Entering writing contests may seem like a drag—they often have higher than normal reading fees and the chance at a monetary reward means competition is very steep—but in my experience they are absolutely worth doing.
I wrote an essay that was weird and unexpected and everything I ever wanted in to say in an essay. It was unquestionably one of the best things I had ever written. I sent it off to a handful of literary magazines, none of whom were interested, but since I loved this weird little essay so much, I only cried a little bit upon rejection instead of for days on end.
Finally, in 2016 my essay was a top-5 finalist in DisQuiet’s Literary Prize in Nonfiction. This came with $950 towards registration for their annual conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Unfortunately, it did not include airfare or room and board, nor did it include actual publication. Still, it gave me renewed faith in the essay. Philip Gerard had read my essay and said nice things about it, which I accidentally deleted from my inbox.
I kept submitting my essay, but I no longer cared when people rejected it. My near-miss was close enough that I finally trusted my writing and the whole submission process. I came to understand that a rejection meant that my essay wasn’t a good fit for that particular editor of that particular magazine on that particular day for that particular issue. That’s all it meant. It wasn’t a reflection on my worth as a writer or as a person.
A few months later, American Literary Review selected my weird little essay as the creative nonfiction winner for 2016, and contest judge Charles D’Ambrosio called it “beautiful in its brokenness.” This time I copied and pasted the blurb to protect it from potential email mayhem. My essay was finally released to the world at large, and I even got about 22 cents/word for it. A few months later an agent read it and sent me an email about representation.
The experience made me more confident. I submitted my work to more places. A second essay was again short-listed, this time by Black Warrior Review, but again it didn’t make the final cut. However, shortly thereafter the essay won Slipper Elm Literary Journal’s prose contest with a monetary prize and publication.
Note, both of these contests were won in 2016, and since good luck comes in threes, I knew some other phenomenal thing had to happen by the end of the year. Sure enough, I received an offer on Girlish within a month, fulfilling the rule of three; omne trium perfectum.