MAKING THE WORK // Show Me the Money
I’ve been daydreaming about prize money the way I used to dream, when I was a kid, of Ed McMahon showing up in a van with a bunch of balloons and a giant cheque. I’m not talking about sweepstakes though, I’m talking about writing contest money.
I’ve known since Anne Shirley won the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company short story contest in Anne of the Island (which I read when I was ten) that entering contests is something writers do (or, in Anne’s case, something best friends do for you). We do it in the hopes of buffing up our CVs. We also do it for the money—maybe especially for the money. I know of a writer, a former teacher, who said he studied past winning entries for the CBC Canada Writes Short Story Contest, then devised a formula to write his own winning story so he could buy a fixer-upper in Newfoundland with the $6,000 grand prize if he won (he did). Another former teacher is said to have entered a competition specifically so he’d have money to get his roof fixed. Me? I’d like a couple buckets of paint to finish painting our apartment. I need new frocks too and would be cheered by pocket money to go to the movies and to buy some books, which are things I haven’t been able to spend money on in a long time.
To date, I’ve been shortlisted for two contests, longlisted for one, and turned down for three. For those unfamiliar with how it works, there are basically three kinds of writing contests:
1 // Contests Sponsored by Lit Magazines & Other Organizations
Typically, you take the $25-or-so entry fee from your grocery money and send it in along with your manuscript of fiction, creative non-fiction, or poetry. Then you mostly forget about it for a few months until you hear the news.
My Experiences: 1) I was shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize in 2010, which delighted me, but weirdly, also made me realize that I wanted to be known for prose, not poetry, so I stopped writing it after that. 2) I was longlisted for the 2013 CBC Canada Writes Creative Nonfiction Prize, which made me have a little blub in front of the mailbox because the notification letter said my story was selected from “more than several thousand submissions.” 3) No dice for the CBC Canada Writes Fiction Prize, which didn’t bother me because the story had a bum ending.
2 // Contests Involving Events and Trophies
These are usually the contests that publishers enter on a writer’s behalf, so they can come as the biggest surprises. If you place on the shortlist, you have to scrape together a respectable outfit and go to something that’s probably called a “gala”, which may or may not have an open bar. If you want to take a date, you probably have to pay for their ticket. Disappointingly, unless it’s something big time like the Gillers, you won’t get prize money, but you’ll probably get an ugly trophy that’s heavy enough to kill a man. Or maybe a certificate that's probably not even framed.
My Experience: When A. and I were first dating in 2009 I was nominated for a Western Magazine Award and took him as my date to the gala. The same week he was nominated for a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award and took me to his gala. We wore the same outfits each time. We both lost.
3 // Grants through Funding Bodies to Support the Arts in Canada
These aren’t called contests, but “contest” is a synonym for “competition”, which is what these are. There are no entry fees, but you have to make sure you have a lot of paper in your printer and 15 bucks or so to mail in your hefty application (containing multiple manuscript copies). Writers are very quiet on social media in the days leading up to a grant deadline, unless they're posting something slightly melodramatic like: "I WILL NEVER GET TO LEAVE THIS DESK AGAIN" or "PRINTER JUST DIED. KILL ME NOW."
My Experiences: The first time I didn’t get an Ontario Arts Council Work-in-Progress grant there were more tears at the mailbox, but only because I’d really needed the dough to try and finish my book. The second time I got turned down for the same grant, I didn’t even bother opening the envelope (if it’s thin, you know it’s a no), choosing complete despondence instead.
All this is in my mind at the moment because I’m awaiting the results of two more contests, thus the prize money daydreams. What can I say y’all, but please keep your fingers crossed.
FROM THE ORPHAN FILES // Western Magazine Awards Gala, Vancouver Renaissance Hotel Harbourside, June 23, 2009
Nervous. But A. is calming. We take a taxi because I’m wearing heels. Wearing heels is like having two strange beasts underneath your feet that could go berserk at any second. The reception is on the top floor and we head straight for the blue martinis. Normally I don’t drink blue beverages, but these ones are free.
The aesthetics are underwhelming for something billed as a “gala.” A lot of people are in regular work clothes. I’m wearing a new-to-me black dress with gold trim and my grandmother’s faux pearl cluster clip-on earrings. A. is wearing a floral tie that makes him look like he could be in a Renoir painting, but also a jacket that makes him look like a band teacher.
I spy Lee Henderson and his glamorous-in-the-smart-way fiancé so we go over and talk to them, even though I only know Lee from a few literary events. We have fun looking at Goats Across Canada, which is on display with other magazines that have been nominated for awards. We also compare table assignments; they’re at table 14 and we’re at table 16. We each hope the goat people will be at our table.
