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WOW! Q4 2023 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:  Jennifer Gallo Gaites
Fair Haven, New Jersey
Congratulations, Jennifer!
Jennifer Gallo Gaites

Jennifer’s Bio:

Jennifer Gallo Gaites is a writer from Fair Haven, NJ where she lives with her husband and three children. She writes mostly about family life and is working on a memoir in essays about the ever-shifting identity of motherhood. This essay will appear in HeartWood Literary Magazine's Issue 16, and her work has been published in Hippocampus and Literary Mama. She is a writing instructor at Project Write Now in Red Bank, NJ.

Printable View


{ }nesting



A week before she left for college, my daughter and I got matching bracelets marketed as “permanent” jewelry. We made appointments at a small, white-washed store in lower Manhattan, where a jeweler measured our wrists, unspooled delicate gold chains, and soldered them onto us. No clasps, just continuous slips of gold. On the sidewalk outside, we twisted our wrists in the sunlight. A shiny ribbon around the gift of our connection.

When my grandmother died, I inherited a box of ribbons. Ribbons she unknotted and plucked from gifts given to her. She would wrap them into tight spirals and tuck them away for reuse. I inherited her habit of saving ribbons; I can’t bring myself to throw them out. Grosgrain, satin, velvet. I curl them around four fingers to make a neat spool and leave them around my office. Coiled on my desk. Pinned to my bulletin board. Tucked like delicate nests between books.

“This doesn’t seem normal,” I tell the girl who washes my hair at the salon, imagining the amount of my hair she must have wrapped around her fingers at this very moment. She just complimented my thick hair. I told her I feel like my hair is thinning, that it’s falling out at an alarming rate.

She smiles and reassures me. “It’s totally normal.” Though her lustrous hair and her shiny, plump lips make me think that her normal and my normal are different.

I google words like perimenopause and hair loss. I read that it is normal to lose up to 100-250 strands of hair with each wash. In the shower, I try to guess what normal looks like, as I untangle hair from my rings, pull it from the folds of my skin, twist it into tidy swirls, and set the pile on the shelf next to the shampoo.

To mark the nearing end of my childbearing years, I am literally forming empty nests out of hair.

Nesting is a figurative term, assigned to pregnant women in their third trimester—not to perimenopausal women in their late forties. It alludes to the urge to prepare for the baby’s arrival. Preparing is a futile effort, but no one should tell an expectant mother that.

To prepare a nest, birds will use whatever objects they find. Natural materials like snapped twigs, molted feathers, and grass clippings. But also ribbons, string, and human hair.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, we received all sorts of gifts intended to make motherhood easier and babyhood gentler. At my shower, I opened a box of tiny mittens meant to keep the baby from scratching her face with her own fingernails.

One of the first lessons of parenthood: you will worry about things you could have never conceived of. Also, another lesson: mittens get unpaired easily, one is always missing. Object impermanence.

Object impermanence is not a real concept. But it’s one that makes the most sense to me.

The actual name of the concept is object permanence. It is a developmental step—a marker of normal growth. Around ten months, babies realize that even when an object is out of sight it still exists. Before that, if their toy rolls under the couch, say, they think it’s gone. That’s why peek-a-boo makes some kids cry.

My daughter is 21 now. Every time she leaves, I re-grasp the concept of object permanence.

“Permanent” jewelry is, of course, a marketing ploy for the young. A thin strand of gold can break. Still, I was disappointed when a few months after getting my bracelet soldered on, it fell off. I was swimming laps. My cupped hand cut into the water and I noticed my wrist was bare. I stopped swimming and floated face-down, scanning the pool floor. I found it, a shimmering strand on the black line. At the pool’s edge, next to my water bottle, I curled the chain into a small nest.

What is a nest, anyway, but found objects we wrap around ourselves. A way of holding onto what is beautiful. A perch of identity we spend our lives collecting.

When I got out of the pool, I called my daughter to lament the broken bracelet. But also, to make sure she was okay. To try to stop the tiny fingernails of worry, make sure that the meaning I assigned to a filament of gold was just a figment of a mother’s imagination.

What is an empty nest, anyway, but an offering. A cupped hand, palm up, in prayer.



What Jennifer Won:

2nd Place Winner
2nd Place:  Anne Walsh Donnelly
Congratulations, Anne!
Anne Walsh Donnelly

Anne’s Bio:

Anne Walsh Donnelly lives in the west of Ireland. She is a single mother to two amazing young adults. She writes poetry, prose and plays, and is the Poet Laureate for the town of Belmullet in Co Mayo. Anne describes her writing process as ‘Bungee jumping, naked, off the Cliffs of Moher.’

Her poetry collection, Odd as F*ck, was published in 2021 by Fly on the Wall Poetry Press. They also published her poetry chapbook, The Woman With An Owl Tattoo, which is a poetic memoir of her coming out journey in her fifties.

This is the third time that Anne has been placed in the top ten of the WOW Creative Nonfiction Essay Competition. To find out more about Anne go to her website or follow her on social media.

