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.
THANK YOU TO OUR CONTEST SPONSOR:
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!
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: Courtney Harler
Las Vegas, Nevada
Courtney Harler is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds an MFA from University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (2017) and an MA from Eastern Washington University (2013). Courtney is currently editor-in-chief of CRAFT, and has read and written for The Masters Review, Funicular Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and Chicago Literati in recent years. She also cohosts the literary podcast PWN's Debut Review, as well as instructs and edits for Project Write Now. For her creative work, Courtney has been honored by fellowships from Writing By Writers, Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Nevada Arts Council. Courtney’s work has been published in multiple genres in literary magazines around the world. Links to her publications and other related awards can be found at https://harlerliterary.llc. Find Courtney on Instagram @CourtneyHarler or on Twitter @CourtneyHarler1.
Be Still My Mother
Not that you would know, but no one writes real letters anymore—only text or maybe an email. But since I can’t quite reach you where you are (Where are you?) in any mode of communication, I figured I should just write to you the way I write—typing at my keyboard so that my hands can keep up with my brain. My hands, speaking of, smell like vinegar right now. Your teenage grandchild very helpfully descaled the teapot today with fresh white vinegar, and the tang lingers.
Every time I drink tea I think of you. You drank coffee in the morning and herbal fruit tea in the afternoon. You asked me to prepare your tea for you when you felt unwell, which was often—but I could never remember if you had to add the goat milk or the clover honey first to a fruit tea, so that it wouldn’t curdle. Many a cup I made you curdled, in the end, and you refused to drink them. Couldn’t stomach the chunks. For myself, I don’t like fruit tea, with its too-tartness that even added sweetness can’t temper.
I suppose the real reason I’m thinking about you is because your genes are overriding my genes these days, as I age. I have your hypothyroid disease, your lower intestine disease. I do what you did: morning coffee (but only decaf because of my anxiety, which maybe I also got from you but not in a purely hereditary way, rather in more of a dramatic way, to be very frank) and herbal afternoon tea. Well, decaf black tea some afternoons, instead. An unleaded London Fog, with lavender extract added to the bergamot’s rind oil to ease my nerves. Maybe if you’d given up caffeine, too, you’d have been less volatile of mood, but I feel that same volatility brewing in me each day, regardless of intake.
I am never fully at ease, and neither were you. I suspect posttraumatic symptoms, for both of us (my former therapist agreed with me). And with that new knowledge, I want to forgive you, but you were so fucking smart and manipulative. I see glimpses of you in your teenage grandchild, in the roundest eyes capable of the boldest lies, though the two of you never got the chance to know each other. Did I raise my two children better than you raised your four? Was I a better mother, more patient, than you’d been, as I’d fervently intended? (My daily wish, my daily prayer, had been to make better choices, though I do know yours were more limited.) I’m not so sure, some days. We both did our best. And our worst, I guess, if I’m very honest.
I suppose I must also credit you for my storytelling impulse. For my disbelief, or disregard, of truth. No matter what I write here, it’s sieved through my perspective, my memory; my past is the past. You were the queen of new perspective, layering lenses over everything—anecdotes, incidents, arguments, hard historical facts such as recorded birthdates and deathdates—to suit your immediate narrative’s needs. Because those needs, they changed to meet the primary goal of the moment. Of the mother.
I wonder, given your own trauma, losing your father early and being raised by a hard woman (or so you said), if you ever truly progressed beyond a teenage mentality. You wanted what you wanted, and cried if you didn’t get exactly that. In fits of guilt, or mortality, you gifted me your belongings—books, rings, poems—only to take them back with tears. Here, let me go ahead and give you back two items you might be missing: incurable, genetic thyroiditis and diverticulosis. Do you miss anything else, Mother, that you left here on earth?
You always said you wanted to be cremated, but in the hospice, just before you died, you begged to be buried. Part of me thought your ego at work again, but maybe you did have religious reasons. Maybe you just wanted us to be able to cry at your gravestone, as we do each year on May 29, the date of your birth as well as the date of your death. Your final playful joke upon us: every celebration a fucking funeral, every month of May a terrible journey, beginning to end, from Mother’s Day to your first/last day. When you died, you were sixty-four years old, though you swore you were only sixty-two.
Where are you now? You come to me in dreams, knitting blankets but never speaking. Which is funny, because you never ceased to speak aloud in life. You were loud, an Italian New Yorker taken away to Kentucky—your accent, eventually, a comic blend of the two regional dialects. You told us all your stories, both city and country, and you told them differently, every goddamn different time.
My siblings may not remember you the way I do. I remember you cooking, dancing, screaming. Fighting and scratching, then swiveling your hips to the music on the radio atop the refrigerator. I remember you stirring the pot, only to watch it boil over and let us clean up the mess. Spaghetti sauce, splattered like blood, even on the kitchen ceiling. We scrubbed away each outburst only to be better prepared for the next. I remember broken dishes.
