The Trouble with Writing Contests

Canada Writes — The 2015 CBC Creative Nonfiction Competition — has officially started. I entered it a few years ago and I’m thinking of doing it again. But I always end up struggling with two things: choosing a topic, and self-esteem.

Entering a writing contest isn’t like writing for yourself or answering a call for submissions. It feels much more selective, because you’re sending in your best work for consideration by knowledgable professionals. Okay, so that is a lot like submitting your work to a publisher . . . So why does a contest feel that much different?

Maybe it comes down to self-esteem. Any time you send a piece of work out to be assessed and judged, and time passes while you await the feedback, there’s a roller-coaster of emotions involved:

“I hope they like it.”

“I know they won’t like it but at least I tried.”

“I shouldn’t be so negative. It’s a good piece. So-and-so really liked it.”

“Why did I even bother? Someone else is going to be selected as the winner.”

In all the positive and negative self-talk, I think it’s easy to lose sight of one basic fact: if I enter a writing contest or submit a story to a publisher, whether it gets selected or not, I have written something. Period. And I chose to share it with others because I like it or I love it, I’m proud of it, and I want it to have some impact on someone else in the world. It would be nice to win, of course. Winning is validation. But fear of NOT winning shouldn’t hold me back. Just because it doesn’t make the final cut, or even semi-final, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth the writing. It just means that someone else’s was better or closer to what the judges were looking for. It’s not to be taken personally.

So I shall rifle through my files and notebooks and scroll through my virtual stacks, looking for something that might fit the bill for this particular challenge. I have until March 1 to generate ideas, organize notes, draft, revise, edit, and polish. And that gives me time to continue reminding myself that while getting noticed would be amazing, not trying at all for fear of failure would be ultimately worse than anything else. In the end, my only real competition is, in all things, my own self.


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