Tuesday 16 August 2022

Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition 2022: The Results

The School of Arts at the University of Leicester runs an annual Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition that invites A-Level students to write an Edna Welthorpe letter. "Edna Welthorpe" was the persona that Orton invented to embody the values he abjured - middle-class, middlebrow, conservative. Through Edna's letters of complaint (or praise), Orton mocks social and sexual convention. 

The Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition is funded by a kind donation from Dame Vivienne Westwood. It runs annually. 

You can read the winning, runner-up and highly commended letters, by Alex Lee, Danny Stringer and Miriam Waters respectively, here

Below, Alex and Danny talk about their writing processes, their experiences of writing Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) letters, and their success in the Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition 2021. Congratulations to all the winners!

Winner: Alex Lee, Hill Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

I first heard about the Enda Welthorpe competition when my Sixth Form English department emailed us all about it. I looked it up and really liked the style of Joe Orton’s letters as the high-strung Mrs Welthorpe. I also write comedy sketches in my spare time, so writing my own letter sounded like a lot of fun. I started by thinking of something she could misinterpret and decided upon Halloween Trick or Treating. Being a fairly recent tradition, I thought it would be exactly the kind of thing Mrs Welthorpe would have missed and would disapprove of should she discover it. Also, people dressed as demons demanding sweets would be quite frightening if you had no idea what was going on, setting her at odds with the “youths” involved and adding a subtext of generational conflict. Having the weirdness of Trick or Treating examined from an outsider’s perspective and a general comic misunderstanding also adds a humorous tone to the letter (I hope).

Reading Joe Orton’s letters, the character of Mrs Welthorpe jumped off the page, so I found capturing her voice quite easy, and the letter almost wrote itself. I really loved coming up with phrases that hyperbolised the events as much as possible to embody Mrs Welthorpe’s formal disdain of “today’s youth.” The hardest part was condensing what I wrote into 200 words, and I really appreciated Joe Orton’s craftmanship in creating such a vivid characterisation in such brief pieces of writing.

I’m absolutely over the moon that my letter was chosen as the winner. I’m really glad the judges thought I’d captured the spirit of Joe Orton as I intended. And other people enjoying what I’ve written is just the best feeling I could ask for. I’m so grateful to the organisers at Leicester University for running such a brilliant competition. It was just so much fun to take part in, and I hope it continues Joe Orton’s legacy for years to come.

Runner-Up: Danny Stringer, Reigate College Surrey

My first experience with Joe Orton was reading his diaries, which later led me to his plays. I was immediately impressed by his eye for wittily pointing out some of the blatant hypocrisies of traditional English society. He has been compared to Oscar Wilde for that reason, who like Orton has sometimes had the greatness of his works dismissed by some ugly trivialities.

Entering the competition, I remembered the rebellious gall of the Edna Welthorpe letters and was excited to adopt her voice as my own. Edna, Orton’s mouthpiece, hilariously exposed the non-sensical element of prejudice. When I wrote my letter directed to Hellmann's mayonnaise, Edna is infuriated by a new recipe that she alleges is the product of a declining society, one straying from the traditional norms that she is accustomed to. I chose mayonnaise because it is ordinary, traditional, and inoffensive. This new recipe is unpalatably spicy to Edna, and she believes it to be an affront to her extremely British taste-buds due to her obvious xenophobia. Orton used Edna to satirize a world unwilling to change its rigid rule book. As a queer person, I have been made uncomfortable in situations with people who suppose that society is headed downhill due to people like me. But what I admire about Orton, also queer, was that he realized his status as an outsider and used it to his advantage, making himself a spectator which gave him a gift for insight. When I wrote about “our society’s repulsive dance with decadence” I was making fun of some bigots who understand that hate-speech is no longer welcomed in most mainstream circles and find other ways of indirectly expressing it. “Decadence” is a nod to queer people, though Edna wouldn’t overtly say it.

I enjoyed being able to steal Orton’s iconic character for a moment and tried hard to make her seem as insane as possible. I found more and more as I wrote it that a lot of hysteria comes from people being afraid of change. Though going back a few steps is inevitable, arguably progression is even more so.

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