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A few weeks ago, I blogged about my reading life. I left you, dear reader, when I was young and single in New York City, a halcyon period in my life. In 1998, I married and moved to London. In 2001, I had my first baby.
When it came time to deliver my first child, I packed a novel in my suitcase to take with me to the hospital. It was an Agatha Christie novel—some light reading. I’ll spare you the gory details, but after 44 hours of labor, an emergency c-section, and a baby in intensive care, I discovered I had no interest in reading.
The good news is that my son was absolutely fine and the size of a Christmas turkey. I too was eventually fine although I felt the aftershocks of the event for a long, long time. He’s 14 now and considerably bigger than a turkey. My ten-year-old daughter came into the world in a much gentler fashion than her brother, and I remember resuming reading almost from the very first days, as we shared the silence of late-night feedings on the couch.
But reading as I had known it, a solitary pleasure that I took for granted, became something else entirely with motherhood. Oh sure, I read a lot. I read a lot of baby manuals. I also read to the baby—both babies—from the start. It’s funny how vividly I recall that Goodnight Moon used to sit on the radiator next to the rocking chair in my son’s room. And some of the greatest hits, such as Pat the Bunny, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt can provoke a nostalgic sigh from me and from both kids even today.
We had baskets of books. We had cloth books, books for the bath, books that hooked on the stroller. We had compendia of Curious George, Beatrix Potter, and the blasted Reverend W. Awdry, the prolific author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, later voiced for British television by Ringo Starr. By the time he was about 18 months old, my son’s favorite game was to stand on the sofa and drop puzzle pieces down the back, solemnly declaiming, “the train plunged down the ravine.”
Of course, babies grow into bigger versions of themselves every day. Suddenly they are learning to read for themselves. That’s a different process for every child, I guess. My son seemed to spend months practicing reading single words with me in the car: “exit,” “stop,” “tiger.” My daughter, in her usual fashion, seemed to study quietly to herself until one day she could just read.
But I always read aloud to them. For a long time, I read to the little one for half an hour before her bedtime and then to the bigger one for half an hour before his bedtime, not to mention at various points throughout the day. Then there was a golden period when they could enjoy, or at least tolerate, the same books before bed. Ramona Quimby was a favorite character, as was Junie B. Jones. Sitting on the porch swing as long as the weather permitted, I read, they listened. In the car, we spent a lot of time with the Smothers Brothers, particularly Aesop’s Fables. (The Smothers Brothers have given us jokes that have stayed with us to this day. It’s not unusual for my daughter to shout in her best Tommy Smothers voice: “MOM ALWAYS LIKED YOU BEST.”)
I don’t recall exactly when each child took over his or her own reading. Probably with the Harry Potter series for my son around the age of eight, and that’s probably about right for my daughter too. And as the children grew older and more autonomous, I got to reclaim some of my own reading life. This was (and still is) usually limited to an hour or so after everyone is in bed. Sometimes I luck out and get an entire airplane trip to myself to read, or a quiet Saturday afternoon.
This summer marked a milestone. While on vacation, my son and I swapped books. I had just finished Station Eleven, which is our local library’s One Read pick, and I handed it over to him to read. He had just finished an Aleksander Hemon novel and he handed that to me. And my daughter and I listened to the audio version of To Kill a Mockingbird together. My children have always been my reading partners in one way or another, and I’ve liked each and every epoch so far. I can’t wait for the next chapter.
Christina Bramon is the Web Editor of The Missouri Review.
In less than forty-eight hours, our Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest will close to entries. Two weeks ago we extended the deadline because we know how writers are—they mean to get around to entering; they have it on their calendar, but then suddenly they have forty fiction portfolios to grade; or their freezer dies and they have to go to Big Box to buy another; or the evil naysayer on their back, enemy of all writers everywhere, gets his claws in and convinces them not to bother. We wanted to give those writers a chance to rebound—grade the papers, buy the freezer, shake off the demon and take the chance.
Already, I’ve been dipping into the entries and reading. Each year, I mostly read essays, though I will read some of the fiction as well. Every year I embark on the reading with a sense of expectation. Somewhere in that stack—which used to be a literal pile of manuscripts and is now a primarily digital “pile,”—is a winner. And there are the finalists, several of which we will almost certainly publish.
As with reading the slush pile, it’s a hunt for a mysterious quarry. Not one of us who reads for the contest has any idea what we are going to find or what will win. Every year, subjects and themes are different. One year in the ’90s, there were so many essays about kids dying that I just wanted to stop reading and go to bed. In a more recent year, a striking percentage of the essays dealt with terrible breakups and abandonments: I had to wonder how many seemingly happy adults were walking around with invisible wounds from love gone wrong.
