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: Bethany Jarmul
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared in more than 50 literary magazines and been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Spiritual Literature. Bethany enjoys chai lattes, nature walks, and memoirs. Originally from West Virginia, she lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two young children. She’s currently working on two nonfiction chapbooks (one about growing up in West Virginia and one about motherhood) and a prose poem chapbook. Bethany also offers affordable editing services for writers. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.
By Bethany Jarmul
A cloud is hanging over me.
In my first profile photo on Facebook, I was 16. My lips are closed, flat. I’m wearing thick black eyeliner, a black shirt, gray woven hat. The photo’s black-and-white filter casts everything in shades of carbon. On the wall behind me, six sheets of computer paper are taped to the wall, a hand-drawn cloud with a sad face and tears dripping down, transforming into rain.
“All teenagers say ‘You don’t understand me!’ but with you, Bethany, it’s true. I don’t understand you,” my mother huffed outside my slammed door.
Particles of dust, dirt, and sea salt—known as cloud condensation nuclei—attract water vapor. As the nuclei rise, the vapor condenses to droplets of water or ice. The droplets gather as they float, forming families, communities, colonies—mix with air to form fluffy or furious formations suspended in the sky.
Cirrus clouds are delicate, wispy with a silky sheen, like the tufts of white hair that peek through my mother’s darker strands. Three decades ago, my mother left her teaching job, her adventures—to make babies and never returned. She’s never flown, never had a hobby, never lived in any other state. As an empty nester, mom spends her days cooking penne and peppers, curating family photos for Facebook, folding laundry while watching The Andy Griffith Show or This is Us.
Growing up, I wanted to be a popstar, then a marine biologist, an oceanographer, a lawyer, a novelist, a journalist, a writer. What I didn’t want to be—a stay-at-home mom.
Millions of pounds of water are floating above our heads. Cumulus clouds weigh about 1.1 million pounds, the weight of 100 elephants. Imagine all 100 dancing the slow, slow, quick, quick of the fox trot against the azure sky. The clouds’ low density, the looseness in the way the droplets congregate, allows them to float atop the more-dense air—like silver sail boats on a sapphire sea. A beautiful, ominous deception.
A cumulus cloud is what I want to be—to water sturdy oak trees, to cause wildflowers to bloom on hillsides, to fill rivers, to carve pathways through the earth, to shape my corner of the world.
My days were once filled with meetings, emails, Slack messages, text messages, stacks of papers marked up with blue ink, reporter’s notebooks, multi-colored sticky notes. Four months before the 2020 pandemic, I became my mother—rather, a mother—and decided, for financial reasons, to quit my job. As my life filled with breastfeeding, poop emergencies, baby tears, 12-packs of cucumber-scented wipes, three sizes of bottles, two car seats, one Boppy pillow, stacks of baby blankets, burp cloths, rattles—my identity, desires became cloudy at best.
Two years later, now with a two-year-old and an infant, though I’ve felt the weight of mothering—spent my nights nursing an infant, my days chasing a toddler, worrying or praying every moment in between, lonely but never alone—I still fear that I’m becoming weightless, drifting, floating away into nothingness, losing the ability to cause a storm.
When paired with vast blueness, clouds stretch their arms and legs to tease, to tickle, to pretend. As kids, my sister and I would lay on a pink sheet in our backyard and look up at the puffy formations, our white Maltese puppy jumping on us, licking our faces. “Does that one look like a bunny to you?” my sister asked. “No, it looks like a dinosaur to me—see its teeth,” I pointed. Mom would bring us homemade apple juice popsicles.
But clouds can take over territory, write signs that say “No blues allowed,” as they claim the heavens for themselves. Cloud idioms leave the matter of meaning hanging in the air—There’s a cloud on the horizon or I’m on cloud nine. I’m building castles in the sky, or clouded in suspicion. Don’t cloud the issue, but every dark cloud has a silver lining.
“I want to talk to you about something,” I cleared the clouds from my throat and curled my legs underneath me, next to my husband, our gray couch reflecting the storminess within. “I feel like I gave up a part of myself when I became a stay-at-home mom. There are things I want to accomplish. I want to pursue writing. Maybe get an MFA; maybe publish a book.”
My heart thundered.
“Absolutely. I know writing is your passion, you have to pursue it.” He placed his hand on my leg—a sturdy ship in the storm.
Mom planted, watered my literary love-affair. She read The Hobbit to my sister and me while we snuggled in our fluffy beds—her voice floating in the lamp light, tender and expressive. Yet, recently I asked her if she reads books. “Only the Bible,” she said.
Her ‘I love you’s are more numerous than raindrops, her hugs like a warm spring rain. Whenever she visits, she brings replenishments—a homemade pumpkin pie, a 3-liter jug of olive oil, an extra-large box of baby wipes. Yet, she has no aspirations beyond mothering, even now that her children are grown.
It’s unfair of me. Yet I wish she was more thunderous, more laden with rain—because that’s what I want for myself. I also want to appreciate my mother for who she is, to stop imagining her as future-me.
