By Jeanne Marie Beaumont
In our lives as writers, we are inevitably engaged in some sort of competition. It may only take the form of submitting to a magazine, but at some point you will be “striving together” (Late Latin, competere) with other writers, competing for the editorial nod of acceptance rather than rejection’s sting.
It will be helpful to your creative spirit if you can think of such rivalry as friendly, and learn to take rejection as, yes, a good sport. Rejection may feel like a crushing defeat or a fatal blow, but don your protective armor, and let it be a beneficial spur, one that presses you toward better work without drawing vital blood.
That’s easier said than done. Crying into your beer when another writer’s work is chosen over yours? I’ve been there.
If at some point you feel you have entered a semi-finalist or runner-up limbo, know that it’s a populous place and try to enjoy the camaraderie. Also trust that the odds are very good that hard work, persistence, and talent will eventually spring your release.
Writers who endure and prevail are ones who take pleasure and satisfaction in the long-standing engagement with their art. Remember that the one area in which you are not in competition with anyone (except perhaps yourself) is in the invention of your own body of work. No one can write your poems or stories for you. No one can write them but you. Each of us dwells in unique creative territory, blissfully, sometimes frighteningly. Stake your claim.
That said, there will likely be times when you will find it useful to enter into competitions where more is at stake. To modify the dictionary definition of “ecological competition,” literary competition is the simultaneous demand by two or more writers for limited resources, such as funding, workspace/time, publication, a spot in a graduate program or workshop, or employment in the field.
I sometimes think there should be a “Psychological Health 101” class for all writers to help prepare them for the world of rivalry, ambition, and disappointment that they are entering. We need to remind ourselves that all of this is a part of the world but it is not connected to our worth as an artist. We want to offer work, and if it is accepted, rejoice. If it is “declined,” we need to remember to turn around and send it elsewhere.
Early in my writing life, I had the chance to be a preliminary screener for some national contests. This can be an educational task to take on even if pay is low to zero. It will give you an idea of what your peers are up to, and it often opens your eyes to clichéd subjects and overtaxed trends.
The same thing goes for reading submissions for a literary magazine, which can help train you to be a discriminating reader. You will begin to understand what makes a piece of writing alive—verbally alert, emotionally effective, intellectually stimulating. As you read, you should be raising the standards for your own work.
At some point, however, too much of this may begin to dull your interest or discourage you. Then it is time to quit and go back to your own work and sources of inspiration. I edited a literary magazine for seven years, and then stopped for this very reason.
Since then, I have had the honor (and I do regard it as an honor) to serve as judge or panelist for several awards and contests. I can affirm that all the contests I’ve been involved with were conducted fairly and that submissions were handled with care by those involved.
In agreeing to judge a contest, I am putting myself in a position of “connoisseur.” It’s a position of trust, and I approach it conscientiously and openly. I hope to find something incredible each time I sit down with a batch of “offerings.”
And, the truth is, I always do.
Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s first book of poetry, Placebo Effects, won the National Poetry Series. She has published two subsequent books with BOA Editions, Curious Conduct and Burning of the Three Fires. She co-edited American Letters & Commentary for seven years and also co-edited The Poets’ Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales.