In 1953, the year after Sylvia Plath won the Mademoiselle Fiction Contest, Elinor Divine Benedict heeded the advice of Duke English professor William Blackburn and submitted to the contest a short story she had written for his class. Based loosely on a case she had heard about during a summer stint as a newspaper reporter, "The Onlooker" tells the story of a child's drowning from the perspective of the victim's older brother.
"I sent it in and didn't think anything more about it," she recalls, "and then right around the end of the semester, I heard that I'd won. I remember that I was getting ready to take an exam and wondering what it meant" to win such an honor. Winners of the magazine contest, designed to identify promising young women undergraduate writers, include Joyce Carol Oates and Doris Betts.
Despite Blackburn's encouragement—he wanted her to turn the story into a novel—Benedict was hesitant to consider writing as a profession. "At the time I didn't want to do brave things like go to England on a Fulbright or start a career. I wanted to get married to my dear boyfriend. For several years afterwards, I was quite conflicted because winning had been such a big deal."
Benedict used the prize money to buy her wedding dress for her marriage to that boyfriend, Sam Benedict. She devoted her time and energy to rearing the couple's three children. By the time her children were in high school, Benedict finally had the time to consider writing again. She started out by working part time at a local newspaper near the family's Ohio home, and then went back to school to earn a master's degree in English from Wright State University and an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College in 1983. She fell deeper in love with poetry (she'd had several poems published in The Archive, the Duke literary publication) and began submitting work to anthologies and journals.
Postponing her writing career did not diminish the talent that the Mademoiselle judges recognized. Benedict has gone on to produce five chapbooks, win a number of awards for her poetry (including the National Writers Union Poetry Prize and the Sandburg-Livesay Poetry Award), and receive four nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She also launched and edited a literary magazine called Passages North, which published for more than a decade.
In 2000, Benedict won the May Swenson Poetry Award for All That Divides Us, a collection of poetry and short stories. Judge and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin noted that Benedict's voice "is clear, direct, yet artful. The sensibility that pervades these poems is that of a mature woman with an inquiring mind and a strong sense of family attachments."
Last year, Benedict published her second collection, Late News From the Wilderness, and like its predecessor, it encompasses the whole of life—the joy of young marriage and the journey it portends; the beauty and dangers of wilderness; the fervent, unspoken prayers for children and elderly parents.
As a twenty-one-year-old, Benedict may have lacked bravery. But it's clear she has since faced the unknown with a fearless embrace.