Monday, May 21, 2012

Winners on winning

Reading by Moyan_Brenn
Reading, a photo by Moyan_Brenn on Flickr.

FROM A DISTANCE, the rewards of winning a writing contest can seem pretty clear-cut: A book is published; a writer receives some cash. But the benefits of coming out on top aren't always so obvious. We caught up with five recent winners of book-publication prizes to find out what the money, exposure, and validation from the literary community has meant to them and their careers.


Elana Bell, winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award for Eyes, Stones.

The award has allowed me the opportunity to connect with and have my work read by poets whom I greatly admire--Naomi Shihab Nye, for example.... Winning the award was like a steroid shot. It has given me some courage to begin applying for college-teaching positions, to create a website, and, even more important, to take the risk of realizing some long-term artistic visions. I also have visions of the work I want to do as an educator: I think creative writing can be used as a tool when working with people from regions in conflict. Winning the award gave me confidence to develop that curriculum and pedagogy.


Khadijah Queen, winner of the 2010 Noemi Book Award for Poetry for Black Peculiar.

Winning the award did give my work a lot more exposure. I was asked to do several paid readings and solicited to submit to literary magazines.... I used much of the prize money to pay a bill, honestly, but once that was paid, I was later able to fund my way to attend two summer writers retreats where I made important new connections and deepened old ones.... I felt the work was validated, which was important to me because of its experimental nature. This book is much bolder in style and content than my first book. It felt good to have that boldness rewarded.


Douglas Light, winner of the 2010 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction for Girls in Trouble.

As far as prizes go, the money was substantial. Unfortunately, the financial demands of life are even more so. I thought of using the money to cover my mortgage for a couple of months, or maybe using it to buy a new computer. I even contemplated tossing my responsibilities and taking to the road for a bit. Instead, I launched a new project that was beyond my expertise: theater. I used the money I'd won to book a sixty-seat theater in lower Manhattan and stage an evening of actors performing stories from my collection, all set to the lush, captivating music of a four-piece band. If I gauge the event on number of books sold, then the production was a failure. I sold eight books. But against all other metrics, the night was a grand success. The theater sold out, the actors and musicians were brilliant, and everyone is still talking about how great the night was. And as a direct result of the production, I received a grant to turn one of the stories from the collection into a short film.


Katie Umans, winner of the 2010 Saint Lawrence Book Award for Flock Book.

I don't think I'll do anything especially career oriented with the prize money, which I'll receive with the publication of my book this summer, but I'll probably spend a small portion of it on new poetry books. I think it's really important to purchase a good share of new poetry books and support authors, especially as I root for my book to be bought by others! However, all funds ultimately help a writing career by buying time and peace of mind--which both mean the chance to write more.... I couldn't say whether alerting journals in my cover letter that I have a book coming out has affected their decision to publish or not publish my poems. I still get accepted sometimes and rejected sometimes. I have had journals accept poems and then offer to try and push up publication to align with the release of the book, which is nice.... I still have a day job and don't feel like I have the credentials to seek a fulltime, stable, teaching job, which I'd eventually love to do. What winning the prize did do is seal off the first book as a finished work. No more tinkering, no more tweaking, no more writing new poems and feeding them to the manuscript like it's an insatiable monster. I feel like I've shed many earlier versions of myself as a poet by casting off that book. You are proud of your first book, but you also want to move on from it as a writer.


Diane Simmons, winner of Ohio State University Press's 2010 Prize in Short Fiction for Little America.

The prize has, to my surprise, changed the way I understand myself as a short story writer. Previously I thought of my stories as stand-alones, each a world unto itself. I was shocked when readers of the collection seemed to view it differently, discussing how the stories were "linked," even assuming that I had written them in some carefully thought-out order. I value my stories more now; I see more in them, see connections I didn't understand before. Which leads me to this thought: Many of us look to short stories as a stepping-stone to the grand prize--the novel. That's fine. But maybe, too, our stories, if we are lucky enough to have them all read in one place, create the longer, fuller work we aspire to.... I used the prize money to promote the book, primarily by going out West, where the stories are set, to do readings and signings.... I've heard from several agents, but don't quite have my present project ready to show. I haven't heard from any magazines [soliciting work], but I do believe the rejections are getting much more respectful!

Source Citation
"Winners on winning." Poets & Writers Magazine 40.3 (2012): 57+. Academic OneFile. Web. 21 May 2012.
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