For the ninth installment of our Winners on Winning series, we spoke with Jacob Newberry, who won the Ploughshares Emerging Writer's Contest in nonfiction for his essay What You Will Do. The prize, given annually in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, includes $1,000 and publication in Ploughshares. Newberry is originally from the Mississippi coast, and is a PhD student in creative writing, with an emphasis in poetry, at Florida State University.
Has winning this award, or previous awards, changed the way you approach your work?
The awards I've won, and this one in particular, have given me a very tangible validation for my writing. I think we can all understand how nice this might feel when it's never happened, but it's more than a nice feeling: It's an important form of motivation. There were many times when I was just starting to write when I'd convince myself that I wasn't any good at it at all. In the first workshop I ever took, which was when I was working on an MA (not in creative writing), most of the people in the class were workshop pros and were actually quite hostile toward me. They took a lot of opportunities not just to tear down the work (which needed tearing down) but to really tear down my ambition altogether. At the time, I was new enough to writing that it was pretty damaging. The effect was that I stopped believing in my skills as a writer for a while, though I never stopped writing.
Once I started winning awards and seeing things in print, though, I stopped doubting and fearing my ambition. And if that self-doubt ever creeps up on me again, I can remember that I had the same feeling of worry and panic and confusion when I was writing the pieces that won these awards, and so I should spend the energy on the writing and not on unfounded panic.
The bottom line is that winning hasn't changed the way I write. If it had, I suspect it would be only for the worse. As I said, it's really been a way of mitigating the self-doubt that all writers experience when we're not writing. So when I step away from the page, that's when the self-sabotage might begin. The difference now is that I just don't let it begin at all.
Have you ever entered a contest that you didn't win?
I've entered plenty of contests that I didn't win. Not winning those contests actually gave me a better sense of perspective once I did start winning. All awards are about quality writing to a large extent, of course, but there's also a really unknowable percentage of it that's just chance. Who are the first readers of your submission, and what if their taste is simply different from yours (or the final judge's)? What effect does submitting late or early or right in the middle have on the time and attention given to your piece? What if the editor tells you she absolutely loves your poem about Jerusalem, but she just published some Jerusalem poems last issue, and now it's too soon to revisit that topic? (The last one happened to me.)
What advice would you offer to writers thinking of submitting to writing contests?
Save your very best work and submit it only to contests that you'd be proud to win or place in. If winning that contest would be an important enough achievement for you and the contest requires a fee, then pay it. Otherwise, never pay for a contest that doesn't give you a subscription in return.
For more Winners on Winning, read the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, and check back next Wednesday for a new installment.