I will never forget the year that the winning essay was first out of the gate. It was a snail-mailed piece, and I picked it off the top of the pile and was instantly charmed. Still, after I read it, knowing how good it was, I read every other essay in the queue—evaluating, reassessing. Sometimes it dropped down a few places as I read other essays that were also stylish, also fascinating. The most pleasurable thing about reading all those essays is the range of subjects: nature, technology, travel, culture, art, prisons, family, health, death, history—you get the idea. And a lot of other less promising, less expected subjects that become marvelous through the exercise of good writers’ imaginations.
A long time ago, I worked briefly as a wedding photographer. I wasn’t suited for it, but it had the great virtue of being a job where I encountered happy people. They were getting married! They were wearing beautiful clothes! They were having a big party for everyone they knew! In the daily sometimes-tedium of what we do—reading so much material and having to send so many rejections—the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest offers a bit of that wedding feel. It makes people happy. When it’s all over, I will be communicating with the winners and finalists. The finalists will be happy to be recognized for their strong work. The winners will be thrilled because they’ve won. They’ll come to Columbia to read to a lot of people in nice clothes, who will be throwing a party for them and giving them a chunk of money.
There will be entrants who are let down that this time it was not their hour. But I like to believe that if you are writing hard, and a lot, and entering your work in competition or sending it out persistently, you are not always going to be a bridesmaid (terribly anti-feminist, that metaphor, isn’t it?)
The contest has always been about writers—finding good ones, helping them with a cash prize that goes above what we can ordinarily afford to pay for deserving work. Giving them some extra recognition to boost a career or the flagging spirits that every writer has to contend with. Once again, we’re excited to see what is going to happen . . . .
Like my fellow blogger Lise Saffran, I have long been a fan of The Missouri Review. I am an ardent reader of each issue, a supporter, a board member, and for the last year or so, its Web Editor. As Web Editor, part of my job is promoting this year’s Editors’ Prize Contest. I’m happy to announce that The Editors’ Prize deadline has been extended to October 15th! The submission guidelines are here.
This is my first blog for TMR. It came about because this summer I embarked on a half-baked project to reread some of the novels of my youth that I remember adoring—the books that made me an English major 25 years ago. Throughout the summer, I would come to TMR’s offices and regale Kris Somerville every week with my reading adventures. She asked me to blog about them. That was MONTHS ago. The reason I am only starting now is that I have so much to say about the reading life—my reading life—and I’m uncertain that my personal reflections are in any way relevant to other readers out there, although I think that there must be some common ground. And I will state very clearly: I am a reader, not a writer. I do not write creatively although I occasionally make a sudden lunge at it and then sheepishly retreat again.
The act of reading is for me a form of meditation, or maybe prayer. It allows me to step outside of myself and into another world, emerging refreshed and perhaps somewhat wiser. This is what the very best books do for me. I read fiction almost exclusively and of course, not all fiction is pleasant or in some way edifying. Nor should it be. My musings here are not of a critical nature—I’m way out of shape for that kind of thing. All summer long I’ve been talking to myself about how reading changes throughout one’s life and circumstances, and how it stays the same. If you passed me on the street, you probably saw my lips moving.
I remember the exact moment in the fall of 1975 that I learned to read—the moment the words all snapped into focus and I thought, “of course.” Did it really happen that way? No, but that’s how I remember it. By the time I was seven, my mother would drop me off on my own at the public library and let me choose stacks of books to take home. I remember so well the feeling of being alone with all the books in the cool, quiet library. Choosing and sorting and taking them to the desk, where the benignly neglectful librarian would wield her date stamp at the back of each one. (Thank you, Mom. And thank you, kindly librarians everywhere.)
This pattern continued throughout my school years as I haunted the school library and a very quirky local private library which had a huge cache of Victoria Holt. Anyone remember her? Once I began receiving an allowance in about the fifth grade, my mom would drive me to the Waldenbooks in Jefferson City and I would stand in front of the section marked “Classics” and just start picking books off the shelves. I would spend until the money was gone. I still have all those volumes—Dickens, the Brontes, Jane Austen, you get the idea. The canon as it stood in the early to mid 1980s, according to a midwestern bookstore.
As a high school student, I eschewed popular literature with the exception of a purloined copy of The Valley of the Dolls and the lurid V.C. Andrews series. I recall reading Dreiser and Hardy. I got a good grounding in Shakespeare from my high school English teacher. (Thank you, Mr. Shelley.)
