On prizes and the writing life
I’ve been lucky enough to win a number of prizes over the years that have let me keep writing. Not prizes in terms of big money, although I’ve definitely received a few cheques when I needed them most. No, I mean prizes with little or no money attached that have nevertheless given me the mental boost to keep on writing.
Let me explain.
The life of a writer is full of doubt and uncertainty, especially when you’re starting out and you’re tying to find your voice, you’re not that good yet, etc. (Some may say I’m still not very good, but that’s a subject for their blog posts, not mine.) There are a few things that help during this time: good reviews, good sales, and prizes. The first two are hard to get when you’re an unknown and a beginner. Every writer dreams of blockbuster sales and starred reviews in their favourite publication, but the fact is most emerging writers are ignored and don’t earn back their advance, if they even get an advance. I’m still hit and miss on that myself.
But prizes? Any writer can win a prize if your writing is good and you find the right judge/jury who sees what you’re trying to say, who understands your voice.
This happened to me a number of times early in my writing career. I think the first prize I won was an award for best story from On Spec, Canada’s long-running and well-respected sci-fi and fantasy journal. It came at a time when I was struggling with a lot of life issues and I didn’t know if it made sense to keep writing. Then I got the good news from On Spec and I learned to believe in myself again, thanks to that wonderful editorial board believing in me. The prize certificate is still hanging on my office wall, and I still feel grateful whenever I look at it. And I still remember to believe in myself and get back to writing.
After that, I won more awards — a university writing prize, an Ontario Arts Council prize for best manuscript and so on. There were writing grants thrown in here and there, which every writer knows are just as important as any award in terms of believing in yourself and your writing. Perhaps my favourite has been the ReLit Award. It came in the form of a beautiful ring, not money, which is just as well. Money would have been long gone by now. But the ring is still with me, and it’s almost either always on my writing desk or on one of my fingers, where I compose secret messages to myself with it.
I’m not writing this post to talk about my trophy list and impress the handful of readers that come to this blog. That’s not what this is about. I will say that I feel incredibly lucky to have received these awards — and to have had a chance at the writing career I’ve had. I know much of that came from happenstance. As a white male who lived in the centre of Canada’s publishing scene for a while and helped run a popular reading series with Paul Vermeersch, I was somewhat within the system, if you want to call it that.
Now imagine that you long to be a writer but you’re far outside of the system, geographically and/or otherwise. Say you’re an indigenous person, or a person from some other group that has been systematically silenced over the ages. How much harder is it to believe in yourself and that your voice matters then? How incredibly important it must be to have spaces to speak and awards to validate you then — likely far more important than it has been for me.
I bring all this up because of an ongoing controversy in CanLit over cultural appropriation. I don’t want to get into all the details here because that’s not my thing — you can Google it easily enough if you’re interested. It’s an ugly situation all around, but some good may come out of it. My friend and fellow writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia has launched an effort to create an Emerging Indigenous Voices Award to “focus on Indigenous writers, on marginalized writers.” Silvia offered up $500 of her own money to start it, and so far other people have pledged more than $4,000 toward the prize.
This is a good thing.
As I think I’ve made clear, prizes are the things that can keep a writer going. They’re not about winning, about being better than other writers. They are about recognizing and validating a writer’s voice. They’re about feeling that what you do matters, that your words matter, that you matter.
I imagine there have been many writers who would not have gone on to write their stories if they hadn’t won a prize at some point or another to give them that boost. There probably have been many writers we have missed out on because of this. We’ll never know. Maybe we need more prizes to ensure all the stories that need to be told get told. After all, when we are all gone, our stories are all that will remain of us.
Help out Silvia with her award if you can, and let’s help more people tell their stories that matter.