Facebook: AnneWalshDonnelly
Instagram: annewalshdonnellypoetry
X: @AnneWDonnelly

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To my ex-therapist


A bumble bee invades our space; it circles overhead, like a drone, its incessant buzz could be a chainsaw cutting through the trunk of the weeping birch in my back garden.


I bought and planted the weeping birch in the spring of 2013, one of my anni horribiles, when you fell off the pedestal I had put you on. When you couldn’t work because you were unwell. When I wailed in the dark of silent nights at the unfairness of not being able to see the woman I loved most in the world. Not being able to sit in your presence, to feel safe, secure and cared for. And when I felt shame that I had become so attached to you.


Do you remember telling me that people come in and out of your life when you need them? I asked you when would I no longer need you. You smiled and said, I’d know. I remember putting the question out of my mind and losing myself in your chestnut-brown eyes and couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t feel the need to be with you. To listen to the velvet tone of your voice, to have you listen to whatever drama was unfolding in my life without interrupting me or passing judgment.


Some months after I had started seeing you, I dreamt that I had gone into your house, upstairs to your bathroom, stripped naked, lowered myself into a bath of warm water and closed my eyes. When I opened them, you were sitting in the corner of the bathroom, holding a towel. I apologised for coming into your house, embarrassed that you saw me naked but you just smiled and handed me the towel when I stepped out of the bath.


“When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go."

Those words from the Nanny McPhee movie echo in my head. I can see her as she said them to the unruly children she had chosen to mind. Her long mousey-brown hair scraped back and hidden under a black feathered hat, the ugly warts on her nose and chin, her head slightly cocked to one side with a bemused expression on her face.

You look nothing like Nanny McPhee. Your face is round. Hers was angular. But like you, she worked her magic to transform her charges. I watched the movie and laughed at the children’s antics to get rid of Nanny McPhee. But each time her magic overcame their pranks they learnt a lesson and one of her warts disappeared and her face softened. It reminded me of all the times I tested you. All the times I didn’t want to be drawn to your office like a contrary bumble bee to its hive. And it reminded me of how I grew to love you in the same way as the children grew to love their Nanny.


Google tells me that want is to have a desire to possess or do (something).

Google also tells me that need is to require (something) because it is essential or very important rather than just desirable.


Do I desire or require you? The words fly blindly around my head, banging against the inside of my skull. How do we know if what we’re experiencing is a need or a want? Is there a self-help quiz that tells us if we answer yes to more than eight questions, our imagined need is really a want?


My parents’ generation see therapy as a luxury, desirable maybe, but not a requirement. Nobody needs a Porsche to get from A to B when a Ford Fiesta will do. I drove a black Ford Fiesta when I was married and trying to live my happy-ever-after.

I’ve never wanted a life of just driving from A to B with my baggage stored in the trunk of my car. Feeling the hard cases jolt every time I hit a pothole on a road as long and as twisted as my small intestine.


The bumble bee buzzes incessantly around your office, and I ask myself why I still come here every few months. I spent seven years coming to see you as a client and subsequently five more seeing another therapist who I don’t need or want to see now.


Burning beech crackles in the stove beside us. I don’t sneeze or cough when smoke seeps through a chink in the stove’s pipe. I take a deep breath and draw it into my body to remember later. Every time I smell wood or peat smoke, I think of you. Sometimes I light my own stove even in the middle of summer just for that smell.


The bumble bee lands on a windowsill. You take a tissue from its box and approach the insect. I’m afraid it will sting your hand, like I must have done when I was at my most waspish.

You fold the tissue around the fuzzy black and amber body as if wrapping a gift and you lift your bee parcel, open a window and release it. The buzz fades and I am jealous of the bumble bee, jealous of its joy in being free. I stay pinned to my chair as beech wood smoke follows the bumble bee into April air.


Do I need to ask you to release me, too? I don’t want to ask that question, but do I need to?

I still remember the words you said when I finished therapy with you.

You can come out to see me any time if you need to.

And so, each time my heart beat feels like a car chugging, stopping and starting and I am overcome with the smell of burning oil, I ask myself:

Am I experiencing a want or a need?



What Anne Won:

3rd Place Winner
3rd Place: Amber Reed
Southcentral Alaska
Congratulations, Amber!
Amber Reed

Amber’s Bio:

Author is currently living a dream come true and pursuing her MFA. She writes from her dry cabin at the end of the road and keeps company with a dog, cat, ravens, and one surviving chicken. She has been exploring themes of grief, the body, and witness. Her essays have appeared in several journals this year and she has discovered a passion for flash and lyric essays.

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no, softly


I say no softly, twisting my hands in my lap, dropping my shoulders into valleys, looking at him with a small smile. Kind of hopeful, kind of saying, see me.

I say no softly; well, I really wasn’t wanting to have sex tonight, pleading in the space before the zipper, stumbling in the syllable. Knowing I was going to end up yes.

Knowing how silly that was, how very silly, yet looking up from a trench, peering out from a wound—it took only the wait, are you upset? No, I’m just frustrated, you’ve been sending me mixed signals to slip me into a refrigerator box, a cardboard flash of long ago and little.

In the box there wasn’t no. I didn't pull away. I think about this yes.

