From Our Authors | September 27, 2019
How does it feel to win the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize?
You know by now that winning the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize means receiving $5000, publication in the Missouri Review, and travel to a gala and reading in Columbia, Missouri. You have even heard Editor Speer Morgan talk about where your writing might go after it wins the prize. What you don’t know is how winning can make you feel and what it can do for you as a writer. But we can’t tell you about that ourselves: we haven’t won. So we called in the experts.
The 2018 Winners of the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize talk about winning the prize
Amanda Baldeneaux, 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction for “Salt Land”
What did winning the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize mean for you?
“I’d been working on my story ‘Salt Land’ for about a year when I submitted it to the Missouri Review. It started as a 300-word flash piece that was promptly rejected from a call for love-themed flash pieces, but evolved and grew as I sat back down with it and began revising and developing the story of the town and the family. Every few months, I’d send it back out, get rejected, and revise again. The last rejection came and I considered breaking the piece open (‘like a lobster,’ Adrienne Rich always finishes that line for me) and completely restructuring it. Before I could do that, I received an email about the Editors’ Prize contest and a soon-to-pass deadline. So, I gave the story one more revision without major changes, and on a whim and eternal optimism (I buy lottery tickets, for the record), sent it off. I did not expect to hear anything back except a nice note like the one I’d received for a previous piece sent to TMR.
When I received the email that my short story was on the shortlist for a prize, I was joyful. When I write, after my full-time job, I have to essentially ignore my daughter, and mom guilt is real when indulging a hobby. Though my husband is extremely supportive, I’d be lying if I said finding out I’d made the shortlist, and then winning, didn’t decrease the guilt I’d felt for dedicating so much time to a hobby that requires being locked behind the closed glass doors of our home office, with my daughter often fogging up the glass as she sits on the other side, imploring me to come out and play or color with her. (I should probably hang sheets or a shower curtain over our fancy French doors.)
Crass as it sounds, when I won, the first thing I said to myself was, ‘Awesome! I don’t totally suck at this and I’m not just wasting my time.’ We are our harshest critics, right? I hadn’t written much in between submitting and finding out the results, and winning gave me the push I needed to get back to the keyboard, door closed, and do the thing I love to do, even if no one is reading or will read what’s in progress.
Winning also taught me, or reaffirmed what I already knew, that creative writing is subjective, and there’s an alchemy of the right story landing on the desk of the right reader at the right time. I feel immense luck that my right reader and right time were the reading staff at TMR in the fall of 2018. I was grateful for every rejection I’d received prior, because while I would have been happy to place a piece (almost) anywhere, this contest is one of the most prestigious in the country; I couldn’t have shot at and landed on a higher bar. I’ve had a lot of rejections come in since winning the contest, but that’s alright; I know, now, to keep revising, keep pushing myself to do better and dig deeper, and to trust that the perfect storm of story/reader/time will happen again, if I don’t give up.
What did winning the prize enable you to do?
The main thing winning enabled me to do was trust myself more. I still have much to learn as a writer, but I’m further along in my practice than I’d given myself credit for. I could write a publishable story; I wasn’t so sure of that before submitting. Even if a better story had been submitted and chosen, my story was still publishable, and I should have trusted that and not given up on it. I know that, now, as I work on and revise new stories.
Winning gave me self-license to start work on a novel I’d been kicking around in my head. I’ve been drafting that work since publication in TMR, and I’ve had a couple of agents reach out to me and ask if I’m working on any long pieces. I’ve been able to enthusiastically reply yes, and I hope to carry on the boosts of motivation I’ve felt since learning I won and the publication of the piece. I have another baby arriving in January, so once again, extrinsic motivation is doing its much-needed work on me. But because of the support and encouragement I got from TMR staff, I might actually make this first-draft deadline, and I’m immensely grateful for that.”
Diane Seuss, 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Poetry
What did winning the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize mean for you?
The Missouri Review has been an important literary magazine to me throughout my career as a poet. I love its content and its look, and I’ve discovered writers in its pages that have remained important to me. It was also one of the places that supported my work early on. I was a finalist for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize twice, and therefore my work had appeared in The Missouri Review. It has been a unique publishing experience for me, in that one feels the editors are taking the work and the writer really seriously by including interviews, asking for a statement about the genesis of the work, etc. I never imagined winning the award. The most I’d ever won was a frozen turkey, which I donated to the local women’s shelter. Most moving to me was to win in the company of such incredible finalists, and for all of our work to be featured so respectfully. My submission was a sequence of sonnets from a collection-in-progress I’ve been working on for a few years. To have the work seen, heard, and understood by the contest editors helps me to feel I’m not off the mark.
What did winning the prize enable you to do?
Live! The generosity of the prize is mind-boggling, and I mean it when I say for many writers, and for me, that generosity came in the nick of time. I don’t come from money. I come from the nick of time. The prize allowed me to go to bed with less worry, which means getting rest, which means having the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional space to cook up poems. It enabled my addiction to birds, that is, I was able to spend some time this spring and summer sitting in my backyard not just watching them, but losing my self to them, now and then, and therefore losing my edges, and feeling multitudinous, and somewhat healed. The prize allowed me to move forward with my sonnets feeling like they’re not crazy, they might just be ok, they might just be communicating something. What a gift that has been to me.”
Jo Anne Bennett, 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Nonfiction for “Jamilla”
The Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for non-fiction blew into my life like a rescue mission. Winning any sort of prize is balm for the authorial soul but the timing of this one was particularly sweet. Just recently, after a hiatus of more than twenty years I’ve been able to start writing again – to write continuously, without drastic interruptions from family members lurching from one health crisis to the next. But having at last arrived at a place of relative calm I once again faced the dilemma of the blank page. The usual questions assaulted me: Is writing anything more than self-indulgence? Who’s ever going to read this stuff anyway? Wouldn’t I be better off learning to play golf?
“Winning the prize was much more than an honor; it was a message to keep-on-writing.”
I’d started work on a collection of stories and essays based on events that occurred during my decades of research in West Africa. When an email requesting submissions from the Missouri Review popped into my mailbox I immediately sat down to tweak the best of my essays, “Jamilla,” and sent it off a few days later. Wouldn’t $5000 be nice, I thought, and what did I have to lose? (I suspect the size of the prize bestows an extra note of seriousness.)
The Prize weekend in Columbia was a delight bringing with it a chance to meet fiction winner, Amanda, and to spend time with Speer, Kristine and their dedicated staff. I began to have an inkling of how much hard work, planning, time, and love of writing goes into the annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prizes. My deep gratitude to everyone involved.
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