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the trouble with contests.

November 3, 2015

i’ll start this post off by saying (a disclaimer?) that i haven’t submitted to a contest in two years. the last contest i submitted to was one of the puritan’s in october 2013, and the only contest i’ve ever done even minutely well in was a lit mag in the states – cutthroat magazine – for a poetry contest in 2012, when i was a finalist. (that was a miracle.) so i guess what i’m about to say could be construed as someone who is bitter that she has never won a contest, but it’s been so long since i’ve last submitted to a contest that i really don’t feel any emotion about them any more.

anyway, that preamble was to bracket this statement: i don’t believe in contests.

i especially don’t believe in contests that cost $30 to $40 to enter. it’s a tough situation, because i absolutely believe in lit mags, and i understand that magazines get scrilla (income) from the fees paid for contest entries. i also have friends who have won contests, and i love reading their stuff. i love when people i know get long-listed – or short-listed! – and i am always rooting for them (if their stuff is worthwhile and challenging and beautiful, which, knowing my friends and the people i went to school with and my generational cohort, it most usually is)!

the difference between contests and a normal submission (most of the time, i would hazard a guess) is that while a normal submission goes to an editorial board and is looked over by more than one person (and having been a part of the PRISM International slush-pile readers, and having been an intern for Descant magazine, I’ve been to my fair share of ed board meetings), a contest submission is usually (usually!) judged by only one person.

it’s kind of like having a doctor you’ve never met before diagnosing a mental illness of yours. or going on a blind date but only having 15 minutes with the person … and the date is by letter and not even face to face. it doesn’t mean that whoever wins the contest is not worthy – far flipping from it – but it also means that there is going to be a section of people, of writing, that won’t even stand a chance. a contest judge could open a piece, see one word they dislike, and the rest of their reading of that piece will be coloured by that one first impression. (and, having been a teaching assistant for a massive creative writing class, i can tell you that is also true.)

i also get frustrated with canadian lit mags in general, though i love them so much because so many of my writing credits have been in canadian literary magazines. (it’s a complicated relationship, i suppose.) there are just so many pieces of writing about … trees, about nature, about the canadian shield (and i write about all this stuff! that’s the bread and butter of my non-fiction writing! and some poetry, too!) and sitting on beaches and looking at waves and forests and finding oneself in the forests and walking and running and walking and thinking while walking and thinking about one’s mother while walking, and probably thinking about one’s father, too. and i’ve read poems about this stuff that i love. and i’ve written poems about some of these topics! and many of my colleagues have, too, and i love them! but these seem to be the pieces that win, or that make it into a writing workshop (when i did my writing residency out west, i got rejected from the non-fic workshop, so opted to self-direct my own tenure. later, i found out that every member of that non-fic workshop was a woman in her 40s or 50s and about half of them were writing about cancer. that’s a hell of a selection).

i don’t know, canada. let’s push at the boundaries a little. i promise i’ll stop writing so much about the canadian shield if you promise to open up your viewpoint a little. if you get some contest winners who are writing about sex in an alleyway in a big city, same-sex abusive relationships, the breakdown of a religious mind, synaesthesia, the smell of a factory after a thunderstorm, experimentations with hallucinogens and art, weird shit, aggressive shit. i can’t pay $40 to have my writing rejected over and over again. i’m not that wealthy; i don’t have time. give me your eerie, your disgusting. i want to read the oddest that canada has to offer.

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