I entered Boston University in 1988 with a pre-med concentration. My first English literature class hooked me forever, and pre-med disappeared just as soon as I could finish my biology classes. I had no idea that contemporary literature existed, and thus began my introduction to Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez et al. (I’m picking names at random while looking at my bookshelves). And no one had ever told me about Southern writers! And hey, short stories? Somebody probably made me read “The Lottery” in high school but I don’t recall understanding that they were a real thing. I’m staring at the spine of Andre Dubus’ selected stories right now. I had the pleasure of hearing him read at the Boston Public Library in the late 80s or early 90s.
After graduation I declined several offers to go to graduate school in English and decided to try the “real world” instead. So I became a receptionist. I don’t regret it—I had so much time to read on the job that I started taking graduate classes in English at Harvard’s night school. In a “book to film” class, I discovered Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and that began a decades long romance with the crime genre. I also read George Eliot for the first time. Middlemarch is my favorite book in the whole world. I had finished my coursework and was writing a thesis on George Eliot when I got fed up and ran away to New York to pursue a more glamorous job, working for the architect I.M.Pei as the communications manager for his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. If I had a time machine, the one thing I would change in my whole life is this: I would have finished the gosh-darned thesis.
But New York! I loved it so. Everyone wanted to know everything and try everything new: restaurants, clubs, books, movies, show, and exhibits. I stepped up my game when it came to reading contemporary fiction. David Foster Wallace had recently blazed onto the scene. The hot new fiction I was reading then, in the mid to late 90s, are now being taught in college courses. (Whoa. Do I feel old.) But it was a golden age of reading for me—I was young, single, completely independent and I could do whatever I wanted, read whatever I wanted, and oh wow, it was fun. I distinctly remember walking to the Chelsea Hotel for a haircut with Pynchon’s newest in hardback under my arm. I thought I was in heaven.
It’s at this point—me in heaven and everything—when it all changes. But that’s a blog for another day.
And I won’t be doing my job properly if I don’t say it again in closing: Please, please remember to submit to the Editors’ Prize by October 15th. There’s a $5,000 prize for the winner in each genre: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. Please help keep this reader supplied with quality reading.
Christina Bramon is the Web Editor of The Missouri Review.
Couldn’t submit in time? No problem! I would like to announce that we have officially decided to extend the deadline for our Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, Essay, and Poetry until October 15th at midnight Central Time!
Submitting to the Editors’ Prize is easy: go to our Submissions page, upload your best story, essay, or group of poems, pay the entry fee, and, voila!, you’re done! All entrants receive a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review, and our winners will be published in our Spring 2016 issue. Enter today!
The complete guidelines are listed below:
Not Just Any Contest!
Select winning entries in the past have been reprinted in the Best American series.
$5,000 Fiction | $5,000 Poetry | $5,000 Essay
Extended Deadline: October 15th, 2015
▪ Page restrictions: Please include no more than 25 typed, double-spaced pages for fiction and nonfiction. Poetry entries can include any number of poems up to 10 pages in total. Each story, essay, or group of poems constitutes one entry.
▪ Entry fee: $20 for each entry (make checks payable to The Missouri Review). Each fee entitles the entrant to a one-year subscription to TMR in print or digital format (for a free sample of a digital issue, go here!), an extension of a current subscription, or a gift subscription. Please enclose a complete address for subscriptions.
▪ Entry instructions for mailed entries: Include the printable contest entry form. On the first page of each submission, include author’s name, address, e-mail and telephone number. Entries must be previously unpublished and will not be returned. We accept simultaneous submissions but ask for immediate notification if the piece is accepted for publication elsewhere. Mark the outside of the envelope “Fiction,” “Essay,” or “Poetry.” Each entry in a separate category must be mailed in a separate envelope. Enclose a #10 SASE or e-mail address for an announcement of winners. Entries will not be returned.
▪ Eligibility: Previous winners of the Editors’ Prize and previous employees of TMR are ineligible. Previous finalists, however, may enter again.
▪ Mailing address: Missouri Review Editors’ Prize /357 McReynolds Hall/ University of Missouri Columbia, MO 65211
▪ What Are You Waiting For? Enter Online Now!
Download the entry form for print submissions.
The winners will be announced in January 2016.
If you have any questions regarding the Editors’ Prize Contest, please feel free to e-mail us at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss out on this exciting opportunity! Best of luck, and I look forward to reading your work.
…and why those reasons aren’t true!
1. “I’ve never been published before.”