You loved to foment unrest—or loved to find dark matches for your own discontent. You made friends easily but disowned them even more easily. You disowned your children, including me, so many times we lost count. I never knew, on a given day, if we were related. You swore we weren’t.
But that was then, before I became a mother myself. With these sharp, reverberating echoes of you inside me now, I have no doubt you were, indeed, once, my mother. You held me, fed me, maybe even loved me.
Once—upon a time.
Be still my mother, wherever you are.
What Courtney Won:
2nd Place: Liz Ramirez
College Station, Texas
Liz Ramirez recently completed an M.A. in English at Texas A&M University, where she now works full-time as a project manager in Technology Services. Her poem “et tu,” published in Volume IV of OyeDrum Magazine, was nominated for the 2021 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. “First Lesson” is taken from her master’s capstone project, “Latinish: Mixed Identity in Three Essays,” where she writes about family, racial hybridity, and liminality in Mexican identity. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @trapezoidette.
Race was not something inside your home. Of your parents’ children, you were probably the darkest; that was true. But you were also the loudest, the bossiest, the most competitive of your sisters, far more relevant attributes in the microeconomy of pretending and competing and screaming and running and racing and lying and giggling that was your childhood with them. Later, you will wonder if this was the only time you ever existed without it.
Race is not something on your skin.
Race is something waiting outside, something that seizes you the moment you step into the world of other people. Race is the first girl who looks at you when you are twelve after theater practice and asks, like it’s some delicate subject she shouldn’t broach but still will, anyways, with all the graceless tact of kids-pretending-adults, “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you guys from?”
The question seems odd to you then (who would mind that?). You are still learning. Cheerfully, eager to be interesting, you recite for her the earlier details of your life. Five years in Japan, five in North Carolina, five in Virginia. Sometimes, people get excited when they hear that you were born in Okinawa, Japan, and they start firing off questions about what you remember (not much, a convenience store your mom called the monkey store), if you spoke Japanese (you didn’t), why you were there (the Marine Corps). You have some more interesting details at the ready to make up for your lack of interesting memories: did you know that legally I can’t be President? (In college government class when you are nineteen, you’ll find out this was actually not true.) About the Battle of Okinawa in World War II? That I have a Consular Report of Birth Abroad instead of a birth certificate? You can’t help but be a little smugly satisfied with yourself. This is grown-up conversation, like your mom and her mom would have; this is learning to be a person.
But Okinawa seems beside the point to her.
She looks at you again (and for always after this, you will become very conscious of this particular gaze: the second look. The curiosity in it, unsatisfied. The implication of evaluation, ton-of-bricks-heavy; the second call to account for yourself, a bit more insistent this time.)
“But where is your family from ethnically?”
She says the last word with a strange, pedagogical delicacy. And though it will take years for you to realize it fully, this is the first glimmer of understanding into the question she is really asking, if you strip it of its first and prettiest skin—the question you always implicitly have to answer.
Why do you look like that?
Your lesson is not over yet.
Exactly what you say in response is hazy and unclear. Something about your grandma, Mexico, other things you think but leave unsaid (the border crossing at fourteen, the years of migrant fruit-picking and traveling for harvest time, scraping by with church donations), while your mind seethes hot and prickly as you try to figure out exactly what she has done to you so you can repay in kind. You know how to play the game of insults, and a dozen of them bubble to the surface, at the ready. But she didn’t insult you, did she? No, she did something else...something with her eyes.
So you stare at her like you have Superman eyes too, stare without blinking, stare till the jabbing of tear-needles forces you to blink as you try to make your eyes do the same thing, to pull from behind them that the pastor-in-the-pulpit, judge-on-the-bench readiness to call out not-belonging, to find it somewhere inscribed on her and force it to account for itself, like she has done to you. And it is a rush and a revelation and a condemnation when you look and look and look at her and finally, you see it—or rather, you don’t see it, because this is what it is: a lack of somewhere-elseness on her skin, and a saturation of the same on yours.
What Liz Won:
3rd Place: Audrey Stimson
Culver City, California
Audrey grew up on two continents hopscotching between Europe and the United States from an early age as part of a foreign service officer’s family. She continued to move her body through space for decades while pursuing a career in television, before finally settling in California. With a suitcase full of stories about her adventures in the far corners of the globe, she decided one day, not too long ago, to sit down and write. The writing was a way to process the questions because there are always questions. She sometimes writes poetry but finds creative non-fiction the best way to connect to herself and the world around her.
Sometimes her creativity makes her draw, sew, and even dabble in producing short animated films. She enjoys bicycle touring with her husband, walks with her two dogs, sailing on a 50-year-old boat, forest bathing, and exploring the small forgotten towns across America.
When she is not writing, she works as a television news producer for a German network, still traveling and still looking for that elusive thing called the truth.
She has just finished a memoir about looking at the hard truths about yourself while on an epic coast-to-coast bicycle ride across the United States.
Come visit her at her website audreystimson.com, or better yet sample some of her other writing on her Medium page.
I didn’t want to go there yet. I had a plan. You know, I set a course that I plotted. I didn’t know all the details, but I could swear there was a plan. I did know one thing, I didn’t want my cherry plucked. Not yet, not by any old guy.
My old Adonis was actually Greek. He looked like a statue, like something out of a European museum, like his body was made of marble, chiseled into a perfect specimen of a man. His chest was broad and thick as a century-old tree. His smile was white and friendly, resting in a golden brown face that captured the sun and held it there. His smile blinded me and made me forget who I was for a moment. He spoke with an accent that took the word exotic and underlined it. I believed him. He wanted me.
I know how they are, the men. They wanted their penis stroked so that the white creamy stuff came out and their faces distorted into a bowl of ecstasy with a dollop of agony or something like that. I saw that before, somewhere. I can’t remember.
He said he wanted to kiss it? What was it, I wondered? No man or boy had ever told me that before. “Reelox,” he said.
I was leaning back on the musty beige sofa that smelled like a good time and cheap wine, where the seams were fraying, threadbare, arms pockmarked with cigarette holes. My roommates were gone for the weekend. They were lucky Californian undergrads that could dash off to mama’s house for the weekend to do laundry and get a home-cooked meal. I couldn’t do that. Mama was thousands of miles away. I was alone and knew I was going to get something this evening, but it wasn’t a home-cooked meal.
“Jost Relox,” he said again as he started to pull off my loose t-shirt. It was getting hot anyway. I always wore oversized, extra large shirts to hide my body. I didn’t want men to see me. It felt safer to hide under fabric and layers. I didn’t want them to look at me and be disappointed like I was disappointed. Breasts small—check. Butt large—check. Legs thick—check. But he didn’t seem to mind. “Aahh, there they are,” he said as he reached over to caress my nipples.
I didn’t wear bras; they were for women. I didn’t feel like I needed to be a woman yet. I didn’t feel I needed to hold things in just yet. He leaned over and began kissing my right breast; I felt the warmth of his lips penetrate me like a hot flash as it rattled my sense of impropriety. What next? I thought to myself. What do I do with this Greek god leaning over me, sucking away at my inhibitions?
I had been on the pill for a year. Thought I should, just in case. But I didn’t want to let myself go there, not just yet. The moment had to be right. Yeah, you know, with the right guy, someone who loves me as I love him. But as my Adonis sucked at my erect nipples I had this overwhelming feeling of losing my grip on everything I had planned.
The streetlights outside the living room window were flickering, On-Off-On-Off, making the Beetles Abbey Road poster on the far wall look like they were actually walking across the road. I was right there behind them, walking away. Was this it? Is this how it will happen?
The wind blew through the open porch door, tickling my bare feet. A kernel of unpopped popcorn lay on the coffee table next to me. The top of his head just below my chin looked like a black mop scrubbing my chest. His whiskers were like sandpaper on my skin. It felt good, and then it began to feel raw like he was peeling away a layer of something I was protecting. I felt exposed. The black hair on his head had a silver luminescence as if he were a black snake slithering up onto my chest. It was too late to hide; he had me in his hold. Would he now constrict my breathing, suffocate me with what? Pleasure?
“You like?” he said as he tilted his head up. The smile larger than I remembered, his teeth like ivory fangs ready to devour me.
Just then, he got up; the amber god pulled away from me and pulled off his shirt, exposing his magnificence. He reached down, unzipped his trousers, and let them fall to the floor. There it was. It looked like a shriveled string bean pointing up to the ceiling, small and thin and dried out by the sun. What was it pointing at?
I turned to look up and saw a large black spider eating the head of a tiny little fly inside a web above me. It was a sign. Time to dig in.
What Audrey Won:
Congratulations to the runners-up! It was very close, and these essays are excellent in every way.
Click on the titles to read:
Defying Gravity by Kay Bowman, New Haven, Connecticut
Prey by Penelope Richards, Dallas, Texas
Lego Girl by Julie Lockhart, Port Townsend, Washington
Who gets to keep the drill? A lesbian separation by Jenna Wimshurst, West Sussex, UK
Everything Remains by Barbara Olsen, Colorado
Set Apart by Jennifer Tribe, Southern California
I just want to say... by Anna van Straubenzee, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Congratulations to our essay contest honorable mentions! Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered by Laura Thoma, Guilford, Connecticut
Speech and the Postmaster by Elizabeth Field, Hudson, Massachusetts
The Other Patron by A.J. Riordan, Washington, Pennsylvania
How to Keep Him Alive by Abby Alten Schwartz, Lansdale, Pennsylvania
In One Form or Another by Anna Kaehler, Portland, Oregon
Passengers by Jocelyn Jane Cox, Valley Cottage, New York
A Woman’s Right to a D&C by Melissa Knox, Essen, Germany
Blocking the Bear by Eden McCarthy, Talent, Oregon
Wearing Stepmom Sunglasses by Jessica Settergren, Hastings, Minnesota
Winners and Losers by Catherine O’Neill, Newton, Massachusetts
What the Honorable Mentions Won:
This brings the Q4 2022 CNF 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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