Local writer wins prize in international essay contest

October 22, 2004|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

It isn't a lack of material that challenges Liz Orndorff to keep writing. She said she can find oodles of story ideas in the newspapers she reads.

Rather, her biggest enemy, says the Danville woman, is a lack of self discipline.

"It's getting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair," she explained with a smile. "There are so many other things that are fun."

The second hardest part, she added, is opening the rejection letters, which she says "either kills you or toughens you up." The latter likely is what happened for Orndorff, as she was apprised last month that she was awarded $25,000 from the John Templeton Foundation, which sponsored the "Power of Purpose Awards: A Worldwide Essay Competition." A total of $500,000 was awarded to 19 winners: One grand prize of $100,000, four awards of $50,000, four awards of $25,000 and 10 awards of $10,000.


"A $25,000 check helps" with the self-discipline challenge, Orndorff noted with another grin.

The title of Orndorff's essay is "The Bathroom Cleaner." It was inspired by a column by the Lexington Herald-Leader's Merlene Davis about the Colored Women's Clubs of the 1930s through the '50s in Lexington. One of the clubs maintained a bathroom in a beauty shop for use by "colored folks" who were downtown shopping and had no other place to go.

"The column was about how Kentucky is a real bastion of these Colored Women's Clubs," with older and bigger organizations than a lot of other states, Orndorff said. Most were associated with a church, usually a Baptist church, and "did benevolent projects," she added.

The main character in her essay, which can be read at by clicking on Orndorff's name, cleans the bathroom because once, her mother "lost it on the street one day" because she couldn't find a bathroom, Orndorff explained.

"She wanted to make it possible that nobody else would have to do that again," she added.

Other essays submitted to the contest also can be read at the Web site.

Orndorff enters her short stories and essay in writing contests, especially those with no entry fee, that she finds out about through the writing magazines she reads.

The "Power of Purpose" essay contest had a 3,500-word limit and wanted authors to write stories about "purpose," Orndorff noted.

"For me, 'purpose' meant servanthood," she said.

She thought of the column Davis had written and wrote a fictional story based around its theme. Orndorff sent it in around Memorial Day and "pretty much forgot about it," she said. Then, she received a call five weeks ago from the Templeton Foundation. There were over 7,000 entries from 97 countries around the world, Orndorff said - and she won a third-tier award.

Orndorff said she received the check, a couple of T-shirts and a copy of "The Purpose-Driven Life," by Rick Warren, whose foundation organized the contest.

The caller said her essay was "wonderful" and asked if it was fiction or nonfiction. Orndorff said it was fiction inspired by true events.

"I write all fiction - no poetry, no nonfiction," she noted. "I wrote nonfiction for years in PR writing - stuff like that. I got into the fiction when I was working on my dissertation at UK. I'd get to gagging on academic writing and work on my novel as a release."

The richest source

The newspaper "is absolutely the richest source of human foibles," Orndorff noted.

"Where I get most of my ideas are from the newspaper," she explained, adding she reads several newspaper. "People are so strange. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper and there are all sorts of ideas. ... My idea file is nothing but newspaper files."

She also spends a few weeks every year in Pineville with friend Cathy Bush, a New York playwright whose plays have been produced locally, doing nothing but writing. One column that is a particularly rich source of ideas is "News of the Weird," which she reads in the Herald-Leader.

"There are eight stories every week right there. You take that as a nub and let your imagination run wild."

Orndorff said she has been writing and mailing off her works for about five years. She started with a novel, and when she couldn't get an agent interested, started doing short stories.

"You don't have to have an agent to send out (your works)," she said. "You can write one in an afternoon or a week - you don't have to spend nine months working on it."

Two of her short stories have been sold to literary magazines: One that was published in September to MOTA, a new magazine from Oregon; the other, which will be published in May in The Potomac Review. She also has a publisher in New York looking at a collection of her short stories.

"The contest (win) was a big affirmation," Orndorff noted. "It helped me a lot - it spurred me on."

Currently, she just has finished writing four new stories and is doing some rewriting of other stories. They will be put together into collections and sent off to contests and publishers, the writer added.

Ultimately, Orndorff would like more of her works to be published.

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