Dispatches | June 11, 2010

Sometimes I think of my graduate student stipend like a miniskirt: something that just covers the essentials, and pretty much restricts free movement.  This is why, when I was earning my MFA degree, I never used to submit my poetry to contests that cost money.  Do I want to send off a check to this journal’s contest, for which my chances of winning are slim, and my chances of disappointment fairly high, I’d wonder, or do I want to be able to pay for a glass of wine with dinner? The glass of wine always won out.  It seemed less like throwing away my barely existent salary.

I said something to this effect once when I was in workshop with a poet I particularly admire, and he looked at me as if I had said something ridiculous.  “You have to think of entry fees as an expense of the craft,” he said.  “As writers, we don’t have the huge expenses that most other artists have.  We don’t have to buy paints and canvasses and brushes; we don’t have tools or instruments that regularly need to be repaired or replaced; all we really need is a pen and a piece of paper.”  It was so simple, but this one bit of advice altered my perspective dramatically.  If I spend a couple hundred dollars a year on contest submissions, I’m still spending less than a sculptor spends on clay and glazes or a ballet dancer spends on pointe shoes.

It’s a perspective that, as this year’s contest editor, I want to pass on to others.  And really, I’m not just saying this because it’s my job to say this.  I’m saying submit to other journal’s prizes too, like the Black Warrior Review’s contest (http://www.bwr.ua.edu/), the American Literary Review’s contest (http://www.engl.unt.edu/alr/contest.html), Indiana Review’s “1/2 K” (http://indianareview.org/general/prize.html), and others.  Work contest entry fees in as a part of your budget.

I know.  A lot of writers don’t have day jobs that bring in huge salaries.  We freelance, or teach yoga, or wait tables, or maybe adjunct at a couple of colleges.  But there are plenty of reasons why sending our work to contests makes good sense—why it doesn’t, in fact, constitute a waste of money.  For one thing, you might actually win something.  If you research the contest and know that your work matches up, then you’re already giving yourself an advantage above most of your competition.  Even if you don’t win the grand prize, you still might wind up a finalist (a good CV line) or have a poem or story accepted for publication.  And even if neither of those things happens, you can still feel good that your money is going to support a journal that depends on contest fees as a major source of income.  More than that, a lot of journals—The Missouri Review included—offer a year’s subscription as part of their entry costs, so you’re still getting something for your money.  (For info about TMR’s June submission bonus—where we’ll extend your subscription—click here: http://www.missourireview.com/contest/editors_prize.php).

I hope you aren’t in the position where you have to choose between that glass of wine and a contest entry.  I hope you can have your cake and eat it too.  But if not, think of the tradeoff as just a small expense for the craft you’ve chosen.  Be glad that almost everything else you need to succeed as a writer is free.

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