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WOW! Q3 2021 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest Winners


We had an open topic this season. Our only guidelines were that submissions be nonfiction with a minimum of 200 words, and a maximum of 1,000 words.



It is the sincere desire of our sponsor that each writer will keep her focus and never give up. Mari L. McCarthy has kindly donated a prize to each winning contestant. All of the items in her shop are inspiring and can help you reach your writing goals. Write on!

CreateWriteNow with Mari L. McCarthy

Note to Contestants:

We want to thank each and every one of you for sharing your wonderful essays with our judges this season. We know it takes a lot to hit the send button! While we’d love to give every contestant a prize, just for your writing efforts, that wouldn’t be much of a competition. One of the hardest things we do after a contest ends is to confirm that someone didn’t place in the winners’ circle. But, believe it when we say that every one of you is a true winner for participating.

To recap our current process, we have a roundtable of 8+ judges who score equally formatted submissions based on: Subject, Content, and Technical. If a contestant scores well on the first round, she receives an e-mail notification that she passed the initial judging phase. The second round judging averages out scores and narrows down the top 20 entries. From this point, our final judges help to determine the First, Second, and Third Place Winners, followed by the Runners Up.

As with any contest, judging so many talented writers is not a simple process. With blind judging, all contestants start from the same point, no matter the skill level, experience, or writing credentials. It’s the writer’s essay and voice that shines through, along with the originality, powerful and clear writing, and the writer’s heart.

We hope that you continue to enter so we can watch you grow as writers and essayists, because each season is a rebirth of opportunity!

Now on to the winners!

Drum roll please....

1st Place Winner
1st Place:  Meghan Robins
Bend, Oregon
Congratulations, Meghan!
Meghan Robins

Meghan’s Bio:

Meghan Robins was born and raised in Tahoe City, California, and currently resides in Bend, Oregon. Her short fiction and creative essays have appeared in VoiceCatcher, Powder, Kokanee Review, and the anthology Tahoe Blues. Her essay “Desolate & Wild” won the Tahoe Summer Annual 2012 Writing Competition for Moonshine Ink. Her verbal storytelling skills were highlighted at the Boldly Went: YOUR Adventure Stories, when her live rendition of “Record High Snow Levels in the High Sierra” was made into a podcast (episode 111). Meghan is currently writing an historical novel set in a Tahoe logging camp in 1860. When not writing or working as a Marketing & Communications Specialist, she’s most often found baking, drinking tea, and exploring the mountains (if she’s lucky, all at the same time). You can read more of her work on her blog at

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Being a Woman is Like Making French Onion Soup


(Recipe from Joy of Cooking)


It starts with crying.

Thinly slice:

5 medium onions

No matter how strong or resilient or tough as nails you might be, cutting that many onions will make you cry. Deal with it. Embrace it. Just cry. In fact, I recommend making French Onion Soup when you’re feeling strange because then you can let it out. Let your strangeness out, without having to explain why.

Heat in a soup pot over medium-low heat:

2 Tablespoons olive oil

While the oil heats, continue slicing perfectly (or imperfectly) julienned onions. If you can complete this task before the blurry vision and uncontrollable tears set in, great. If not, don’t worry. A woman knows how to push through her emotions to get the job done. Dinner must go on.

Melt into the pot:

2 Tablespoons butter

Still wiping tears on the back of your sleeves, holding a knife dangerously close (but quite under control), you listen to the spits and farts of melting butter. A gorgeous smell wafts upward. Take a deep breath here. Take this moment, while staying ever so cautious of the looming shift to burning. Splash in more olive oil to cool the temperature and preserve this moment, this smell, for just a second longer.

Add to the pot:

Prepared onions
Pinch of dried thyme

A pinch of time. Let’s all sit on that idea for a moment...

Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally and keeping an eye on the onions, so they do not scorch. As soon as they start to brown, about 15 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, covered, stirring until they are a rich brown, about 40 minutes. Stir in:

2 Tablespoons dry sherry or Cognac

Who measures sherry by the tablespoon? My soup deserves much more than a jigger. In fact, so do I. I rarely keep sherry or Cognac, so I opt for a bottle of white wine. If I’m out, then I reach for the dry Vermouth. And if I’m going to reach for dry Vermouth, I’m making myself a Manhattan.

Add one bay leaf

A symbol of glory and achievement. Your wreath of laurels. Joy of Cooking does not include a bay leaf in their recipe. French Onion Soup does not need a bay leaf. You do not need a bay leaf. Yet I add one. Why? Because I have already achieved so much. I’ve cried (onions). Forgiven myself (butter). Breathed deeply (pinch of thyme). Cared for myself (Manhattan). If you add a bay leaf, as I often do, it is simply a symbol of your womanhood. Your reward for forgiving yourself, for just being who you are.

Increase the heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until the sherry has evaporated. Stir in:

3 1/2 cups beef stock

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes. Season with salt & pepper to taste.

The calm before the storm has passed. Your life (partner, kids, work, landlord, weather, whatever...) bustles through the door, brandishing iron and protein, a brash energy that conflicts with your newfound calm. The onions, which browned beautifully on their own accord, suddenly become immersed in a flavorful bath. Their hard work of patient, slow softening disappears, overpowered by the stronger beef flavor. But that’s okay. You are a woman. You knew this would happen.

Place 8 ovenproof soup bowls on a baking sheet. Ladle the hot soup into the bowls and top each with:

1 to 3 slices French bread, toasted
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere or Swiss (1 1/2 cups total)

Broil until the cheese is melted and brown.

After one hour, your whirlwind of emotions is tucked neatly to bed under a layer of bread and cheese. Nobody knows that you added a secret ingredient of forgiveness. It is likely that nobody cares. But I care. I know that at least for today, I have taken the time to forgive myself. For what? I don’t know. But I know I needed to cry. I know I needed to feel nourished. I know that every day I need to feel grateful that I am a woman.



What Meghan Won:

2nd Place Winner
2nd Place:  Leah Bradshaw
Boston, Massachusetts
Congratulations, Leah!
Leah Bradshaw

Leah’s Bio:

Leah Bradshaw is a freelance writer and English teacher from Massachusetts. In 2018, her creative writing was accepted into the Cambridge Writers Workshop and she was invited to travel to New Orleans with a select group of writers and distinguished instructors. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst where she majored in English and Journalism. In 2008, her writing was accepted as part of a selective Travel Journalism program at the university, and she was invited to travel to Sicily, where she wrote several articles and creative nonfiction under the mentorship of both esteemed professors and fellow students.

Leah is currently working on a collection of personal essays and short stories, titled Pink Lines, which will focus on past fertility struggles, a period of time that she considers one of her darkest and most challenging, but also profoundly influential on her writing. As an educator, she hopes to encourage her students to recognize that writing can be one of the most powerful and cathartic tools—they simply have to be brave enough to begin.

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Small and Quiet Tragedies


I wake at six with the news that you’re not coming.

It is unceremonious as usual: cold bathroom tile, scream of overhead lights, a spill of crimson on balled-up tissue. I’m always perplexed by how fast it seeps through that chalky material, morphing into a murderous glob of red-so-red it’s black. I let the toilet water catch it with a dense plunk that sounds and feels quite final: The period at the end of a very long sentence.

This is your monthly telegram. You’re not coming. Soon, I feel the slow pull of the crowbar in my groin and I remember that this is a multi-step process, it doesn’t just dissolve with your lack of an RSVP.

I clamor for the bottle of Advil below the bathroom sink. We keep it in here, mostly for this event. I chase five down with rust-tasting faucet water. I worry that five might be too many, but then, you aren’t here and I feel reckless with my body once again. Tonight there will be wine and vodka and probably McDonald’s or Taco Bell. There will be sleeping in, and not showering, and forgetting deodorant. There will be funny movies and empty laughter.

