Competing With Friends for Writers’ Awards

Earlier this month, I applied for an Emerging Writer’s Grant and a Loft Creative Prose Mentorship, knowing full well that I’m competing with my good friends for these honors. I really want to win. So do the women in my creative nonfiction writers group.

We’ve known each other for years. We’ve visited each other’s homes. We’ve cried together when one of our circle died. These women often know more know about the contents of my mind and heart than some of my family members do—they read my innermost thoughts firsthand when our group meets.

They are insightful critics and steadfast cheerleaders. Because we share personal essays and memoir, our subject matter is always personal. Sharing our stories requires trust, and we’ve strengthened that trust over the years. The other writers don’t judge me or my life. But they do evaluate my writing craft and urge me to do my best. We all understand that the writer is different from the writing.

Perhaps the ability to draw the distinction between the person and the craft is why we’re able to draw other distinctions and balance two seemingly conflicting ideas: we’re friends and we’re competing.

Although there have occasionally been moments of frustration or resentment among the group members, we have been able to rise above them. For me, these aspects of our group dynamic have helped keep our competition from turning into conflict—

  • All of us are accomplished writers who deserve to win a grant or a mentorship. But we know that winning these contests is a crapshoot. Once you’ve met a certain level of competence, the next round of judging is subjective—my memoir about wrestling with feminism in 1979 might not appeal to a judge as much as my friend’s essays about traveling in Cuba. Luck plays a role.
  • Over the years, we have fostered a “one for all, all for one” mentality. When illness sapped our founder’s energy, the group mounted a submissions campaign to help her get published. When members ask the group to review their grant proposals, we give them our best advice.
  • Some of us openly state that we’re going after an award; others are more circumspect—each according to her personality. Perhaps that tact and reticence is what enables us to avoid open conflict.

I don’t know for sure what the magic is. And I hope talking about it doesn’t wreck it. I’m proud to be a part of a group that has navigated these tricky waters successfully . . . so far.

I want an Emerging Writer’s Grant or a Loft Mentorship. If someone else in the group wins, I’ll be sorely disappointed for myself. But I’ll be happy for her.

Writing is a vocation that picks a person

Each week, you’ll hear from one of the WordSisters. This time, it’s Ellen.

One sunny autumn day, my husband and I lunched on our porch and planned the classes we might like to take during the lo n n n g Minnesota winter.

“Music is my hobby and writing is yours, so…” he started to say.

“Hobby!?!” my voice veered into a screech. I heard the vehemence but was unable to stop.

“Writing is not my hobby. For me, gardening is a hobby. Making jewelry is a hobby. Writing is NOT a hobby.”

I caught my breath, then resumed, “I have been a writer as for long as I can remember. Even as a girl, I searched for the words to describe what I saw and how I felt. I kept journals and wrote stories.” John put his soup spoon down and listened, eyebrows raised.

“I just meant that we don’t make a living at playing music or writing essays . . . .”

His reasonable comment frustrated me even more. I wasn’t getting through. He had to understand. I tried again, “I was a writer long before I met you or became a mother. And God forbid, if I were no longer your wife or the boys’ mother, I’d still be a writer. I can’t stop being a writer—and believe me, I’ve tried.” Long a manager, he had learned not to let his face betray his emotions in front of troubled or troublesome employees, but I could see he was listening intently.

Calmer and almost resigned, I said, “There have been so many times when I felt like a talentless wonder and tried to swear off writing as a pointless pursuit. The last time I wanted to give it up, a very wise writer named Emily Meier told me, ‘Writing is a vocation that picks a person. No practical person would pick it!’ And she’s right. I can’t stop being a writer—even though I want to sometimes. Whether I like it or not, I’m a writer.”

I ended my fierce soliloquy, sat back, and assessed his reaction. Now that my rant was over, he allowed emotion to flow back into his features. He looked taken aback and frustrated.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I guess I didn’t choose the best word.”

I felt bad for jumping down his throat. But after 25 years of marriage, it would take more than this to rock our boat. I squeezed his hand, then leaned across the table to kiss him.

“I’m sorry, too.”

“So, as I was saying,” he said, “Music is my hobby and writing is your passion . . . ”

“Yes, it is.” Our eyes met and we smiled.