Writing an essay that wins a contest is not an easy task, but it’s not impossible either. I’ve been fortunate enough to win three essay contests, and each time I’ve learned something different about the essay-writing and contest-entry process.
Here are a few things I learned in the process of writing and submitting, “I Am Coming for You,” which ended up winning CutBank’s Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
Be willing to be haunted.
A lot of times something will begin to trouble me. For this essay, I had a general sense this “something” was about my mother. A thought or image of her would rise up in the middle of work or while I was doing something else. Or, it’d be the middle of the night, and I’d finally sit up in bed, realizing thoughts of her were keeping me from sleep. Wasn’t she beautiful? Where’s she now? Did she ever love me?
This haunting began to give me an inkling of where the essay might head. You see, my mother abandoned me in the middle of the night when I was six, a formative incident in my childhood—one that impacted the rest of my life. So, I knew it was something I wanted to explore further on the page.
If you experience such a haunting, welcome it in its unique incantation. Let it keep you up at night; let it speak to you in its own strange language. For me, before the topic of the essay was clear, it spoke to me through my body, and I tried to serve as a tuning fork for its messages. Old wounds, they still haunt—came to me so I wrote that down. And it was true my body was filled with aches from physical injuries long past, but emotional ones as well. The pain wouldn’t let me sleep. Insomnia had always been an issue for me, since I was a child, since my mother left me, I wrote.
This time the insomnia lasted for a while, so I tried to use these waking hours to face down what was really beneath the surface ponderings about my mother, under the sleeplessness, under the pain in my body. Haven’t I already gone through therapy to deal with this? Was there something else that needed unraveling? Then a realization occurred to me. I didn’t really have a hard time falling asleep. I had a hard time staying asleep, and the hour of night when I usually rose was around the same time when I woke and found my mother gone when I was a little girl. Maybe in a sense, my unconscious was forcing me to revisit that dark hour for new information.
Write the fragments as they come.
I decided that when I couldn’t sleep. I would get up and write down whatever came to me. As a young girl, I had buried a lot of emotions, so it was hard to have them rise up and make sense of them, so I’d just write what was right in front of me, hoping understanding would follow. I wrote about the quality of the night. I wrote about going to the gym that day, about working out, about exercising out old demons. I wrote about the soreness of my muscles. I wondered why I pushed myself so hard physically—to the point of pain, to the point of fatigue. And then I wrote this: it makes me feel close to my mother.
Some fragments grew into threads, which I soon realized were related—the pain in my body, the insomnia, my mother leaving me. I added what I could remember of my life around the time she left. I added things I intuited she had done with her body, done with men with her body, and how I had repeated similar behaviors as a woman myself.
I weaved the threads together as best I could. Then one morning, after another night of not much sleep, I was headed to the gym again. I was tired. I was half listening to the radio when a phrase came to me. I said it aloud: “I am coming for you.” The phrase came to me, as if I wanted to go after someone, and then the next thought came: that’s probably what my mother said when she went after that man, the one she kidnapped and tried to kill, and by going after him, she had not come back for me. And if she had done that, could she have loved me? Right there, I had uncovered the structure for my essay, with this consistent refrain in my life. Is anyone coming? Now, I just had to put it together.
Choose a piece you believe in.
The impetus for getting to the crux of this story was strong—I lost my mother in an unusual way, what I saw as a mental health issue, which led her to commit a crime of passion—kidnapping and attempted murder—which landed her in prison. I was willing to come back to the material again and again to explore every facet of losing her, how it affected me, and why it continued to plague me.
I wrote what I remembered of her lover, the man she went after:
a man who knew how to hurt, years of experience honed behind his methods. He didn’t stop and consider; he didn’t plot and scheme. It came natural, fingers that grab and dig, fists that hold, then hit.
Although the situation with my mother was somewhat unique, I knew it would matter to readers because we’ve all experienced loved ones letting us down—sometimes in big ways—and readers would relate to the essay’s central questions: do we ever truly get over it? Do we forgive?
For me, when the haunting began, the answer was no. I had not forgiven her. I’m a Taurus and not a very forgiving person to begin with, but I was also holding onto to the hurt. I was recreating the pain of it, so I could be close to her. I wrote into the essay the various ways I was holding on and why.
And of course, as an adult, I promised my life would be nothing like my mother’s, and yet, when I considered it, in many ways I had followed in her footsteps. I hadn’t committed a crime and gone to prison, but I had been with men like she had, men who didn’t love or care about me, simply used me for my body. Perhaps these men were incapable of love, perhaps that’s why I choose them. Perhaps I had internalized my mother’s behaviors and feelings of being so desperate for love she’d do anything for it.
I had started writing fragments of the essay in August 2016, and by January 2017, I had a pretty good draft. I started to submit the piece out to essay and creative nonfiction contests. Within that first group of 10 submissions, I had received two positive responses. I was a finalist in contests sponsored by New Ohio Review and Black Warrior Review. I felt this was a good sign that the material was resonating with readers.
Get feedback along the way.
Now to discuss a bit of logistics. Every 10 or so submissions, I would bring it back to the re-visioning table. While the essay was recognized as “good,” it had not yet won, so I thought I should get some feedback.
I took the essay to a workshop where I knew I’d be able to read the piece out loud. I wanted every word, every sentence to work at its highest level. I wanted the voice of love and anguish to track. I knew by reading it aloud to a room full of skilled writers (albeit complete strangers), I’d have a good sense for how the material affected them and the places where it lulled.
At the end of my reading, people were quiet at first. Slowly, a few people raised their hands and said things like, “It was powerful…full of pain.” But I also received some feedback on how to make it stronger. And this is the tricky part. Some notes you receive may be clear, and it’ll be easy to make those changes. “You went on too long about the broken bones.” I agreed and simply cut the entire thing. Other pieces of feedback may not provide a simple path forward. One woman said, “What you think is interesting is not necessarily interesting to us.”
Now, I knew what parts she was alluding to as interesting—the parts about my mother going after that man. There’s an inherent sense of danger and impending violence. I also intuited what they felt was less interesting—the child being left. It’s sad, yes, but in comparison, not as engaging.
As the writer and the ultimate arbiter of the essay’s terrain, my goal was to convey my experience in losing my mother and how it affected my life. My goal wasn’t necessarily just to give readers what they wanted, although during the reading I saw how listeners sat at the edge of their seats during the scenes with my mother and that man.
I also knew about the concept of withholding. Theoretically, I could use what I knew the reader found interesting, eke it out slowly, withholding what they wanted to know until the end. And in the meantime, I could get across all the information I wanted to convey, which was the pain and grief of losing my mother in this way.
What I did with the feedback was put it on its head. I made the reader wait to find out what happened to my mother and her lover, while I forced them to sit through what happened to me.
Be willing to cut it up.
By the time I had read my essay out loud at the workshop, I had already been working on this piece for a little over a year, so I immediately “heard” what was wrong with it. That very night I came home and made most of the changes, staying up until 4 a.m.
In this all-night revision session, I used a technique that’s worked for me before. I printed a copy of the essay. Alongside that, I had a pair of scissors and tape. And usually in my storage cabinet—for this very purpose—I kept thick photo paper taped end-to-end in a long sheet. I used the scissors to cut sections, and according to my desired revision, I taped the pieces back together in a way that withheld and disclosed as needed. Any cut-up pieces left on the floor were collected and thrown in the trash.
If you think that’s a time-consuming process, it is. For me, it’s meant to be. My life was in pieces when my mother left me; here I was years later putting the pieces back together.
Be willing to pay for feedback.
After the late-night revision session, the essay still wasn’t quite there. How did I know? The essay was making it to the finalist stage consistently with top-tier literary journals. So, I finally sent the piece to a person who I paid to read it. I knew in paying someone I would receive a fair response to what was on the page—and not necessarily what that reader wanted the story to be (which is what I get a lot of times). The reader said she could see why the essay was making it to the finalist rounds, but she thought the ending fell flat.