I lift each leg back up the stairs to the bedroom that I share with your dad. The mattress absorbs my weight like a giant gauzy bandage; I, the gaping wound. Your dad is still asleep. Something about the back of his head, the way the sandy blonde tufts gather at his crown and form an “o” shape, like a baby’s mouth, makes me wonder if perhaps yours has that same swirl. Does it? And I feel a choking need to see your head. To know its pores.

Much later, I get dressed. In a peculiar twist of events, you’ve been considerate enough to send bloat. My belly bulges with the irony of your absence. I shove it out in the mirror, running my hands over it like a globe or a precious stone, pretending to explain to my friends, “Oh we’re not finding out the gender—why ruin such a wonderful surprise!?”

I haven’t been surprised in years. Even our fridge knows my internal system like clockwork. On its door we keep a magnetic calendar marking my ovulation days in pink sharpie. In blue we have the potential dates where you might show first hints of arrival: heightened sense of smell, ligament pain, achy boobs. I sniff for these clues like a truffle pig but always come up short. With each desperate wheeze of the sharpie I picture the bagged fruit inside our freezer letting out one long impatient sigh.

Our fridge also contains magnetic invitations to several baby showers. Your dad says, “Just don’t go,” but instead I go all the way. I spend too much money on the perfect dress and apply way too much makeup. I’ll wear Spanx to remind people that sometimes not having a belly is cool, too. I’ll apply self-tanning lotion that makes my hands smell like old pennies, because non-pregnant skin can also glow – Why shouldn’t it? These things mean I am a woman, I really am. And I need them to know it, too.

I’ve spent a lot of money on you. Vitex-berry capsules, raspberry leaf tea, overpriced packets of dried herbs that might as well be oregano, even a vaginal steaming kit that came with a pouch of what looked like potpourri and an index card with a burn warning. You sent it all back.

A few years ago I joined a local Rotary club. I needed something to fill your void. Through the club I chaired a literacy committee. I worked on a grant that brought clean water filters to a village in Tanzania. I was eventually voted club president. The night of my induction I received several awards. I wore a bleachy white dress from Amazon. Everyone said I looked lovely. But none of it seemed to count. After the ceremony, your dad handed me a bouquet of pale pink roses and a card that told me he was proud of me. We stood under the swampy glow of a street lamp and I cried on his new suit. I thought of how he might do these things for you after a school play or a soccer game. How desperately hungry we were to know you.

Last September we did something called an IUI. It’s a procedure where they take your dad’s sperm (I know, gag!) and they inject it through a catheter into my uterus. It hurt more than I expected, but it was over quickly. Afterwards, we walked around a nearby Wegmans, sampling cider donuts and eyeing gourmet coffee beans. I had already caught myself searching for the decaf. The imported wine shelves stood adjacent to the counter of deli meats. I glanced at both and couldn’t wait to give it all up for you. I said a silent goodbye to sushi that day, too. These severed ties filled me with an excitement that bordered delirium. You were just a few hours free from the catheter, but I was buoyant with purpose.

Outside, the late September air was shedding its last strands of warmth, and a brisk sweep of Autumn bit at our cheeks as we paced back to the car, a bit more cautious with each step. I was carrying so much. I could barely breathe. I might become a mother by May, I beamed as I chewed an apple donut on the ride. Right before Mother’s Day.

Twelve days later, I received your telegram.

Both of your uncles weighed over ten pounds at birth. I remember your grandmother—a tiny woman!—describing it as something otherworldly, a feral kind of pain that scorches everything except the memory of it.

A searing, slicing, organ-gripping hurt.

I’ve been tempted to nod and say, I’ve felt that. I know.

So maybe when you do come, I won’t feel a thing.



What Leah Won:

3rd Place Winner
3rd Place: Sophia Joan
Congratulations, Soph!
Sophia Joan

Sophia’s Bio:

Soph lives and works as a teacher in the mountains, where she writes at dawn and dusk. She gravitates towards nonlinear and genre-bending writing styles to help make sense of the messy, grey world around her. When she is not writing or teaching, she can be found reading too many books at once and making mint tea. Her favorite life lessons often come from queer cartoons. Her recent work can be found in Anti-Heroin Chic, Entropy Magazine, and Phoebe Journal. To follow more of her writing journey, check out her brand new twitter account @sophiajoan2.

