It’s not a competition. Unless it is. Then it’s a competition.

After thinking to myself “I really need to learn how to just do absolutely nothing instead of trying to find things to distract myself with” and then proceeding to find things to distract myself with so that I don’t have to do absolutely nothing, I decided to at least look up some writing competitions and see if I can enter any. (I can enter one. The others I’ve missed the deadline for.) Entering writing competitions is something you do if you’re “serious about writing”, because it shows that you’re, I dunno, not committed enough to your two-and-a-half-year project to work on that instead of wrestling with the thorn of inadequacy that lodges itself in your side when you start thinking “if I was really serious about writing I’d enter some writing competitions; because I have not entered any writing competitions I must therefore not be serious about writing”.

Then you actually read some of the stuff that wins.

If “inadequate” was what came before, then upon reading this shit I progress from there to “especially inadequate because I don’t want to do this shit that I’m supposed to want to do because it would show that I was serious about writing if I wanted to do this but I don’t so I’m obviously not”.

They’re well-written, in a very sort of writing competition way. Yes I’m bitter. I want to want to do this thing that I really don’t want to do because at the moment all of my habits feel very insular, and when I read these stories and see that people have written things for an audience as opposed to just themselves, I just wonder what the point is in my writing anything at all.

I mean what would it be like if I entered one of these competitions? What’s the worst that could happen? I spend a few days or a week writing something that ultimately only I will ever care about, if I care about it at all, instead of writing something else, like my fucking novel that still isn’t finished and that I am now at a point with that makes me question whether I actually have the capacity to tell a story at all?

And I mean it’s not even like I don’t want to do something like that. One of the competitions I’m looking at entering has as its condition that the story take direction from this Charles Dickens quote: “… it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” I have ideas for that. Well, I have idea for that. That speaks to me a bit. But … I dunno; it feels to me like even if it does speak to me, it won’t speak to me in such a way that will actually allow me to win one of these things, to be what the judges are looking for. It’ll just inspire me to do what I always do, writing-wise, and the way I write is not the way people who win writing competitions write.

I read these winning entries that are to prose what The Blair Witch Project is to the documentary genre, and all I can see is somebody who knows how to game the system, who knows what winning entries look like and who is very good at applying that formula. I just see people who are good at winning writing competitions; I don’t see an opportunity for me to showcase my talent or develop my skills, because it’s not the way I write and it holds no fucking appeal to me to learn how to write that way.

And yet it does, because it’s a way of writing that feels like it comes from a place of being active in and connected to the world, which is not how I’ve felt since I was 11 years old. And since I was about 15 years old it’s felt like it’s too late for me to get involved again; the amount of time I spend feeling that way has gone down from like 85% of the time to about 50/50, but it’s still there. Even writing formula requires being aware of the formula and how to manipulate it; formula is something I look down on a lot of the time, but the truth is that I’m jealous of the people who can do it well, because it means that at least they’re applying themselves to getting good at something, and it’s something that people obviously respond to. It’s kind of like that episode of Family Guy (which I religiously avoid watching) where Brian decides he can write a motivational bestselling book in three hours, after getting fed up with not finding success writing the things he’s passionate about: I feel like I could write these kinds of stories, that I could be aware of all the notes that they hit and the order in which they hit them …

I dunno. I don’t know how these people get to write this way, if it’s because they study winning entries and just get really good at this formula I keep talking about, or if it’s because that’s how they write normally and it just happened to catch the judge’s eye. I mean it’s kind of awful to judge people’s writing by assuming that they’re only using that style because they’re trying to win something.

And yet, they are trying to win something. They are in a competition. So maybe it’s not so much awful as just cynical.

I suppose my main underlying anxiety here is that I’ll enter into a competition with other people and lose. And in a sense, that’s what people do every day; people don’t get jobs after going to an interview, or they don’t get straight A’s in their papers, or they’re interested in the same person as somebody else and end up being the one who gets rejected. You can see competition everywhere, if you look at things a certain way. I’m not saying it’s healthy, but it’s an option.

And I only care at all because, again, there’s the part of me insisting that I should care, because caring about writing competitions is the mark of a serious writer, and in order to fit into that category I need to care about certain things. I don’t fucking care. I could happily go my entire goddamn life without ever entering a single writing competition. But at the same time, I want to get published, I want people to read my shit, and I am very worried about my writing being insular. I have gotten some wonderful feedback from friends who have read my stuff and it’s very encouraging, but I do still worry about people being able to relate to what I write about, and the way that I write it. I worry that in my quest to just “do me” I’m neglecting to develop my writing skills; on the one hand, “writing skills” comes with some very specific rules that I don’t like because I think it’s all down to personal self-expression – but on the other hand, if it’s something that people respond to, and if sometimes it actually seems appealing to me …

I don’t know. Maybe this is one of those situations where you have to “be true to yourself”, whatever the hell that means, rather than trying to fit yourself into a “box” … I don’t really like either side of the counter-culture ethos, honestly. I just wanna write, and I want people to like it.

I do want to write more in a more connective way, but maybe I already do. Maybe it’s just that I’m literally comparing my first draft to other people’s finished products.

I do think there’s something to learn from these entries. I do think there’s a system I could try to game if I wanted. But I also think, whether or not I enter into any of these competitions, there are ways of writing that I could stand to study, and a collective consciousness of writing that I could enter into and draw on for my own writing, if I so desired. I mean we learn through imitation, right?

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m supposed to be writing an essay, and I don’t want to do that, but at this point even if I don’t want a career in academia, I don’t want a job either, and I need to make a living somehow, so why not academia since I’m already there? And why not try out these writing competitions, seeing as I’m still nowhere near finished with Tallulah? Why not try and learn some of this “formula” and see if it’s actually as horrid as I think it is – to see if I even know what “formula” is, beyond some vague notion of a cookie-cutter, unoriginal, impersonal cloning process that results in highly derivative works?

Why is it that as soon as I put it that way, it suddenly sounds like a really fun idea? I can learn how to write formula. I can learn to do it better than anybody.

I can win this competition.


Writers are weird. In case you hadn’t noticed.


2 thoughts on “It’s not a competition. Unless it is. Then it’s a competition.

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