Before taking our seats, Bill Richardson, who’s hosting, and I have a nice big hug. We haven’t crossed paths since I was the director at the Victoria School of Writing and he was one of our teachers. It was during a VSW event that he got on a microphone and told everyone I had a great story about a butt plug. He didn’t repeat the story so it sounded shocking, even though it was innocent (so much so that he’d even told me that there was “a special place in heaven” for me because of what I did with the butt plug).
Just after 7pm, we’re seated for dinner at the aforementioned table 16. A man in a suit who looks like Lex Luthor but is named Kevin has come on his own, with no magazine affiliations. We aren’t sure if he even has a ticket, but he’s gregarious and buys wine for the table. He says he also used to be a bouncer in the UK (the feature story I’m nominated for is about being a female doorman) so we trade war stories.
We’re also seated with a couple of women from Capilano College and a few folks from Enterprise Magazine. There's a lot of cleavage at our table. Kevin/Lex is definitely a tit man, though he’s wearing a wedding ring.
Dinner: one piece of skin-on chicken with no aspirations, an impotent couple of spears of asparagus, and what seems to be Minute Rice. Worse still, the awards start DURING dinner, so everyone is distracted. I can hardly eat anyway because I want to get this over with. Also, I’m worried about my heel-beasties, which make me hope that I don’t win so I don’t have to walk up to the stage.
Bill is a funny host, but doesn’t seem terribly invested. People look blasé while they poke at their dinners and listen to dull speeches. My award category is the eleventh one announced. I think about what my friend Clea wrote to me earlier: “I know how one gets psyched up around these things, and how exhausting it is having one half of your brain telling you you’re not going to win while the other half is like, 'Why won’t I win? These are the best odds I've ever had!'” My table cheers nice and loud when my name is announced, but the guy who wrote about gay marriage wins instead.
I give up on dinner and text Lee to ask if he has any goat people at his table. He texts back, “they’re one table away... so close so far...sigh.... i love goat people.” I reply with, ‘baaahhhh”, which in hindsight is the noise sheep make, not goats.
Finally, the “Best New Magazine” category is announced. When Goats Across Canada is named the whole room comes alive for the first time, clapping and cheering. They don’t win though, so Bill says, “Can’t we give them something?” He has the Goats Across Canada editor come up and hands him a bottle of water that the editor of Swerve (who got the Lifetime Achievement Award) has already had a sip from. It’s the only thing available that’s portable and remotely prized-shaped.
Dessert is better than dinner—a fluffy circle of confident cheesecake.
When the ceremony is finally over, we say merry goodbyes to our tablemates. Before leaving, I see Zsuzsi Gartner in the bathroom. She’s wearing green tights and says she’d been cheering for me.
A. and I walk to a new pub in the old Marine Building for a nightcap. The waitress says we look nice. We wore the same outfits to another gala earlier in the week. A. had been nominated for a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award. He'd also lost. After the pub, A. leads me for a walk along Coal Harbour where the new convention centre is being built. Wearing heels is like playing pool—I’m better at it with a little liquor in me. The breeze makes my hair and hem flutter like I’m on a set. A. takes my hand and we keep going, two happy losers.
LISTS // A Childhood in Contests
Prize: A Fat Lot of Nothin’
Grade two. A contest to see who can sell the most school raffle tickets. The prize: a bike. I already have a bike with a glittery banana seat, but I still want to win. It’s pointless to try though because a blond kid named Danny, who’s so cute you want to put him in your pocket, stands outside Western Foods working his smile and hawking tickets to housewives every day of the contest. When we go grocery shopping, I consider running into him with our cart.
Prize: Trophy for Highest Flying Kite
Pre grade-five. A new town and our parents are making my brother and me do stuff to “fit in”. This pisses us off. All we want is to read our books. They enter us in The Salmon Festival’s kite flying competition. We stand down on the foreshore like limp little shits, refusing to run with the kite. We take turns holding the spool while our old man, his wedding band glinting in the sun, carefully coaxes the line out as the kite climbs higher and higher. The win is both hollow and mortifying for the attention it draws.
Prize: Third Place Ribbon for a Camel Spin
Grade-five. A figure skating competition after maybe a year of lessons. I’m wearing leg warmers an aunt has knit for me. One is shorter than the other. The camel spin is probably the most elegant thing I’ve ever done in my life—either that or there are only three girls competing. Either way, it's quite something for a girl who's never even won Bronze during ParticipACTION. A few months later, at a public skate, I try to do the same spin and break my arm.
Prize: Jujubes for Most Jujubes Stuffed in Cheeks
Pre grade-seven. A family fishing derby. An uncle creates a contest to see who can fit the most jujubes in their mouth. The competition takes place on the front steps of our house. All my relatives, who have by then been drinking for two days, stand around clapping their hands together and chanting, “Jilly! Jilly!” while I chipmunk my cheeks one jujube at a time, full and then fuller. No one else competes and I’m declared the winner. For a prize, I’m allowed to eat all the jujubes in my mouth.