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(Some of) what he gave you:



Some pains can’t be written away.


Together, you two stand in the doorway, arguing to be the sole embodiment of your favorite color blue.


In the bottom right drawer of an old craigslist desk: a paper bag with four broken geode pieces; two books of poetry; a pile of corks, initialled and saved; a white print of Istanbul on a worn out V-neck; a birthday card envelope without the card.


A pedestal to break.


It is better when there is someone else’s clean skin to kiss.


Rooftops are beautiful at sunrise, until you can see the dirt that’s collected.


Orange peels, when spread across window sills, smell like sex.


On top of a wooden dresser: a thin gold chain with three small jeweled birds sitting on a branch and an evil eye underneath, like the one your mother owned.


Inside your kitchen cabinet: two silver teapots from his home in Turkey, stacked together; two tea glasses and their plates, rimmed in gold paint.


Is your childhood worth understanding?


I stopped listening, is not endearing.


Learn to love time spent alone.


In an old present box: a polaroid shot of you two, lying in bed, naked; camera film from your trip together through Turkey; a moleskin journal full of notes; tickets and passes and restaurant cards held by a rubber band.


In a bag at the back of your closet: an old black soccer jersey with a small stain on the chest that you once wore for his favorite team, the one you wore for his good luck.


Your introduction to poetry and collaborations, drinking tea for pleasure, not revival.


Olive oil is better than butter for breakfast.


Inside a woven backpack: the small leather purse his mother bought you; the red knitted hat his mother made you.


Sliced tomatoes make for a lovely snack.


Pressed against your chest, an imprint of his cheek, warm.


First kiss a person’s intelligence; it is lovelier than the first touch of lips.


The left side of his body.


Your first trip out of the country.


Always keep water by the bed for the morning.


Together, you agree to share a title, each almost, but not quite, blue.


Two nicknames nobody else will use.


Don’t always be the small spoon.


An empty apology hurts more than an absent one.


Be mindful of your salt, not his.


Cigarette hands pressed against your sides, staining your curves.


You’ll miss the smell of his skin in the morning.


A stove top serves the same purpose as a toaster.


The middle of the bed can be warm.


One dance in four locations.


Words smell sweeter than flowers at night.


You can still be almost blue, even in his absence.


On a wall by your window: a wall hanging of the Puerto Rican porch where he wanted to sit together, watching the world spin on and on, the one with the brown wood railings, white edges, and fake flower leaves that still fall off, red.



What Sophia Won:


Congratulations to the runners-up! It was very close, and these essays are excellent in every way.

Click on the titles to read:

Picking Blueberries by Annie Eacy, Ithaca, New York

How to Write a Perfect Sentence by Jeanie Ransom, O’Fallon, MO/Northport, MI

Pineapples by Krista Beucler, Fort Collins, Colorado

The Shape of Loneliness by Michelle Walshe, Dublin, Ireland

The Care of Orchids by Jennifer L. Theoret, Vermont

A Mother’s Whale Song by Betsy Armstrong, Oak Park, Illinois

Broken Hearts and Broken Dishes by Vanessa G. Foster, Fort Worth, Texas

What the Runners Up Won:


Congratulations to our Essay Contest Honorable Mentions! Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.