In the locker hallway, sixteen maybe, there wasn’t no. I felt him come up behind me. I stood facing the locker, still. He pulled my thong up from my jeans, hard. Earlier that day, in the library, when his foot brushed my ankle with intention, I was pleased. I didn't pull away. I think about this yes.

After my Tinder date, twenty-seven maybe, there wasn’t no. I don't want to I said (I had invited him home). Not tonight I said (we were kissing in bed). Can I just lay on top of you he said (I was laying on my stomach). I didn’t pull away. I think about this yes.

When I sit on the mauve threads of the therapy couch and twist my hands and say that nothing ever happened to me, I mean, not really, I go to my freezy place that is also like an arctic storm bird that is very calm and very grey. My heart forgets to beat. I think about a box. I think about an empty hall and how I never turned around. It was just kids being kids, right? I didn't pull away, push away: ever. I don’t say how I started to seek this kind of hurt. Wanted to be hurt while I went away.

I think that if hadn’t learned of salt and ice, that I might have become brimstone. Below my glaciers, I can feel cauldrons of reclamation steaming.

I say no, softly. I still have my hand on his chest, neck. I curl into him like a kitten. A bedraggled kitten, gambling on cuddles, paying when luck is scratched off.

I wouldn’t have come over if I had known you didn’t want to have sex. I realize this hurts my feelings. I had thought we might catch up on life, listen to our music, hold hands. Remember when I invited you over, I said as friends? I’m seeing someone.

You bought me a drink and squeezed my leg. You were leaning into me all night. It’s true. I did, I was. My no floated above me like a balloon, slowly deflating. It sank beside me on the couch cushions, and I stuffed it down by dog hair and cracker crumbs and maybe a luck-less penny.

It was my fault. I sucked another no from my mouth. After all, in the last few years, there had never been a time he came over that we didn’t. After all, I had written poetry about this man in the long ago, about his fierce eyes and coyote heart.


As I open my throat, I hold the kernel of my heart in both hands. I cup it carefully. I hold this for the one I desire and choose, whose hands strum me gently, magically, playing the songs of whales and moon tide and soft breaths in soft places.

I kiss him passionately, but I don’t want to do the things we always used to do. He becomes angry. Anger in the tender spaces, anger that slaps the belly of my invisible bruise. Too many rules. You know how I like to fuck. I guess we are done then.

I said I didn’t want to have sex. I said it softly. Yeah, (derision) you SAID you didn’t.

Why did I wrap my arms around him? Why did I ask if he was ok?

I must have been hurt and I know this only by studying my behavior like a cultural anthropologist. I threw away full beer cans. Emitted the cigarette butts into the garbage and set it outside. Scrubbed my body in two showers. Dispatched the pillow his head had touched to the thrift store. Ripped a photo of him from the kitchen wall. Flung the sheets over the loft.

I couldn’t stop leaking tears. I googled consent. I called my therapist. I asked two friends. It was grey, grey, too grey in the ick. Why are all the other times rioting in my thoughts? If this time was totally ok? It should have been enough to say, I wasn’t wanting to have sex tonight. It should have been enough to say no, softly.

Yes, we should shout in a voice of fire (if I had, he wouldn’t have pushed me). Yes, we should speak directly, emphatically. We owe this to our brothers. But what about the pile of tongues already cut out? Or the chords from brave lungs grasped out of the air before they heard the beautiful sound of their no being born?

How to explain the freezy places to those who reach for us? A box, a hallway, a date gone wrong? How to explain that compliance, allowing, participating (for us who learned too young or too soon about glaciers and the goings aways on birdwing) does not always mean consent. The grey in the ick is that this is not just a matter of fight versus flight. There is also to float. Also to freeze.



What Amber Won:


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

Click on the titles to read:

Dear Maddy by Jacqueline Doyle, Castro Valley, California

Letter to My Suicidal Son, Take Three by Miel Sloan, Midwest

Lion’s Tooth in the Wind by Bethany Jarmul, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Game of the Name by Carol Ovenburg, Talent, Oregon

Waiting On Our Father by Rebecca L. Burford, Hagerstown, Maryland

Broken Birds by Tammy Davis, Fort Wayne, Indiana

The Flame by Jean Kelly Widner, Boulder City, Nevada

What the Runners Up Won:


Congratulations to our essay contest honorable mentions! Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.

Show Them Love by Lorinda Boyer, Bellingham, Washington

Wrinkle-Free by Lauren Norton, Durham, North Carolina

What Do I Know of Trees? by Denise David, Amherst, New York

Mama Birdie by Sue Hann, London

Bob’s Lap by Nancy Lund, Westfield, Massachusetts

The Lesson by Denarii Peters, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom

How to Have a Baby in a Pandemic by Lisa Mulka, Mason, Michigan

Something Beyond Knowing by Eva Still, Markham, Ontario, Canada

I Told Myself I’d Never Revisit This Place, But... by Cristabelle Garcia, San Francisco, California

My Go Big AND Go Home Fantasy by Liz Mayers, Huntington, New York


What the Honorable Mentions Won:


This brings the Q4 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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