Last week an e-mail about a short story competition landed in my in-box. I went to open it. I stopped. I moved my finger across the keyboard, pressed delete and sent it to oblivion.
For some time now I have been feeling more and more queasy about writing competitions. Competitions, I have begun to think, are not good for writers. They are certainly not good for me. The time has come to go cold turkey.
But why? After all, if you are a short story writer or a poet, competitions are almost the only way to get your work read. Publishers aren’t interested, but competitions allow you to send your babies off into the world to take their chance.
For me, it all started in New York, where writing tutors at the New School waved my manuscripts in front of me and urged me to ‘get your work out there’. In the States, that meant sending your stories out to the country’s many literary competitions – some of them so prestigious that people queued at midnight to buy the prize-winning anthology.
But returning to the UK meant returning to a different writing culture. Here, the only writing competitions around appeared to be run by the Macclesfield Writer’s Circle, or by small charities wanting stories about cats or kindness.
Even so, trained in the American way, I sent my stories off to anyone who wanted them. I won some small cheques. Newer, bigger competitions arrived on the scene and more of my stories swam off into that wider sea. They, too, won some awards, and were published in collections and reviews. Last year almost every story I submitted found its way to the top of the competitive pile.
But even writing that sentence makes me feel cheap and uneasy. It seems to suggest that writing is merely a game, with winning the only objective. And, too often, I’ve started to think, that’s exactly what writing competitions turn writing into.
Because what I’ve come to realise is that the stories of mine that do well are rarely the stories that I feel are my best. Rather, they are the ones that leap from the pile because of some shock value, unusual subject matter, quirky title, or matching of a judge’s interest.
And I’ve noticed, too, that if you enter a lot of competitions you slowly but surely start to give people what you think they want. You write shorter and tighter because that’s what the entry conditions demand; you choose eye-catching subjects; rework old pieces to fit new rules; and knock out new pieces just to have a go at some new contest or other that’s caught your eye.
In short, you start to become a hack; and when that happens it’s definitely time to get off the merry-go-round and get back to writing the things that matter.
And that’s what I now plan to do.
But this, just for the record, is what I’ve learned from my competition journey: competitions make great servants, but lousy masters. Use them carefully and by all means send off work that you believe in – winning a big competition is one of the best boosts to writing confidence around.
But remember, too, that writing competitions can sing siren songs of fame and acclaim that will ensnare you and lure you onto the rocks of empty daydreams. So if you ever fear that competitions are distorting your aims, or wasting your time, or deflecting your energies – give them up immediately!