I want to cause a downpour. But clouds that only sprinkle still feed the flowers.
“Cloudy” first appeared in The Citron Review.
What Bethany Won:
2nd Place: Meredith Baker
Meredith has historically been a chronic overachiever, amassing a string of letters after her name and awards until life took an unexpected turn that forced her to slow down. After becoming a victim of crime, she embarked on a journey to share her experience through creative writing with the same tenacity she once applied to her career. Meredith lives peacefully near the beach where she finds inspiration to write. She remains in hiding from her perpetrator, who has since been released from prison.
By Meredith Baker
I am sad for you, my love, that the woman you had hoped to marry died and you only have me, the woman who you had proposed to in 2004 only to deny you marriage after less than a year, to share your life with after you contacted me fourteen years following our broken engagement when your first choice succumbed to cancer and had been in the ground only a week all while I was battling with the travesty of justice as the victim of crime and so desperately needed someone to share the burden of my safety with and you so desperately wanted someone to share the burden of life with because, for those years we were apart, you waited for the woman who would never be your wife, the woman who you loved so deeply you didn’t mind that she went home to the husband she couldn’t leave because they had children and it would devastate them in such an unrecoverable way that all other children of divorce were not affected and patiently you waited knowing that one day she would be yours until she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she said her final farewell to you so she could return home for her husband to care for her in her dying days while you sat, alone, in the house you bought near her so you could have whatever morsel of time she could steal from her family to give you, seated on the sofa she picked out, the one where you last assured her you would love her forever, the same sofa where we were sitting not even six months after her death when you told me you had never stopped loving me all the years we were apart and would later hold me while I wept inconsolably about my trauma and you emphatically claimed you would keep me safe so that I would not have to enter the Victim Relocation Program, the one where I could only have contact through government-arranged video calls with my adult children, the product of the divorce I had before we dated nearly two decades ago, whom apparently escaped the devastation of divorce that the woman you love claimed her children couldn’t, and I would once again know a life of freedom from the perpetrator who hunted me in the years prior to our reconnection and since we got back together because what you really need is someone to fill the void so you will not have to spend your final years alone, an unspoken agreement as evidenced by the wedding bands you had made for us with fourteen diamonds that you said was a reminder of the time we lost and a promise to treasure the time we have now, but I see the way you look at your ring when you miss her and I know the diamonds that sparkle back are a reflection of the time you spent with the woman you never made it to the altar with and now I can feel the anger rising from my depths because you spent more than a decade actually believing she would leave her husband for you, which I can only believe is a reflection of the depth of your love for her because you are as intelligent as you are interesting with your boyish grin and your British accent and the other million reasons why I fell in love with you all over again knowing I am your second choice because I once asked you if she were still alive if we would be together now and you didn’t respond, but the look on your face betrayed you as I watched tears well up in your eyes and your bottom lip quiver while my heart shattered into a thousand shards and I knew I had to decide if I could live with being your second choice so that I might have a chance at a normal life with the freedom to contact my children without the worry that the man who wants me dead will find me when I least expect it and I won’t see death coming because you promised to keep me safe, a promise reflected in the ring on my right hand with fourteen diamonds reminding me that I am your second choice, a ring that fits so snugly that it could just as easily be handcuffs for my crime of settling for less than I deserve from love and the sentence I am destined to serve in her shadow because I have to believe to someone, somewhere, I could be a first choice but if I am not safe, I am dead and would never know first choice anyway.
What Meredith Won:
3rd Place: Sophia Zhang
San Jose, California
Sophia Zhang is a young Chinese-American writer born and raised in the California Bay Area. Her writing has been awarded by Scholastic and Youngarts, and is pending publishing in The Blue Marble Review. She’s interested in exploring intergenerational family dynamics, her Chinese heritage, grief, beauty, and love in her work. Apart from writing, Sophia loves history, pickles, and Taylor Swift!
By Sophia Zhang
The door bangs shut as my mother returns. She brings a gust of winter air with her, chilling the room’s temperature. Feet cold on the hardwood floor, I dart towards her, following my older sister’s lead.
My mother had been at the hospital more often than home the past few days. The silence left hanging over the house was suffocating, the stillness like waterlogged cotton wool stopping up my ears. He’s close, I’d heard in whispered conversations between her and my grandmother.
Bàba qù shì le. Your father is gone. My mother’s eyes hold pools of grief but her voice is steady, calm, rehearsed. My sister lets out a groan reminiscent of a wounded animal and launches herself into my mother’s outspread arms, tears already seeping out. My eyes are painfully dry. Oh, I think. It’s finally happened. I hunch over, twist my facial muscles in an imitation of my sister’s despair, and stand slightly apart until my mother pulls me into the hug.
We conjoin. A misshapen pile of limbs and breath and hair. I smell antiseptic. I feel my mother quivering, small shudders transmitting through her body. Before long, she crumples like a used tissue and we fall together onto the stained brown leather couch. I feel suffocated.
