Even before she won an essay contest that awarded her a year of free tuition at the University of Iowa, Johnnie Each knew she wanted to pursue a lifetime of storytelling.
A junior at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, the 16-year-old submitted to the 2021 Paul Engle: Glory of the Senses High School Essay Contest through Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature last July. The annual contest prompts young writers to describe a specific “Iowa experience” using detailed, descriptive imagery. City of Literature announced Each’s win in August, for her essay titled “The First Morning.”
DI: How did you find out about the Paul Engle essay contest?
Each: My aunt’s husband teaches at the University of Iowa, and I think he saw it. She tried to get her son to do it, but he didn’t want to, so she sent it to me, and I was like, “Wow, this is absolutely perfect,” because I was a sophomore at the time.
DI: When did you submit it, and how long did the (judging) process take?
Each: I think I submitted it in July, and it came out in August, so it was really quick.
DI: Would you say you consider yourself a writer?
Each: Yeah, I would consider myself a writer. I write all the time. Right now, I’m thinking of a major in English and creative writing. I don’t know if that would be to teach or to just write, but that’s my plan right now.
DI: Have you written essays or pieces like that before, or was it a new thing for you?
Each: I have always loved writing, and I have written essays for school, not really outside of school. I mostly write poetry, you know like short stories, poetry, all that kind of stuff.
DI: Is there a particular aspect of the essay that you think contributed to it winning?
Each: I think everyone can relate to that family tradition that just feels like home and they love it, and especially with the pandemic and everything crazy that’s been going on. I just really wanted to lean into what I think makes Iowa so special, which is during hard times, you know, we just band together. That’s what I felt through my family, like no matter how crazy school got or America in general, I could always just go to my grandma’s house, or go to Backbone [State Park] with my family, and everything felt normal, so I think that is a relatable aspect.
DI: Have you gotten any other achievements or awards for writing in the past?
Each: The biggest so far that I’ve gotten is last year, I won a silver national medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing competition. It’s basically this national competition for art and writing, and I submitted a bunch of poems, and won a silver medal. If the pandemic wouldn’t have happened, I would have gotten to go to Carnegie Hall in New York, which would have been amazing. So, that was really awesome. And then I also won a few local awards for writing, so there’s like a Fair Housing poetry contest that I won for a scholarship, and then also this thing called “Letters About Literature” that I won.
DI: Do you plan on doing more contests in the future as far as writing goes?
Each: Yeah, I think as many contests as my teachers tell me, I try to apply to, because college is expensive. I really want to get as many scholarships as I can, but I also just love doing it. It gives me so many new ideas to write about. It really helps my creative juices flow.
DI: You said you like to write poetry most of all — is there a specific thing or theme you like to write about?
Each: Most of my poems are very similar to the essay about my family and Iowa. Also, I am a pastor’s daughter, so I write a lot about my faith, and my church, so that’s usually what I write about.
DI: Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever written?
Each: Yeah, the poem that won the scholastic medal is called “Where I’m From,” so it’s basically my life story. It felt really empowering that that won an award, because sometimes I feel — as a 16-year-old girl born and raised in Iowa — that I don’t have anything important to say or that would appeal to anyone outside my own little circle. So, the fact that my life story won an award nationally was just really amazing and showed me that my words and my experiences can matter, too.
DI: So you won a year of free tuition at the UI for the Paul Engle contest — do you plan on using that and pursuing writing in the future?
Each: Right now, that’s definitely the plan. Iowa has an amazing writing program — I think I saw it was like number three in the nation, so it really feels like too much of a coincidence that it’s 20 minutes away from my home. So right now, that’s definitely the plan. I can’t say for sure, but yeah.