Neither had all three of our prize winners in 2005—Derek Mong in poetry, Joanna Luloff in fiction, and Erica Bleeg in nonfiction—as well as several other winners before and after that, such as Yuko Sakata in 2011 and Michael Byers in 1993 (both winners in fiction). A previous publication record does not necessarily have a cause-and-effect relationship to winning our Editors’ Prize.
2. “I’ve already been published by The Missouri Review.”
Well, look at you! But we truly do have winners who’ve never been published and then ones who’ve even been published by us before. All of our 2014 winners—Alexandra Teague in poetry, Rachel Swearingen in fiction, and Andrew Cohen in nonfiction—were veterans of the journal. So it can really go both ways.
3. “The $20 entry fee isn’t legitimate and isn’t worth the gamble.”
If you take a look at the contest list for literary journal and press awards over at Poets & Writers, you’ll notice that most literary journals and presses ask for fees in order to keep their non-profit afloat and to be able to afford the prize money. Furthermore, most of their prizes are around $1,000 or $2,000—still great, but much less than $5,000. Just saying!
4. “What if I get close to winning, but I still don’t win? What’s the point?”
Even if you don’t win, you could still be named a finalist. We usually choose about three finalists per genre, and we often publish our finalists in later issues and/or in our online feature of Poem of the Week. We pay our contributors, by the way.
5. “What if I don’t win, period?”
Even if nothing comes of it, submitting to our contest is still good practice. You truly can’t win if you don’t try. We take great care in reading all of our entries (twice!) and if you submit, our editors will be able to recognize your name for next year or for regular submissions. Plus, if all else fails, you still get a year subscription to the journal in either a print or digital format. It’s a win-win!
6. “What if they don’t pick a winner?
For the past twenty-five years, we have always picked a winner in every genre. There will be a winner in every genre this year, too. What if it’s you?
Submit your poetry, fiction, or nonfiction here. Deadline is October 1st. We can’t wait to read your submissions!
I am very talented at spending money, a skill my husband doesn’t appreciate unless the money in question is mine or someone else’s. For example, here at TMR or at the small private school where I teach I have very little problem blowing it out on literary events. I dislike the appearance of scrimping so my philosophy is “go big or go home.”
As the deadline of Editors’ Prize nears I’ve been thinking of ways to spend $5,000 that would bring utmost pleasure. There’s plenty of time to sock away your dollars, but when you win a major award you must celebrate, at least with part of it.
So here are my ideas for blowing $5,000.
- Champagne, Prosecco, or Cava, depending on your preferred region. A perfectly decent bottle can be bought for $15. Most stores offer a 10% six bottle discount. So that gets you more than 300 bottles of sparkling wine (please don’t check my math).
- It doesn’t have to be a Vespa to be good. Many writers teach on college or university campuses that are overrun with cars and undersupplied with parking spaces. Usually you pay a parking fee to hunt not find. A scooter three seasons out of the year is perfect for zipping around the collegiate byways. A good make and model will set you back $5,000 but the sense that you are oh-so-cosmopolitan is priceless.
- Literary New Orleans. Hang out for a week in the city Tennessee Williams called “the last frontiers of Bohemia.” Follow in the footsteps of not only Williams but also Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Kate Chopin; all of them did a stint in the Quarter. Whenever I am in town, I spend a day or two at the Historic New Orleans Collection combing through rare manuscripts that offer first-hand accounts of the city in its infancy. A really wild place.
- Gatsby anyone? An American Classic 1925 1st Edition of The Great Gatsby with dustcover in pristine condition costs around $5,500, depending on the dealer. The blue cover with a sad woman’s eyes and lush red lips floating above the skyline of a carnival was designed by the Spanish artist Francis Cugat. He was paid the princely sum of $100.
- Party time. Throw your own “I won the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize” party and invite all your friends to attend dressed as their favorite authors. Share lines from the best or worst poems, novels and short stories. Better yet, act them out. You’ll create community while also spreading the joy.
So this is not a paean to my twisted ways, I asked around the office for other ideas:
Assistant Managing Editor Dedra Earl thinks that a river cruise down the Amazon might be in order. Smithsonian Journeys has one leaving in the spring. The $4,695 price tag is just under budget. Bon Voyage.
Associate Editor Evelyn Somers is torn between either buying a tiny primitive cabin to live in with a pet rabbit while she reads philosophy or a really cool and authentic saint’s relic.
Editor Speer Morgan thinks that the Cadillac of espresso machines is the way to go.
Webmaster Chris Bramon replied to my email with the following picture. “In orange,” she wrote.
We are all so different around here. Please tell us how you would spend $5,000 in prize money; we are dying to know. And remember you can’t win if you don’t enter.