On Winning the Editor's Prize
Today’s Blog Post comes from Terry Thaxton
What a great deal I thought: a reading fee that will also get me a subscription to The Missouri Review. But I didn’t have any poems ready to go. I had that old “essay” which I didn’t really think of as an essay—more of a jumble of notes and paragraphs that I kept moving up and down and around. I’d sent poems to contests before (often with the added bonus to get the subscription)—I like anything that resembles multi-tasking or multi-deal or kill-two-with-one-stone, etc. Submitting and publishing is a you-never-know kind of business. While sometimes I’ve been a finalist or semi-finalist with my poetry, most of the time these experiments have resulted in a polite form rejection. Sending the “essay” would truly be an experiment—I’d never sent an essay to a contest. In fact, there are only a few essays I’d be willing to show to anyone. Though I’d published two articles in journals, these were not usually read by creative writers, and those, I’d told myself, were not “real” essays.
I’m a poet. I learned this when I was a junior in college (I was thirty when I started college), and I submitted for workshop in my introduction to creative writing class. “Very ambitious,” my professor noted. “But a bit too obscure; too symbolic.” He was being kind. The story was my cloak and dagger attempt to mimic the style of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. The central character was a young girl in a dreary orphanage—not something I knew anything about. The story was . . . it was, well, my professor was right, it was intentionally packed with knock-you-over-the-head symbols.
My professor suggested I try to be honest in my writing. “Risk,” he kept saying. “Risk. You have material. Use it.” This was in the early 1990s, and we weren’t writing creative nonfiction in our introductory classes—you either wrote fiction or poetry. I was learning how to risk, but the only way I knew how to tell the truth was in poetry. When I submitted poems for workshop, my professor not only praised them, he suggested I send them out. Back then there were no online databases for literary journals. All we had was that little book from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) The Literary Press and Magazine Directory. I started at the beginning, in the As. I didn’t care which magazine printed my poems; I just wanted to see my little pieces print. Who doesn’t, right?
Even though my poems are usually narrative and have obvious subjects, I never start writing them with any subject in mind. This is why I am in awe of Katie Bickham’s poems—the beautiful, young, strong, amazing poet who won TMR’s Editor’s Prize in poetry. Her poems seem to start in subject and then take off wildly through the lives and houses of her Southern upbringing and her region’s history. Then there’s my fiction. What fiction? Well, I have written a few short stories since my “orphan girl” story, and have secretly sent them out, but they aren’t in the same species as, or anywhere close to the rich complexity of,Rachel Yoder’s story “The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” which won TMR’s Editor’s Prize in fiction.
All of this comparing. We writers do too much of this, don’t we? If I’d stopped to compare my essay to the essays that had won TMR’s contests in previous years, I probably would never have sent it. But I wanted that subscription and wanted to see what would happen to my “essay.” My essay was a series of notes I’d taken about my son and his roommate “David.” I jotted down things David had said to me that had struck me as odd, like his family coming from a long line of sharks. In the note-taking I started to understand why Adam, my son, had been drawn to friendships with people like David. More importantly, I began to understand why mothering has been so exhausting for me. I told the truth.
I knew if I didn’t win the contest (which was pretty much a given) I’d still get a subscription, and I could say (to myself) that I sent the essay out at least once. When I got the email from Evelyn Somers about winning, I printed it out and handed it to my husband. Could he please make sure the email said what I thought it said? Yes. (He read it aloud to me.) Maybe it was a mistake email from Evelyn? No, my husband said. It’s real. What made it even better than the five thousand bucks that came with the Prize, was the trip to Columbia—the smallest airport I’ve ever been to including San Juan, Costa Rica—meeting the Speer Morgan, and hanging out with all of the great people at TMR including Kris Somerville, Dedra Earl, Michael Nye, Claire McQuerry, and more.
As if that wasn’t enough motivation to continue to write, there was the full-house reading at the Country Club of Missouri. Better yet was being in the company of two great amazing stunning writers: Katie Bickham and Rachel Yoder (go VIDA count!).
On top of all of that, I found some spectacular black dress shoes at Dryer’s Shoe Store on 9th Avenue. I paid over $150 for them, and for a writer that’s a lot of bucks for shoes. But why not; I’d just won a contest, and I had $5,000!
You can enter our Editor’s Prize Contest here.