Why I Really Want to Win a Book Contest

So that now I'm officially entered in 3 separate book contests for short story collections (the AWP Prize, the Flannery O'Connor Prize + the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) + will have to wait forever to hear the results, I can't help but dream the impossible dream. The reality of life as a literary fiction writer is obviously changing a lot + MFA graduates are spraying out of an art pipe right now that universities can't possibly absorb or sponge up fast enough, but I still believe (have to believe) that winning a major literary prize + or subsequently publishing a first short story collection/debut novel would basically change my writing career. I mean, fiction writers have gotten fame + tenure on less than that + fame + tenure gives writers summers (moments) to write while keeping their hands warm in the Winter. Not a bad fucking deal at all for a boy used to nothing.

But my desire to win a book contest transcends my desire to teach + avoid a life of prolonged poverty. Part of it is about the concreteness of seeing my book, my stories, my work, transformed into an external object that other people can consume, underline, wrinkle, argue about, analyze, misquote, all of which are different ways of giving weight to words. Metaphysically, this is the closest thing a writer will get to a miracle.

Another part is, I don't seem to be very good at winning contests. I've only won one in my whole life (the Sparks Prize) + I was only competing with 10 other people, not exactly inspiring odds, even if that prize did in fact help clarify my priorities for me and remind me of my purpose on earth (thank you, universe!). But there's something about having a readership, about gates flung open by the same gatekeepers that once locked you out of your destiny for a decade in the form of workshop teacher, editor, reader, agent, that all seems so fucking amazing to me. With one book, it becomes impossible not to say these words: you're not a writer. You may not be a good writer (fuck, you could be a terrible one), but no one can take away who you are anymore the way they did when you were just a bundle of great ideas and pretty lines. And there's something reassuring about that.

The truth is, I don't know what that feels like. I'm constantly living between the potential + kinetic art worlds all the time. One minute, I'm stoked because I'll get to see a chapter from BLANK in a nationally distributed journal like Fiction that my friends will be able to purchase at any Borders in the country--unthinkable three years ago. But then the next minute, I realize I've only heard good news from one journal this whole year + it's already half-way through 2010! Even worse, I don't feel any closer to publishing BLANK or my collection of short stories than I did when I'd finished my MFA, and that kinda depresses me because I feel that I've really evolved as a writer into someone with a particular, unique style that has a place in the publishing industry.

So that's the rub I guess: without dreams, I don't enter contests or submit stories to journals or send my novel to finicky agents and language-worshipping small presses. But because I do those things, I get rejected more than any other writer I know, certainly more than the other writers that either give up or just stick their stories in the bottom desk drawer. And dreams can really fuck you up as an artist. They implant ideas inside your heart that only end up leaving paper cuts on the places they touch. Sometimes all you want to do is spend your life writing, which is hard to do when your writing doesn't pay your electricity bill.

But then again, if one contest goes your away, everything changes in a silent flash. It doesn't change a lot, just a little. But when you change one thing completely inside of yourself, you fundamentally change everything connected to it. And that is where my hope begins, right where luck makes out with destiny.