The Chest by Eden McCarthy, Talent, Oregon

The Sound of Silence by Jodi Rempel, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

It Happened in a Flash by Michelle Dwyer, Cedar Park, Texas

The Academic Midwife: A Cautionary Tale by Adrianne Aron, Berkeley, California

A Malignant Silence by Rose Ann Sinay, New Preston, Connecticut

Three Lies by Kristen Ritter, Anchorage, Alaska

Trapped by Margaret Kowalski, Delmar, New York

The Year of Magical Zooming by Rose Carmen Goldberg, Oakland, California

For the Record I Will Not Steal Your Baby by Carrie Jade Williams, Ireland

Bari Gesher, Metshayric by Persephone Pilibossian, Phoenix, Arizona


What the Honorable Mentions Won:


Thanks to our Judges:

Chelsey Clammer

Chelsey Clammer

Chelsey Clammer Chelsey Clammer is the award-winning author of Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). A Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist, she has been published in Salon, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, Hobart, The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and Black Warrior Review, among many others. Her third collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Chelsey received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rainier Writing Workshop. You can read more of her writing at:


Naomi Kimbell

Naomi Anna Kimbell

Naomi Anna Kimbell earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Calyx, The Sonder Review, and other literary journals and anthologies. To learn more about Naomi, please visit her website.


Melissa Grunow

Melissa Grunow

Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don’t Belong Here (New Meridian Arts Press, September 2018) and Realizing River City: A Memoir (Tumbleweed Books, 2016), which won Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards and the Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays 2016, 2018, and 2019 notables. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.


Sarah Weaver

Sarah Broussard Weaver

Sarah Broussard Weaver received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program at PLU. Her work has appeared in Full Grown People, The Nervous Breakdown, The Bitter Southerner, Brevity, Crack the Spine, and Hippocampus, among others. She lives in the hills of Portland, Oregon.


Melanie Faith

Melanie Faith

Melanie Faith is a poet, fictionist, photographer, auntie, and professor. Her craft book about how to write flash fiction and nonfiction, entitled In a Flash! was published in April 2018, and a craft book for poets, Poetry Power, was published in late October 2018 (also by Vine Leaves Press). Her historical poetry collection, This Passing Fever, set in the 1918 influenza epidemic, was published by Future Cycle press in early September 2017. Her Jane-Austen style Regency novella was also published in September 2017 by Uncial Press and RONE-award nominated. Her writing has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. Her short stories were recently published in Red Coyote and SunLit Fiction. Her poetry most-recently appeared in Prometheus Dreaming (May 2019), Up North Lit, Meniscus, and in Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Her photography recently appeared in Barren Magazine, Fourth & Sycamore, Harbor Review, Sum Journal, and And So Yeah. In 2018, two of her craft books were published, and her next book, Photography for Writers, was recently published by Vine Leaves Press. Learn more about her latest projects at:


Ashley Memory

Ashley Memory

Ashley Memory lives in rural Randolph County, North Carolina, with her sculptor husband, Johnpaul Harris. When she’s not musing on a new metaphor, she’s trying to learn to drive a skid-steer loader and move earth. Her writing has appeared in many journals, magazines and anthologies, most recently in Real Simple, Wired, The Sun, The Phoenix (Issue 61), The Rumpus, County Lines, O.Henry, and Rooted in Rights. Her lyric essay, “A Tale of Two Tumbles,” won first prize in the 2020 Carolina Woman Writing Contest, and her first poetry collection, Waiting for the Wood Thrush, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2019. She writes a column for the WOW! Women on Writing markets newsletter, and she’s currently at work on a memoir of her life in the Uwharries. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she’s twice won the Doris Betts Prize sponsored by the N.C. Writers' Network. Her first novel, Naked and Hungry, was named a finalist in the 2009 James Jones First Novel Fellowship competition sponsored by Wilkes University and was published in 2011 by Ingalls Publishing Group. For a forkful of the literary life, follow her blog, Cherries and Chekhov.


Thanks to WOW Staff:

As always, thank you to the WOW! staff for your careful deliberation and attention to detail. Special thanks to Margo L. Dill, Mary Horner, and Angela Mackintosh for helping out with this contest.




This brings the Q3 2021 essay contest officially to a close! Although we’re not able to send a special prize to every contestant, we will always give our heartfelt thanks for your participation and contribution, and for your part in making WOW! all that it can be. Each one of you has found the courage to enter, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in itself. Best of luck, and write on!

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