how i won my first writing contest

The first time I entered a writing contest I won.

A win says it all, a handshake in welcome, validation for a job well done and self-confidence to tackle another challenge. Writers who enter a writing contest submit their best work with the optimistic chance they could win, securing a welcome, confirmation and boost in confidence. I admire a writer’s committed practice and track record for contest participation but my interchangeable excuses with procrastination–I can’t meet the deadline, I’m not going to win anyway, my writing is not good enough, to name a few, disarm my confidence and disqualify me from entering the competition. Admittedly, I am not speedy with my practice. I need to work through my words and execute thoughts on paper.

It wasn’t the right time.

My inner dialogue doesn’t keep me from glancing at the contest’s topic or theme. I will skim the contest particulars and contemplate my interest and knowledge. For example, I would be disinterested in writing about my interpretation of a word such as “adaptation” or my experiences with the supernatural. Should I try to compose, paralysis would erupt, stinging like a Taser when confronted with a blank page, no, really solid, bright white. The quality of my essay, lacking clarity and effectiveness would reflect my lack of connection to the subject. What’s more daunting is the word “contest.” The pressure to produce my best would be palpable. Writing for a contest is like you know you’ve got a test coming up and you better cram now to give you time to prepare your best answers so you can shine at the time of the test–the submission.

Connections weren’t happening. Nothing was falling into place.

I write a more effective essay when a word or topic catches my eye. Ideas strike like lightning bolts when I read the contest guidelines. I know I’ve got something when I must rush to type the ideas on that big white space before they dissipate. My sense of urgency to get it all down supersedes any tendency I may have for procrastination.

My writing life is memoir. Many factors contributed to my manuscript’s life span of over fifteen years: lack of direction, reflection, unwoven through-threads, a stop ‘n go rhythm for development rewrites, editing, more refining of the same. My memoir started with what I knew. I had a tidy supple of vignettes illustrating overcoming adversity, coming of age, resiliency perhaps, but limiting myself to writing just that which I knew did not a memoir make. There was more to my story, a depth beyond the surface of my autobiographical scenes. I searched for more by reading everything I could about memoir including books, blogs and essays. I listened to webinars and presentations by professionals. Intellectually, I understood my reflections, through-threads, and lessons learned needed a stronger call yet I didn’t understand how to apply that knowledge to my memoir writing.

My story needed sculpting. Shaping my story was to create a memoir form, molding scenes and characters through my words, sentences and paragraphs as if a potter placing a clay body on a wheel to shape and form, fashioning a craft to create best work. My memoir required me to go beyond the expected and understood, massaging the given, to stretch and mold into something different form its original state. The self-discovery, writing from the heart, personal space, and experience was to be developed from the core.

And then my inner critic’s dialogue erupted with my competition intimidation. Memoirs illustrating tragedy, humanness of being and redemption of body and spirit written with strong words and messages were intimidating. Pain appeared to be a common theme. I became more despondent realizing my memoir was not like other published memoirs. Could my memoir even be called one if it was thematically so different from the others? Was there even a reason to write a memoir?

Documenting my memoir in a chronological structure with thoughts married to my heart and mind was the easy part. I reasoned it was okay to start my memoir with what I knew.

“There’s something about trees. My discovery started at fifteen, when I wrote this poem and realized I had a place in this world.”

I could not continue to write solely of the given where it would be insufficient to let my words speak easily and pages unravel in predictable ways to call the tidy bundle a memoir. Reflection and takeaways were owed throughout. Attempting to make sense of my experiences commanded me to go to places, disclosures to the public that on a second thought might be best kept private. So I showed my family relationships and disconnections by focusing on the many connections I did have to persons, places and things in simple form. I showed why a tree, a particular birch tree, represented a very place, hosting a purpose.

“When I would be among the unfamiliar, my tree would tell me I was in the right place as I remembered where we met, where we came from. Trees became a metaphor for living, a guiding symbol for finding home and the beginning for my story. My tree had a purpose.015

I wrote about a birch tree in its simple image. I was granted the inspiration needed to connect with others, to show life in the moments, to show an essence of a shared humanness, our abilities and capabilities, to express the heard cries of joy and sorrow, to see the light of day and how the darkness of night can illuminate, to taste the bitter winds of misfortune and the sweetness of youth and innocence. The simplicity in my uplifting words and positive images showed connections in infinite ways and possibilities in finding home, back to my birch tree buddy, the first connection and beginning of my story. I was able to complete my memoir.

The time had arrived.

In an anthology, The Magic of Memoir, Inspiration for the Writing Journey, 38 contributors narrated their memoir writing inspiration. My inner critic struck again as I compared my work to their writing. I reasoned my memoir couldn’t be like theirs. Because it wasn’t. My memoir was my story, unique in structure and voice. And because of this, I saw the difference work for me, not against me.

I would not have been exposed to the professional level of writers and learned from them and their writing if it wasn’t for The Magic of Memoir which gave me a deeper understanding of memoir. Having a clearer understanding of my story and how I made sense of the significance of specific memories I hold today enabled me to understand my journey, the self-discovery, sharing discovered meaning, of what is memoir.

The Magic of Memoir was the first writing contest I had entered and won. The contest called for an essay about a writer’s memoir writing process. I had connected to my subject because of the experience of writing my memoir.

I was not ready to submit to a writing contest at the early stages of writing my story, restricted to writing only what I knew. I found my best work after discovering what I didn’t know, the unexplored reflections, buried takeaways and the connection I could make with my reader. The sculpting time while deepening my understanding of the craft of memoir allowed me to be at place and time that was right. Memoir writing gives me the opportunity to tap into the unexplored and find meaning and universality of what I discovered granting any reader an “aha” moment.

2 thoughts on “how i won my first writing contest

  1. Hi Nancy,

    hope all is going well with your work and that your writing is thriving. I have been plugging along and enjoying story telling. I do it about 2X per year in Highland Park, and occsiaionally at open mike night at the Celtic Know in Evanston – The event is called “Do Not Submit” and you should give it a try! It is the second Sunday of every month. Just show up and you will have 7 miutes to tell your story. You could pick an anecdoe from your memori. Just another way of communicating with your audience! t The little writing group that I was in at the Lake Forest Library lost its professional moderator, and I have stepped in, on a rotating basis, to take her place. I am following in your capable footsteps. So think of rejoining us – the group sort of comes and goes, but right now it is a very interesting group of good writers.

    I have also signed up for an on-line critique group called Critique Circle. It is probably similar to Scribophile, which we might have discussed, but a writing friend of mine recommended it. You earn ‘”points” by critiquing others’ works, and when you have enough points you can submit one of your own My second piece is up for review next week. It is free and seems like interesting fun – some of the writing is not very good, which of course is a boost to my own self -esteem!

    I have also made a promise to myself not to accept defeatism an am trying to submit things to journals, though I certainly don’t anticipate your success!

    Hope to see you soon,


    On Sun, Apr 30, 2017 at 11:26 AM, Nancy Chadwick, Memoir Writer wrote:

    > nancychadwick posted: “The first time I entered a writing contest I won. A > win says it all, a handshake in welcome, validation for a job well done and > self-confidence to tackle another challenge. Writers who enter a writing > contest submit their best work with the optimistic ch” >


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