Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 1, 2013

Winner bios

Nicole Knauer

After Nicole Knauer's piano instructor gave her Felix Mendelssohn's "Venetian Gondola Song," she played the piece and thought up the idea for her story "Bittersweet Notes."

"It told a story," she said about her piece.

"Bittersweet Notes" tells the story of a boy whose love for playing the piano is briefly interrupted after losing his parents in a car accident, and how he regains his passion with the support of his aunt and uncle.

Knauer just sat at the computer and the story began unraveling, which she wrote over a couple of weeks, writing off and on during weekends and free time.

"I edited it and edited, and decided to enter," she said.

After winning last year's competition for the children's age group with her story "Nico," she thought of entering again this year, and said it was her family's encouragement that convinced her to try again.

Inspiration for a story about a boy who plays piano and overcomes a hardship came from a love for writing and playing piano with her own family, she said.

"I love writing," she said. "I meet with Anne Knight (a writing coach) once a week, I write stories for school, I keep a journal."

She wanted to make the characters unique and have them all come back full circle to the main character and his actions. The boy's aunt and uncle buy him a piano after he starts living with them, and he gets the opportunity to play in San Francisco, where he was meant to play during the night of the car accident.

"I wanted a message in the story," she said. "The boy pursues his passion, even through hardships. If you like something, you should pursue it."

Julie Meng

Julie Meng, who has never entered a writing contest before, wanted to include the piano and music in her story, "Music For Life," because of her love for playing.

In the story, a boy is in a car accident with his mom and cousin. He loses his left hand and his mom goes into a coma, but awakes when he plays her his recorded piano piece.

"I really love piano — I've been playing since I was 4-and-a-half," she said.

She was given the idea for the story after watching the YouTube videos "When you are hopeless, see it" and "Oscar Pistorius - 400m semifinal IAAF Daegu World Champs 2011." The first video depicts different clips of people overcoming physical disabilities and the second shows Pistorius, a double amputee competing in the world championships for track and field.

Since the first grade she has allotted time to write stories and has had a love for it.

Meng had a rough idea for the storyline and filled in the blanks once she started actually writing it.

The basic story is there for her, which she said comes easy to her because she reads a lot.

The hardest part for her was writing the beginning and ending because she wanted a beginning "that hooked the reader and an interesting ending."

She spent about four hours writing the story and three hours editing, and she kept rewording small details until she was satisfied with the beginning and ending.

"For me, books are like a portal to another world in your imagination, and once I get in that world, if I know point A and point B and one or two key points of a story, there is just a trail of thought that I just have to pour out before it goes away," she said.

Andrew Briggs

Andrew Briggs, winner of the young adult category, is passionate about communication, art and technology.

A junior at Gunn High School, he is also "deeply concerned" about social and political issues.

His story "First, Do No Harm" was inspired by the "vitriolic discussion" of Obamacare and the healthcare system in the U.S. during the 2012 elections.

Set in a dystopian, disease-ridden world, the story explores the bleak state of health care and a doctor's internal conflict between his conscience and the medical principles he has to follow. Faced with making a decision that could save a life, he justifies his actions with his mantra: "I simply do my job," while agonizing over the consequences.

"The idea behind the story was a reaction to the debate on the commercialization and 'commoditization' of healthcare," he said.

A John Steinbeck fan, Briggs has always been interested in writing, and likes to write about social issues. This is the first writing contest that he has won.

Apart from writing, he is also interested in music — he sings with the Cantabile Youth Singers of Silicon Valley.

An avid fan of computer science, he sees himself exploring a career in the field in the future, but "writing will always be a part of my life," he said.

Marc Vincenti

Growing up in a family that loved books, Marc Vincenti, winner of the adult category, became "entranced" by stories at a very young age. He has been writing fiction and short stories for the past 20 years.

"My stories come from everything I see and hear," he said.

"Encounter," his story, describes the tale of an ordinary, middle-aged man who walks into an altercation on the street one night, which makes the normally helpful person re-examine his disposition in a frightening, stressful situation.

"The story is part of a collection of 15 other stories, titled 'An Impractical Dog,' that I am hoping to publish soon," he said.

Some themes he likes to explore in his writing include endurance, courage, hope, loneliness, love and suffering.

He has previously published stories in literary journals and has also been featured on an NPR radio show, he said.

His other interests include politics, movies, classical music and art.

A former Gunn High School English teacher of 15 years, he took a break from teaching to focus on writing.

"Helping students with their stories in my class on short fiction was good practice for me," he said.

He continues to follow school-board meetings and write about issues related to students and their well-being.

He credits his success in writing to his own public school teachers and various writing instructors at different schools in the Bay Area, "who were my source of strength," he said.

— Ranjini Raghunath

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