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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 20, 2011

Xena Pulliam writes “to change how people think,” wins top prize

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

KNOX — “I walk the halls alone. No one will talk to me now. I don’t blame them. Who would want to talk to a slut like me?”

So begins Xena Pulliam’s prize-winning story, “I Said Yes.” She won a national contest last month sponsored by MTV Act and Figment, a site where she has posted other stories she’s written. Pulliam wrote the prize-winning story in less than two hours — a single sure-fire draft with no revisions.

The challenge was to write a story confronting intolerance in order to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorists’ attacks. Pulliam won an iPad, which she appreciates as an Apple devotee, and an online audience whose comments she takes to heart.

A Berne-Knox-Westerlo student in her senior year at the regional Tech Valley High School, Pulliam has attributed her love of the written word to her parents. Her father is a carpenter and her mother a graphic designer. They are both book lovers and had read to her “since day one,” she said.

“I’ve read so many books,” Pulliam said this week, “I’ve found it’s hard to find a story where I can’t predict the end…I love happy endings, but I love twists more.”

To enter the MTV Act contest, writers, she explained, had to go into the site’s “character vault and setting vault” and pick one from each. She chose a character named Savannah, described as a good student who was pregnant. The setting she chose was a girls’ locker room.

As she sat down with her laptop, Pulliam had her ending twist in mind. The character she so vividly created, who tells her story in the first person, and is the same age as Pulliam, is nothing at all like her, she said.

Savannah enters her school locker room and is struck with this thought: “This is no longer my home…Sluts like me aren’t allowed to play soccer. Soccer was my dream, my passion, the one thing in my life that was always good and now it’s been taken from me. A single tear slides down my nose.”

Spurned by her one-time friend, Savannah retorts, “You know I’ve always dreamed of having a baby with Luke. I love him and he loves me and we’re starting a family together whether you and the rest of the school approve or not.”

Really, soccer had been her dream. And, although she keeps repeating, even to herself, “I said yes,” in the end she reveals she hadn’t said yes at all.

Pulliam’s handling of what amounts to unprosecuted rape is subtle, so subtle it leads the reader to quiet contemplation.

Community of writers

Pulliam entered the competition late, in August; voting by website readers ran until Sept. 7. Of the more than 300 entries, Pulliam’s story garnered the most votes from the public. The top 10 vote-getters went to the three judges — Melissa De La Cruz and Maureen Johnson, both authors of young-adult fiction, and musician Kenna Zemedkun.

Pulliam agreed with the judges’ choices on the other two winners. “Out of all the pieces I read, those were the two I would have picked,” said Pulliam. One is written as a girl’s diary in the early part of the last century, detailing events leading to her brother being lynched for pursuing a high school education. The other tells of a modern teen coming upon an unpopular boy at school being harassed, then feeling ashamed she did not speak up for him but vowing to do so next time.

Pulliam likes the interaction she gets from posting on the Figment website and reading others’ works. People she has never met have designed covers to illustrate her stories.

The site, launched last year, was created by Jacob Lewis, who had been managing editor of The New Yorker, and Dana Goodyear, who wrote for The New Yorker, so that young adult writers could share their work. The site now has over 60,000 registered users and 150,000 works published through mobile phones or computers. It hosts frequent contests.

Some of the comments posted on “I Said Yes” let Pulliam know, “It made people really think about how people are labeled and judged,” she said.

The online comment she most values is one made in response to her essay, “Never Even Knew You.”

“Sometimes it surprises you, the sorrow you may feel for someone you never even knew,” she writes. The younger brother of a Tech Valley student died in an ATV accident. “I had never met him but it was heartbreaking. I just found myself going back to it again and again,” said Pulliam.

Someone who read her essay posted a response that the piece had changed his life. “That meant everything to me,” said Pulliam.

She went on, “My goal is to change how people think. Reading Harry Potter made me want to write. J.K. Rowling created a whole new world to experience. I try to do that.”

Pulliam is currently entered in two other writing contests — she wrote a piece about a troubled girl, with weight problems, drug problems, and finally cancer, for Seventeen Magazine and she wrote a love story for Nicholas Sparks Writing Contest.

“My Dad noticed I use a teenage girl as a narrator a lot. He suggested trying something new,” said Pulliam. “Soul of a Murderer” is narrated by a boy whose parents were killed a year ago. He worries that his girlfriend was the murderer. That story, too, has a twist at the end.

In the piece for the Seventeen contest, “Every Girl Has A Story,” Pulliam said, “So many people relate to it…Everything isn’t really what it seems. The part that people know about someone, that might not be her whole story.”

Pulliam’s life story has yet to be written; her future is wide open. She said she has no idea where she’ll be in 10 years or what she’ll be doing. She likes to travel. In April, she went to China with a group from Tech Valley High, where Mandarin Chinese is a required language. She was hesitant, though, about speaking Mandarin to natives. “‘Chicken’ and ‘prostitute’ are the same word. That could really get you in trouble if you’re asking for chicken,” she said.

Pulliam described the ancient sights in China as “very cool.” “It’s amazing to see these beautiful things that are thousands of years old,” she said.

Now in the midst of applying to colleges, Pulliam said that her top choice is Hobart and William Smith in Western New York; she likes the college’s approach of interdisciplinary studies, similar to that at Tech Valley High. The college’s Service Days also appeal to her. “You drop everything and do volunteer projects,” she said.

Her long-term goal? “I hope to be an author,” said Pulliam. No twist to that ending, but it would be a happy one.

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