By Storee Powell
LOGAN–What would a college student do to win $10,000? And then what would he do with that much money?
For USU English major John Gilmore, the answers are: 1) write a 30-page essay, and 2) buy a vacuum—every college student’s dream.
When Gilmore, a creative writing major, saw the announcement last year in Poets and Writers magazine for the first Norman Mailer Nonfiction Writing Contest, with a cash prize of $10,000, a trophy and a summer fellowship to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Mass., he knew he had to enter.
So did 666 other student writers from across the country. At the end, only Gilmore was left standing.
Mailer, a pugnacious journalist and author who died in 2007, is described by New York Times writer Patricia Cohen as a “wild, fierce, and contentious celebrity who probably deserved more punches to the smacker than he delivered in his lifetime.”
The annual contest was created in 2009 by Mailer colleague and friend Lawrence Schiller to honor the writer and to support new and established writers.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Mailer’s brand of nonfiction—in books like The Naked and the Dead and The Executioner’s Song—changed the face of American writing. So winning an award with Mailer’s name on it is a pretty big deal.
Gilmore’s 8,000-word entry, titled “Final Cascade,” is situated in the Uintah Mountains.
“In the artful, multiple-entwined narratives of “Final Cascade,’” observed contest judge Barbara Lounsberry, “John Gilmore brings a sharp eye to a young man’s struggle with friendship, evil, religion, geology, growing up, and death. As he searches the Utah Mountains for his lost Boy Scout camp, Gilmore finds the final cascade ‘beautiful, haunting, tragic and inevitable.’”
Gilmore started the piece in January 2009, and made nine revisions before submitting it—more than 100 hours of work. It was a process of “binge writing,” he said.
“I didn’t write every day. I would do 30 hours in a weekend and then nothing for a few weeks,” he said. “I was constantly revising though.”
The essay also required huge amounts of research, Gilmore’s favorite part of the process.
“I wish I could have done more,” he said. “Everyone thinks research is the boring part. I looked in the special collections and even went to the Uintah Mountains for a day.”
The end product was an essay in four braids, or narrative lines.
The first braid consists of experiences Gilmore had on his day trip to the Uintahs, show-shoeing up to 10,000 feet to reach Camp Steiner, a Boy Scout camp where he spent summers as a youth.
The second braid is a memoir, a collection of Gilmore’s memories about the camp and his scoutmaster, Roland, who is now suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.
“He’s dying and losing control of his muscles,” Gilmore said. “He was the cool youth leader who was fun, and even edgy. Sometimes it was almost too much for me when I was younger when I was conservative. He was very loving.”
The third braid explains the disease and the process of Roland dealing with the disease.
The fourth braid was about Gilmore and his relationship with Roland. “It was about how our relationship had eroded over the years because of my leaving the Mormon Church,” Gilmore said. “It was hard for him. Our relationship became him trying to get me to come back to church, which was a weird reversal because I was the religious one before.”
This last braid used the motif of erosion on several levels: the geology of the mountains, of Gilmore’s scout leader’s health, and their relationship.
“It was really my dealing with our relationship and him dealing with his suffering,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore’s essay rekindled the relationship with his old scoutmaster. “Writing the essay brought Roland and me back together,” he said. “It has been hard for him because, even though he’s glad the essay is doing well, he is still trying to get over the fact I left the church.”
But the process has been difficult for the young writer. “It is still hard,” he said. “It is non-fiction writing, and I expose people. I felt concerned I was doing something wrong. But I think it is OK for people to see each other as they are.”
“The essay is also very atheistic, which is even harder for him because he believes his behavior around me as a youth caused what he sees as a negative effect. But we’ve been really honest with each other and have developed an intense relationship we’ve never had before.”
The idea for the essay came from Gilmore’s research in geology, but the writing and focus evolved as part of the process. His classmates thought the first three braids were incomplete, so Gilmore looked for something to connect them, and the erosion was the unifying factor.
The title of the essay, “Final Cascade,” comes from the lexicon of neural science, Gilmore said, which he found during his research about ALS. The “final cascade” is the inevitable downward course as the disease worsens to the point of no return.
“As I read that, I knew it was the title and what the point of the essay was: the inevitable collapse of things,” he said. “My research really complemented the memoir.”
Gilmore went to New York City for the awards gala in October, rubbing elbows with luminaries and the literati in ceremonies co-chaired by former and current New Yorker editors Tina Brown and David Remnick. He was in pretty impressive company. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison won the Norman Mailer Lifetime Achievement Prize, and David Halberstam, who died in 2007, won the Normal Mailer Distinguished Journalism Prize.
Back in Logan, Gilmore says he used the cash prize to pay off his credit cards, and bought some clothes and the new vacuum cleaner, and is using some of the rest to pay the rent.
“If we didn’t win we might be out of our apartment right now,” he laughed, “because we are using some of it to get by for rent.”
He also was interviewed by The New York Times, and got a full tour of the Times and sat in on the daily news meeting, where Gilmore said “editors haggled over the front page. It was really awesome! It was the second best part of the trip besides the gala.”
“Final Cascade” will be published in the journal Creative Nonfiction later this year.
Gilmore, who graduated in December, is now in the English graduate program. He started as a journalism major, but switched to English because he “likes the creativity more.” His dream job would be writing for the likes of The New Yorker or Harper’s. He said he might also teach creative writing.
Now working on another essay for Tin House magazine, Gilmore is looking ahead at a writing career.
“I feel lucky to have my foot in the door,” he said. “Now I see possibilities like publishing books.”