By Andrea Nealon
On Dec. 21, Lauren Orsini had a strawberry saketini to celebrate her 21st birthday. She was also celebrating the fact that Associate Professor of English Claudia Emerson had just informed her via e-mail that she was the recipient of a coveted creative writing scholarship.
“It was an amazing birthday present,” said Orsini, an English major. “I immediately called my mom. I didn’t expect to win at all, because it was one of those big opportunities open to all English majors.”
The winning story, “Six Scenes in the Life and Death of Faye Richardson,” is based on a friend who died of viral meningitis while they were students at Chantilly High School. Faye is not her real name.
“Faye”, a member of the debate team with Orsini, became ill before they were to depart for a competition at Harvard University. She died while they were competing.
Orsini’s story, which touches on their work together as co-captains of the debate team, captures a poignant glimpse of their relatively short but meaningful friendship.
Like Flannery O’Connor, one of her favorite authors, Orsini loves to explore interpersonal relationships in her writings.
“It was a fictional story, so I was liberal with some of the details,” she says. “But it was nice to be able to write about our friendship.”
The scholarship itself was an afterthought; Orsini was originally writing the story for a creative writing class and for her own peace of mind.
Despite some criticism over the story’s conclusion, she stuck to the real life events.
“The biggest criticism I heard in workshop was, ‘I don’t think she should die at the end.’ And I always thought, ‘Well, I don’t think so either.’ But, that’s what happened so I kept it.”
“Six Scenes” was originally 12 pages, but entry requirements called for only ten pages. To remedy this, Orsini reduced the size of all the commas and periods.
The scholarship is named for Barbara Thomas Phillips, a former editor for Vogue Magazine.
It is awarded annually to students who demonstrate outstanding talent and craftsmanship in creative writing.
Orsini was previously considering a career in law, but is now looking at writing jobs.
“It made me seriously think about going back to journalism. I realized I like to write, and that I must be pretty OK at it,” she said.
Since the scholarship will ease the cost of tuition, Orsini plans to study abroad this summer in Italy at Sienna International College.
The college is part of a total immersion program, where she’ll be living with a family who speaks only Italian.
“I’m very excited about it,” Orsini says. “It’s something I’ll be able to tell my kids about someday.”
Orsini traveled to Italy once before, when she was 16 to visit her family.
Her father, who immigrated to the United States from Italy, came over in a boat from Naples in 1957.
She hopes to gain a strong grasp on the Italian language while abroad to converse with her “old-fashioned” relatives.
“I always loved when my relatives visited, but they would never correct my Italian. I think they were just happy to see that I was trying to speak the native language,” she said.
With big plans for the summer, and an award-winning story under her belt, Orsini is still undecided about whether she will pursue a career in law or journalism, or both.
She is grateful for the career opportunities the scholarship has provided for her.
“I’m very grateful for the scholarship,” she says. “It’s changed the course of my life.”