I extricate myself and escape to my mother’s bedroom, where I pace in circles and stare at my mother and sister intertwined through the open doorway. My mother strokes my sister’s hair, comforting her. The two fit perfectly together.
Dōng Shēng, my father’s best friend, comes to visit. He will later cry while shoveling dirt on top of my father’s coffin. He comes with a gift—Huáng Hóng Spicy Peanuts—that he tells me to share with my sister. Crouching down to look me in the eye, he places a single weighted hand on my shoulder and tells me to value the time I have left with my brave, strong, loving, fighter of a father. I clench the polypropylene of the snack bag and listen to it crinkle.
Before and since I’ve heard people preach about the heroism and strength of cancer patients. But disease is an ugly beast. Liver cancer especially.
Urine red from blood. A sweet and musty stench that smells like rotten eggs. Yellow everything: skin, nails, eyes. A feeble voice that calls out for help to go to the bathroom. A clenched-fist voice that yells about the taste of a perfectly fine lunch, quick to anger from inescapable pain. A broken voice that asks to see my face, to be with me. A father who loves me.
Scanning through our bookshelf on a Wednesday afternoon, months after the funeral, a title catches my eye. I curl up in the sharp-cornered nook between the piano and cabinet and flip through A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children.
The story of Ryan, an 11-year-old who lost his firefighter father in an accident is detailed. So is that of Jane, a girl whose grandmother died from a clogged artery. Children process grief in different ways, it says. There are stages to grief, it says. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Yet the presence of grief is always assumed.
It’s been months since the funeral but I have yet to miss my father. Shouldn’t I be over at least the denial stage by now?
You don’t know a lot at 7, but you know you should be sad when your father dies.
I want to remember my father at his best, as the person I’m always told he was, as a person who oozed love, kindness, and life. But my father went abroad to Beijing right after I was born and was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer when I was three. Long hospital stays followed.
I know that father only as a secondhand story, through details passed down in an extended game of telephone. I know my father only through small snippets of memory, more bad than good, that fade with each passing second. I know my father only as something diseased and dying even in life, and as a blurred sketch in death.
That night, after breaking the news of my father’s death to us, my sister and mom remain wrapped up in each other’s arms for hours. It’s 9:30 and after my bedtime, but I tiptoe down the stairs for a glass of water.
Did you see mèimei’s face, my mother sobs. She didn’t even seem to be sad. What kind of daughter is that?
I stop in my tracks. I feel like a raw exposed lump of flesh. I hope she never learns I heard that.
What I know of my father: he played college basketball. He was intensely smart and tested into one of China’s best universities despite his upbringing in rural poverty. He smoked and drank and had terrible lifestyle habits. He lived for just 43 years. He loved us. But as my mother says, not enough to love himself.
What I know of cancer: it is a disease where your own body betrays you. Your cells won’t stop multiplying and become malignant tumors and damage your organs and you and your loved ones. It’s in my mother’s salted hair and her small back that’s spent countless late nights hunched over a bill-filled kitchen table. It’s the stacks of expired pills and gauze and antiseptic still in our storage room. It kills, but more, it destroys.
What I know of fatherlessness: research has found that growing up fatherless can permanently alter brain structure, increasing risks in seemingly every negative thing that exists, from anxiety to crime. And although I don’t dislike my current self, I can’t stop wondering: who could the un-fatherless me be? Would I be happier? Kinder? Smarter?
What I know of grief:
What I know of shame: it’s not a burning red flame that fizzles out with time, but a cold blue-grey that absorbs deep inside the marrow of your bones and permanently dyes them.
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:
How to Measure Maximum by Aubrey A. Human, Portland, Oregon
Bobble Heads All by Helen Hedrick, Denver, Colorado
Someone Else’s Secret by Jessica Wierzbinski, Salida, Colorado
Rude Awakening by Jean Ransom, O’Fallon, Missouri
Trouble Back Home by Anastasiya Mamchits, Seattle, Washington
Machine Guns and Family Bonding by Amy Holan (aka Havi Zavi), Orcas Island, Washington
Silver by B. Morrison, Brattleboro, Vermont
Congratulations to our essay contest honorable mentions! Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.
In Another Place and Time by Kelly Burr, Lawton, Oklahoma
Transitional Objects by Rebecca Anderson, Smithfield, Maine
How was your day? by Kerry Davis, Massachusetts
Purification by Dafna Feldman, Israel
Repeat After Me by Katie Gengler, Port Washington, Wisconsin
Toiletry Bag by Jennifer Lewis, Locust, New Jersey
Winter Paradise Manufactured Community by Tracy Sidesinger, Accord, New York
Immortality by Jo Skinner, Brisbane, Australia
The Power of Light Within Us by Lisa Mae DeMasi, Natick, Massachusetts
Pomp, Circumstance and Kathryn by Suzanne Cushman, Carmel, California
What the Honorable Mentions Won:
This brings the Q2 2023 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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