Staff Essay Contest Winners Capture Life’s Joys

Written by

Adrianne Da Ponte, Advancement
Aug. 15, 2023

Four Princeton staff members have been honored for their writing in the ninth annual Princeton Writes essay contest.

The 2022-2023 contest, which invited participants to share how they cultivate joy in their lives, inspired submissions from 55 staff members representing 43 academic and administrative units. An essay by Colton Poore, a communications specialist at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, won the Princeton Writes prize. Essays by Robyn Howard, Dianne Spatafore-Muller, and Derek Ziegler received honorable mentions.

A celebratory gathering in the Chancellor Green Rotunda on June 6 marked the contest’s first in-person awards ceremony in three years. Princeton Writes Program Director John Weeren thanked all contest participants for “putting your hearts into your work, thereby touching ours” and for demonstrating “that joy abounds within us and around us, easing even the greatest sorrows.”

If one were to identify a common thread among the four honorees’ essays, it might be the idea that joy is a discovery—of beauty in a small, forgotten patch of prairie, of a lost talent, of the meaning in seemingly inconsequential moments, of a hidden passion. For each of the honorees, the act of writing was itself an expression of that discovered joy.

Colton Poore’s graduate studies in ecology brought him to Iowa and to the investigation of bumblebees. One day, while practicing bee-catching techniques, he found an endangered species on what he describes as a random patch of lawn. “We think of nature as something found only in parks or wild places,” he says, “but it’s everywhere around us.” Poore, who earned undergraduate degrees in both biology and English, has always been interested in finding value in what is small and overlooked—fungi, spiders, plant fossils, or bees and wasps darting among the “weeds” in an overgrown lot.

His prizewinning essay, “Me and the Bees,” describes joy as what we find when we truly see. Even in a “scraggly swatch of prairie” enclosed by tall buildings, the observer who takes the time to notice what’s going on encounters abundant life, “the product of a million years of artistry, alive and unfolding every moment.”

After completing a journalism fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Poore joined the Andlinger Center in 2022. He enjoys helping to publicize the work of Princeton engineers who are developing proactive solutions to climate challenges.

Robyn Howard credits fellow participants in Writing Space, a program of Princeton Writes, with helping her develop the ideas she explores in “Scenes on Wheels, Costumes in Motion.” Howard earned her undergraduate degree in visual arts and at first tried to parlay her artistic training into a career in fashion marketing. Unfortunately, she found the work surprisingly uncreative. After landing a position at Tiffany & Co. in operations, she discovered she had a knack for managing complex budgets, program logistics, and facilities—exactly the work she now does as the college program administrator at Butler College.

Still, Howard has always felt drawn to the practice of making art. Her discovery some years ago of the Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade in New York City’s East Village proved to be the path toward her own artistic renaissance and forms the subject of her essay. Accompanied by her costumed partner, an auburn Cavachon named “89,” Howard embarked on a series of creative endeavors that paid homage to great artists—Klimt, Kahlo, Kusama. Even as she and 89 endured misunderstandings, rainouts, and sheer obliviousness, Howard persisted, notching her first category win last year with “Bark Obama by Kehinde Woofy.”

Writing Space is a creative home for Dianne Spatafore-Muller as well. Now a two-time Princeton Writes honoree, Spatafore-Muller, the college program administrator at New College West, appreciates the camaraderie and encouragement she finds in this monthly writers gathering. By day, she is a busy, people-centered problem-solver, helping keep everything humming in one of the University’s newest residential colleges. Outside of work, she is the loving parent and caregiver, along with her husband, of a child with special needs.

Spatafore-Muller says that writing gives her “the opportunity to share some of the complex, nuanced aspects of life.” These aspects emerge in “Finding Magic in the Moments,” which takes readers along on a family’s journey, with stops marked by Christmas ornaments and the memories they evoke. While her family’s experiences “don’t look like the Hallmark commercials,” Spatafore-Muller and her husband stay focused on their own moments of connection with each other and with their son. “Like the ornaments,” she says, “we unwrap them slowly and take time to appreciate them. There is magic in these little moments. There is joy.” Although she has never considered herself a writer, Spatafore-Muller is beginning to wonder if a book, or a collection of essays, might yet be in her future.

Joy can also be found in the most unlikely places—even in a long commute. In “The Voice (Is Not for Sharing),” Derek Ziegler, admittedly “the worst singer in my family,” describes how he discovers his inner Bruce Springsteen on the daily drive between Philadelphia and Princeton. Ziegler is the assistant director for emergency preparedness in the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, arriving at Princeton two years ago after more than a decade working in emergency management for the City of Philadelphia.

Figuring out how to pass the time during his new three-hour round trip proved challenging for Ziegler. At first, he envisioned expanding his mind through podcasts, where “soothing voices with their fountains of wisdom would guide me on new pathways of knowledge.” When those didn’t work, he tried audiobooks; then learning French. He even sought out new music on the radio, but “the problem was that I didn’t know the choruses and forgot the melodies.” The solution, Ziegler realized, was “my audio comfort food of classic rock from the 1960s through the 1990s”—and the chance to sing along for an audience of one.

The Princeton Writes program, established in 2013, provides a welcoming space for all people to cultivate their inner writer. It offers workshops, tutorials, and other support for employees and students looking to improve or enhance their practical communication skills.

One of Princeton Writes’ most popular programs is Writing Space, a supportive and creative community of staff members—writers and would-be writers—who meet monthly between September and June in the classroom in B03 New South. Writing Space gives participants the opportunity, inspiration, and motivation they need to set aside time to write. To join the Writing Space listserv, email