Ugh. That was hard feedback to receive. By then, I had been working on the essay for a year and seven months. How could I find a different ending? Hadn’t I explored every possible angle? Hadn’t I added and subtracted to the point that I had nothing left to try?
But then, I remembered something: a dream I had about my mother. It was a dream filled with emotional pain, and I didn’t want to “go there”—which was a good sign I should. Because it came from my subconscious it boiled down to the truth of how I felt. I quickly scribbled out the short scene, and in this particular instance, it was a lot easier to get down than all the energy I had wasted trying to avoid it. And I had finally found my ending because when I submitted it again, it achieved a few more finalists’ recognitions, and then it finally won at CutBank’s Montana Prize for Creative Nonfiction, a literary journal I had long admired and wanted to appear in.
Get encouragement along the way.
I submitted the essay to 36 contests, I was a finalist in seven contests, and won an honorable mention at another. When it finally won, I withdrew it from three contests. Over time, I see the entry fees as money I invest in becoming a better writer. I also learned what publications resonated with my work. The journals that ranked me as a finalist ended up on a short list of literary magazines I knew might appreciate and accept future pieces.
To be able to endure such a long creation and submission process, you need encouragement along the way, from readers whom you trust and value. By “trust,” I mean they won’t inadvertently let a hurtful comment slip, like “So, how many rejections have you received now?” (Imagine the snide tone.) Really? That’s what you want me to focus on rather than all the good feedback I’ve gotten? Those types of people are careless, and their comments will hurt you at times when you may already be feeling low. When you identify those inadvertent hurters, do your best to eliminate them from your creative circle.
By “valued,” I mean your readers should have a high degree of experience in writing, as well as providing feedback that will strengthen your work. Choose a person who feels like a natural coach, who will know what to say and how to push you to make your writing better. They’ll tell you to keep at it, to submit again, to write something different, to look at it upside down, to print it in a different font. No matter what, they’ll encourage you to keep going.
I developed more than 50 versions of this essay. Believe me, I counted. Some versions had very few edits, but still that’s a lot of drafts. I will usually send an essay out to about 3-5 venues at a time, depending on when deadlines fall. But spacing out submissions gave me time away from the piece. By the time the next set of deadlines rolled around, I conveniently had some distance to look at the piece with fresh eyes to revise and make it stronger.
I also believe that there is magic in sets of 10. If there’s good feedback in the first set of 10 submissions, then you can be assured it’s got potential to be recognized in a contest. It’s just a matter of how persistent you want to be. Along the way, some contests in which I had made it as a finalist asked to publish my piece. This can be a hard decision. For me, I always turned those opportunities down. I didn’t want an essay about my mother—whose story seemed to reside in the very fibers of my muscles—to be sent out into the world for anything less than a top honor. In a way, it was my way to pay tribute to her.
There are other bonuses you don’t want to miss out on. As the winner of a contest, you usually receive a nice prize, maybe $500 to $1000, and the finalist, nada. The winner usually receives a thoughtful quote from the contest judge; the finalist, not so much.
Here is what the essay contest judge, Sarah Gerard, had this to say about my work:
“I Am Coming for You” is a bloody, vivid, gut-wrenching account of inherited violence, abandonment, and reckoning. It’s the kind of story that demands to be told in spite of, or maybe because of, the courage it takes to write it. Rage and sadness pulse through it like a heartbeat through an umbilical cord.
By now, with three essay-contest wins under my belt, I may have developed a sixth sense about the pieces I pursue for contest submission. It takes a little trial and error, and it can be a long journey that doesn’t ensure success. With this piece, I was willing to stay the course because I got to spend time with my mother again, late nights with everything I could remember about her, every memory of her I realized I had never let go of, every scene, a loving devotion. There’s still a bit of mystery around why she did the things she did. Maybe I’ll never fully understand, but in the end, I also found a trace of forgiveness. And to top it off, I received an email from an agent interested in seeing more of my work, and that’s a nice, unexpected bonus indeed.
To read my award-winning essay, obtain a copy of CutBank Issue 89.