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.

Childfree vs Parenting: the endless debate

What do you do when someone makes you feel vulnerable, judged, and that you have made the wrong choices in life?

If you’re like me and are prone to anxiety and depression, you take it pretty damn personally.

It’s all you can think about for days.

I am working on this, learning to stand up for myself in a more articulate way and consider other people’s comments from a logical standpoint rather than purely emotionally.

As my dear friend Tara has told me, “You made your decisions in life, and you bear the consequences, good and bad…Don’t feel bad or make apologies or even feel you have to. You have nothing to apologize for. Everyone has days the burden gets heavy, and they need to vent. That doesn’t mean they want the burden to disappear, or that they are sorry they assumed it in the first place. It just means they have stress and need to release some.”

What has brought all of this on?

I had an interesting conversation — more a friendly debate, in a way — on the merits of having children earlier in life or later. One of my colleagues is enjoying her childfree life, unattached and able to travel as she pleases. I had my children during my 20s, and I am quite glad that I did, for various reasons.

I have my moments, though, where I need to vent — when the burden gets heavy.

It was a struggle to have our children when we were broke students, instead of waiting.
It wasn’t just the lack of money; I also had terrible postpartum, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I totally understand and support women like her who are choosing to put off having children, or not have any at all. In another lifetime, maybe I would not have children either, for various reasons. But I would not choose this life without my children, not at all. They are my heart. I admire my colleague and various friends for having the guts to go against conventional expectations, to live their own lives as they wish, and sure, I’m a little jealous of the freedom to travel and go by a schedule unencumbered by the needs of small people.

But what I do not understand is how someone who is child-free looks at me and judges me because I chose a more traditional life path. Not completely conventional, mind you — I have done things in reverse order to most professional women today — but I deliberately (and with some innocence and ignorance combined) picked the harder road to travel. It has brought me both gifts and challenges.

My early marriage and decision to have babies in my twenties has made me a stronger person.

I’m not good with confrontation, preferring to avoid conflict whenever possible. When I felt like I was being told that my choices (to get married young and have babies before I became a professional) were the wrong ones, I couldn’t let it go. It bothers me too much.

My first blog on this, yesterday, showed just how vulnerable I feel about this topic. I get incredibly defensive, when I’m trying to be logical. So I’ve edited my earlier post, hoping to find my way through the murk of this debate.

The risks of waiting to have children later in adult life are equal to but different from the risks of having children early.

Having a baby in your twenties or early thirties, before you have proper job security (or what passes for job security today), means for many parents a constant concern about money. So more and more couples are choosing to put off having children until they have that security (which, in all honesty, may never happen).

Having a baby in your late thirties, forties, or even into your fifties means a greater risk to your body, higher risk of problems for the infant, and perhaps less concern about money if the family has a decent income / job security.

Attempting to conceive when you’re younger means there’s more time to get help if you have trouble with fertility. But a woman’s body tends to bounce back from the demands of pregnancy and labour much more quickly when she is younger and/or highly fit.

We all know the metaphor of the biological clock ticking for older mothers. New medical procedures added to the freezing of ovum, like uterine transplants and surrogacy, help to extend that fertile period — wonderful!

Finally, there’s that question of when to enjoy the child-free years the most: while you’re young and energetic, so you can have your own toys and enjoy them, or while you’re matured and wrinkly, after your children have grown and started their own lives.

Let’s face it: our society puts a premium on people enjoying their own lives while they are young, hot, single, independent, and able to travel. We know that the older population gets less respect because aging makes the skin sag (among other body parts), so many of the toys and experiences our consumer society wants us to enjoy are marketed to the 20- and 30-something set.

Thus, my husband and I might have chosen to put off having our kids until after we had gone on adventures, bought the material possessions we wanted, and found the perfect home. I might have been able to wear that hot Princess Leia bikini while on vacation in Vegas, or backpacked around Europe with him, with just our backpacks.

We made a trade, choosing the less popular / more traditional option of waiting until our mature years to enjoy the travel and the toys.

I probably won’t get into the bikini unless I have a tummy-tuck (which my husband reassures me is not necessary), and he has no desire to backpack around Europe anyway.

What I would like to do is take our children with us on a tour of the world. Spend a year on a working vacation, watching the expressions on our son and daughter’s faces as they view Stonehenge, the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China… We’ve been waiting until they were both school-aged, though I know of some fantastic parents who have been able to do such an awakening journey with babies in tow.

I wanted to wait so that they would be able to remember.

Whether we’ll have the money (and the passports) in the next few years is the question. It’s been a while since I picked up this particular dream and dusted it off. It requires my husband to have a secure job, like mine, to be able to save at the same time as doing all of the other things we need in life (like fix our ailing home). It would also be nice if he could qualify to do some work on an international level, like teaching or cooking. (Again, working on it.) And our specific plan probably needs to be more specific, like helping to build a school in Kenya or going on a research tour in Asia.

But whatever I do in the next few years, I could not dream of doing without my children and my husband beside me. They are my cheering squad, and I am theirs. We enjoyed five child-free years before the first came along, and occasionally we miss the easy intimacy of that time. It’s coming back, though, slowly. We look forward to our older years as being a time to return to ourselves as a couple, particularly considering my husband’s health is not going to last much longer than 10 years from now.

Also, I am happier having the baby-making stage of my life over with. I no longer have to worry from month to month about whether I’m sharing my body with another being. My body is my own, to share with my spouse as I want to. Nourishing a human both within the womb and through nursing, let alone daily mothering of an infant, is exhausting no matter what. ) Not having to worry about getting pregnant is, in itself, incredibly liberating. Even on the pill, there is always that slim chance that it won’t work, but I don’t have that stress anymore. I don’t have to dread it or look forward to it — it’s done. We have our children, and we are done.

Having our children younger has also been a blessing for my parents. My mother has been able to enjoy being a grandmother through her fifties, whereas some of her friends and in-laws have not had the pleasure until they hit their early or mid-sixties, with a corresponding shift in energy for different activities. My parents were concerned, of course, with our timing, but at the same time, we had our youth going for us. They had their children under similar circumstances. The apple probably doesn’t fall that far from the tree. And since I had my children at approximately the same ages that my mother had myself and my brother, I now understand her even more than I did before. I remember times when my mother was grumpy, or short, or not really listening, and being that age myself now, I understand the reasons behind it.

I’m not a perfect parent, and I put way too much pressure on myself to live up to an impossible vision. Maybe that’s why I take my colleague’s comments so personally, when really I don’t need to.