story that strongly evokes both beauty and brutality in its landscape, it is at once spiritual and skeptical, sensual but pragmatic.... The (somewhat enigmatic) narrator manages to achieve an intense humanity while also remaining slightly on the periphery of her own story, a "recorder" of events like her own camera's lens. The story's ending feels harrowing and earned.

In her presentation at the ACM Student Symposium on Off-Campus Study, Boerigter read excerpts from "Gusanos," talked about her inspirations for the story – thoughts about nature, observing Hopi Native Americans and their relationship to the environment, and an account of mountain climbers who met a tragic end – and discussed some of the technical aspects she worked with in writing it.

She also gave credit to writer and Grinnell faculty member Dean Bakopoulos, who taught the Craft of Fiction class and "was very instrumental" as Boerigter worked on "Gusanos" through several revisions.

Seriously enjoying – and working at – writing

Growing up, Boerigter loved to read and write. One of her earliest memories of writing, she said, was spurred by her father's interest in "everything Lincoln" and the resulting family trips to Lincoln-related sites throughout the Midwest. "Kind of as a way to get us more involved, he would have us write little stories," she recalled. "I would make these little booklets and I’d write about Lincoln."

Clare Boerigter at the Grand Canyon

Clare Boerigter at Shoshone Point on the Grand Canyon.

Boerigter took all the writing classes her high school offered, and has plunged into writing at Grinnell. Although her major is Spanish, she's taken writing classes in poetry, fiction – including an advanced class earlier this semester with visiting writer Kevin Brockmeier – and creative non-fiction.

"I've always written," said Boerigter, "but I think college has really gotten me a lot more serious about it, and brought me to [where] this is something I really enjoy doing, but something you also work at."

"All of the writing classes I've taken here [at Grinnell] have been incredibly helpful," she continued. "I can just see how my writing has grown up through all these classes and through the help of both my peers and some profs who really care about writing and really care about improving their students."

Her writing classes have been in a workshop format, and Boerigter pointed to the value of being in a community of writers who are willing to help each other. "It's really important that your peers are there and want to be there," she said, "because in a workshop setting you depend on people to actually have read your story and analyzed your story and to have things to say."

Getting comfortable with words, no matter what you're doing

Much of the inspiration, and some key details, for "Gusanos" grew out of Boerigter's internship last summer with archaeologist and Grinnell alumnus Neil Weintraub. She chronicled the "intense, transformative, and ultimately beautiful experience" – from the daily grind of surveying for artifacts, to hiking up mountains and down the Grand Canyon, to learning about Hopi spiritual traditions – in her blog, Arizona, You're Breaking My Heart.

"For me [a blog] is fun to kind of remember everything and it's nice to be able to look back," Boerigter noted, "but it's also so useful to practice writing – writing that's very scheduled, very deadline."

Clare Boerigter, Neil Weintraub and others

Clare Boerigter (2nd from left) with Neil Weintraub (center) and other interns and staff at the Kaibab National Forest.

More adventures, and blogging, lay ahead. This summer, Boerigter will again head west, this time to northeastern Utah where she will take up the challenge of working as a wildlands firefighter in the Ashley National Forest.

In the fall, it's on to Costa Rica to live with a family near the capital city of San José, take courses at a local university, and most likely work in a language school or do volunteer work. With her interest in environmentalism, Boerigter collared one of Grinnell's James G. Randall ’94 Memorial Fellowships to support a month-long stay as a volunteer at an ecolodge in a remote area of the country. As part of the fellowship, she will write about her experience in prose and poetry pieces, as well as a blog.

In terms of her writing, Boerigter expects to continue to branch out. "There are styles that come easier to me and topics that come easier to me, but I do enjoy getting to experiment and play around with all the different kinds of writing," she said. “I like to think that anytime you're dealing with writing, you're gaining a kind of flexibility with language and an ability to play with it. You have to use it a little differently, but you're just getting more comfortable with words and how they work together no matter what you're doing, which is always helpful."

* * *

Still a Spanish major and still a writer, I may not have myself or my life figured out, but after the KNF [Kaibab National Forest], I do have some fairly good ideas about where it is I want to be going. I know that the outdoors — beautiful, harsh — is always going to be one of my first loves; I know that relationships with friends can lead to some of the most fulfilling (and fun!) experiences; I know I’ve got a lusting to wander at home, abroad, and everywhere in between; I know that writing is one of the things that makes me the happiest, the most content.

Clare Boerigter, in Arizona, You're Breaking My Heart

Note: All photos are courtesy of Clare Boerigter.


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