From Our Authors | September 24, 2021
How does it feel to win the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize?
Thomas Dodson, Winner of the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction for “Keeping”
When I was maybe eight years old, the toy company Mattel held a contest, asking kids to submit ideas for characters for their Masters of the Universe action figure line. The winning entry would be made into an actual toy. I crafted drawings and descriptions of the mythic weirdos I’d dreamt up and entered them in the competition. One day I got a letter in the mail notifying me that I’d been chosen as a semi-finalist and would be receiving a free Evil Pit of the Gruesome Ooze playset and a complementary can of green, snot-like slime. As an adult, I don’t know if I’ll ever top the glee of my boy-self in that moment, but getting the email from the editors at The Missouri Review ranks as a comparable thrill.
I got the news the day after starting a new job as a faculty librarian at Southern Oregon University. I’d just finished my MFA at Iowa, and resuming my career as a web developer and librarian led me to wonder what role fiction writing would play in my life now that I was back in the working world. The prize seemed like a sign that I should continue, that I hadn’t been delusional two and a half years before when I left Boston and my job there to pursue an MFA and finish writing my short story collection.
I was especially happy to publish this story, which I wrote and re-wrote over the course of a year. I had the idea for writing about a bee heist sometime back in June of 2019 and spent most of that summer reading books about beekeeping and looking into what others had written about bees: De Crevecoeur’s affectionate attention to his bees—“their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions”—in Letters to an American Farmer, the soft bullet thieving pollen from a rose in May Swensen’s “A Couple.” The story went through several drafts over the following months, each improved by comments from fellow workshoppers and advice from Ethan Canin and Margot Livesey. I’m honored that, in the end, it found a home in TMR.
What has it enabled you to do?
One of the most rewarding things about winning the prize was receiving a picture of the issue sitting on a magazine rack, sent to me by an old friend browsing a Barnes & Noble in Rogersville, Missouri. I grew up and went to college in Missouri, so it meant a lot to think that my work might be discovered by someone with a similar background to my own—a kid from a small town in Missouri who lived for trips to slightly larger towns, ones with real bookstores, and later, a college student eager to learn what “real writers” were publishing.
As previous winners have pointed out, the prize is very generous, as much or more than many writers are paid for a whole collection of stories. For me, it made it possible to move from Iowa to Oregon without taking on additional debt. (Will I ever be done paying for my undergraduate education? I suspect not). Writing has always been a precarious profession, but it’s been especially so during the pandemic. Acknowledging that reality, as well as my own good fortune at finding a job in the midst of the COVID crisis, I donated a portion of the prize to the Marilynne Robinson Fund at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which provides emergency assistance to students in that program.
Chelsea B. DesAutels, Winner of the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Poetry for “Maybe You Need To Write a Poem About Mercy” and other poems
What has winning the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize meant to you?
I’ve long admired the Missouri Review and the poets included in its pages. Truth be told, year after year, I’ve paid particular attention to the list of finalists for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize—these are poets whose books are on my shelf, whose poems I teach and love. To win the prize was a welcome shock. One of the winning poems (“Watching My Daughter Sleep, I Remember When Doctors Said My Breastmilk Would Become Toxic”) I’ve been working on for years. Several of the others, though, are much newer. I wrote them alone and lonely, hoping they might ground a new manuscript, but mostly just talking to myself in the dark. The careful attention and encouragement from the editors at the Missouri Review helped me trust the shifts I’m encountering in my new work, and I’m grateful.
What has it enabled you to do?
Write. And think. The Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize is substantial. Writers don’t create work in a void—we create in the middle of a busy, messy life, of laundry and email and wasp stings and flooding basements. Sometimes this noise becomes our work. Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to step out of the noise and into the woods. The generous prize money helps buy time and a bit of quiet by easing up financial strain. I used it to pay bills and to cover a short writing retreat (in the woods). Both were wildly important to my writing. I’m immensely thankful for this gift.
Robert Stothart, Winner of the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Nonfiction for “Opera House”
My essay “Opera House” won The Missouri Review’s 2020 Jeffery E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In her introduction to the 1988 Best American Essays, Annie Dillard wrote: “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it…that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader.” So I won’t fake it: Our house desperately needed new gutters after runoff from Wyoming’s snows had started to leak through cracks in the foundation. We also needed to help our son with a retainer fee in a long custody case. Cracks in foundations will continue to show up in one way or another, but the $5000 that came with the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize last spring offered a timely pause. It cleared a way through those troubling practical matters. The prize gave me something akin to Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion,” and to mix metaphors: It was like being handed the football and running forward, carrying the ball behind an all-pro line of blockers.
I had received an email naming my essay as a finalist. The Prize itself came a short time later with a call from editor Evelyn Somers announcing my selection. As soon as I put down the phone, I panicked wondering whether Ms. Somers called to say that I’d won, or to say that I hadn’t. The process to publication began soon after. In addition to editing with Ms. Somers, help came also from editors Marc Mckee and Dedra Earl as all three worked with me through text and technicalities in a way that enabled me to see my work framed as a prize winner, ready for readers. The Missouri Review’s staff was keenly focused on our collective endeavor, always with attention to my questions and uncertainties.
I was pleased to know that “Opera House,” about learning to love opera largely through Santa Fe’s Opera, would be published as the Jeffrey E. Smith Prize winner. One of my aims in writing is to essay through books, galleries, and concert halls that I’ve known in order to give stage to the encounters and contexts of that wandering. I lament the cultural loss of things like music appreciation classes in public schools which attempted to bring, and to a great extent succeeded in bringing, Bach and Schubert and Stravinsky into our minds and our conversations. What is more, I was glad to know that “Opera House” would come out in The Missouri Review’s Spring 2021 issue just as opera companies, including Santa Fe’s, began their plans to reopen after the dark year of pandemic that cruelly affected the lives of audiences and silenced singers and orchestras.
After working on any essay and having it published, but especially with “Opera House,” I face the gnawing questions: Was that it? Was that the last one? Can I do something like that again? That question echoes the question that comes at the end of my essay: “I know that my last opera looms up ahead somewhere. How will that be?” For me, those are starkly real but not necessarily grim questions because they almost always locate the way to the next essay.
In this regard, perhaps the greatest gift from the Jeffrey E. Smith award is the way in which the prize and publication have opened avenues for a more immediate intimacy with new readers and offered a deeper reading for others who have known me or have read my work in the past.
In one case, just as the spring issue came out, a former student, Carla Niederhauser Shelton, from almost twenty-years ago reconnected with me through email. She asked me to take a look at some of her writing and to see if I’d written anything recently. I emailed back and sent a copy of The Missouri Review with “Opera House.” Our exchanges that followed have closed the twenty years since our class together. My essay on opera brought to mind for Carla her singing of Micaëla’s aria from Carmen in her high school’s music festival: Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante (I say that nothing frightens me). We went on to trade observations on Micaëla’s strength of character and her deeply moving and profound presence on the opera stage, in marked contrast to her flamboyant opposite, Carmen.
In another exchange about my essay, Richard Wilson, my former colleague and division chair at Northwest College in Wyoming, wrote in an email after reading “Opera House”: “Masquerading as a travelogue/memoir/biographical sketch, your essay is none of these as much as it is pure celebration of form.” I hadn’t been able to put it into words, but there was the answer to the looming question about what, if anything, comes next. There won’t be another “Opera House”; instead, through the practical help and the spirit of commitment from The Missouri Review and the Jeffrey E. Smith Prize, along with the readers it has garnered, I have a good sense of my way forward in celebrating the form of the essay in all of its possibilities.
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