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.
Thanks to our Judges:
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: www.chelseyclammer.com.
Naomi Kimbell earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus
, The Nervous Breakdown
, Black Warrior Review
, The Sonder Review
, and other literary journals and anthologies. To learn more about Naomi, please visit her website
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 www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.
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 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: www.melaniedfaith.com/blog/.
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 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 and Angela Miyuki Mackintosh for helping out with this contest.
Note to Contestants:
We want to thank each and every one of you for sharing your essays with our guest 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. Kudos to all writers who entered, whether you won or not, you’re a winner for putting your work out there and participating.
To recap our current process, we have a roundtable of 8 or more judges who blindly score equally formatted submissions based on: Subject, Content, Technical, and Overall Impression (Style). 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 guest judges and editors helps 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. Thank you for letting us read your work.
Now on to the winners!
Drum roll please....
1st Place: Gráinne Faller
Gráinne Faller lives on the west coast of Ireland. Writing has always been part of her life, but she only recently drummed up the courage to start showing her work to anyone at all. This year she got a notable mention in the 2020 Cúirt Literary Festival New Writing Competition and had a story published in the Storgy Annihilation Radiation short story collection. She is currently working on a novel.
In the real world she was a journalist for many years and now has her own communications company. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading too much, growing food and swimming in the Atlantic. This essay is dedicated to her coven of witchy mermaids, the Blackrock Babes.
Something Else, Altogether
The moon and I are no longer together. A scalpel cut me adrift.
I inhale, tasting the air; savory with seaweed. This is my first full moon swim since surgery. From now on, there will be no blood mingling with salt, no hormone surge mellowed by the cold and the company.
At least it’s over. The dread; years of counting down, dodging illness, wondering at every twinge—cancer, cancer, cancer—railing against the inevitable. Now it’s done. It’s over.
I’ve completed the cycle—girl, woman, mother—and stepped out of it altogether. Now I am other. No breasts, no ovaries, none of the parts left. My body, finally defused.
Standing in the Atlantic wind, scars fresh but healed, I’m ready for this Strawberry Moon.
They all have names, the full moons: February is the Snow Moon; May is the Flower Moon; the Beaver Moon in November elicits sniggers.
I met the Wolf Moon at dawn in January. The sky was overcast and the ocean was black and wild. The moon, just a smudge of red, softened to blush, by the cloud. The sea must have been cold but all I remember is the embrace of it. It was a swim where you felt held.
It used to be that my period coincided with our full moon swims.
Fuck’s sake. I’d think every month. The inconvenience of the blood, the bloating, the spots, the cramps, the moods.
I don’t miss that.
But also, I really, really do.
They begin to arrive, in ones, in pairs, these women with whom I have this bond in the ocean. We have shared cold and wind and salt and sun; the chop and the bounce and the still and the sparkle.
It’s our custom to hail the full moon with a night swim, clothed in nothing but darkness.
Right now, it’s 10pm.
But it’s June, in Ireland.
It’s not at all dark.
Not far off daylight.
Seaside walkers are in for an eyeful.
To add to it all, the tide couldn’t be lower and the moon is nowhere to be seen. It’s tucked away behind the rich, quilt of cloud that cloaks the sky.
“What’ll we do?”
“We’re not backing out right?”
“Let’s go around the other side.”
My heart is racing at the freedom, the wildness. If anyone sees us, they’ll survive the shock.
We strip in the small changing room that smells like damp wood and stone.
“We’ll be grand.”
Wrapped in our towels, together we make our way over the concrete and rock to the diving tower that juts out into the water. Brave souls jump from the top when the tide is high.
Not now, however. Right now the tide is as low as I have ever seen it. The sea is heaving; alive with grey, foam topped waves, but it laps the shore well short of the tower. There will be no diving. We’ll have to climb down the steps and walk across the stones to reach the water.
We secure the towels to the handrail and clamber down to the shore. I’m towards the head of the huddle, focused on the sea. I don’t want to think about it too much.
The ground is pebbly, treacherous with gut weed. The waves rise to meet us as we venture in, screaming and laughing, trying not to fall over.
“Shit! This is fucking crazy!”
“Jesus the stones!”
“Babes, this is mental.”
“Christ! The fucking stones!”
“Oh my God, vagina freeze!”
“There’s a jellyfish! Just there!”
“God it’s cold.”
We are seal-like; clumsy on land. Our skin is not smooth like the stuff on magazines; we have tattoos, stretch marks, wrinkles, stomach folds, hip flesh, arm flesh, fat, dimples, bones, scars, inside and out.
That skin and all it contains is now being enveloped in the sea. I dive as soon as I can, emerging with a whoop. Others take longer. Soon we’re all down, roaring with laughter, howling at the moon which remains coy, hidden behind the clouds. The cold is mellowing all the time as we approach summer. An initial shock when you get in, but the freeze of spring has softened.
We swim, dive and float, coming together in a circle to take it all in. I close my eyes, feeling a part of this; the wind, the waves, the salt, the gulls, and us. The water is all bounce and pull. It forces you to breathe deep.
Darkness creeps in. This is our element. The wind is still high as we are raised and lowered by the waves. The tide and current carry us towards the other side of the tower.
There is a glow of orange over above the greyscale of the mountains to the south. The clouds are beginning to thin. Then suddenly:
We do and sure enough, there it is. The Strawberry Moon; rose gold, a perfect orb, ensconced in the grey clouds and indigo sky.
I’m mute, overwhelmed, as the others exclaim in delight.
And then it’s gone, hidden again by the next cloud.
“That was just for us.”
It feels like it was just for me.
The ocean seems warm by now, a sign we have probably stayed in too long. The tide has risen a little.
Swimming towards the steps, we time our exits with the push of the waves, emerging transformed.
We entered awkward, wobbly, slapstick; we emerge glowing, powerful, invincible. The wind can’t touch us.
Wrapped in my towel, I glance back, the moon, briefly visible again. We may not be in sync but somehow, we are still connected. I think maybe it is because I am connected to them; these women, who I know on this elemental level, bonded in cold and salt, in dark and skin.
I am still girl, woman, mother.
I am also other.
And in the ocean, I am something else, altogether.
What Gráinne Won:
2nd Place: Jacqueline V. Carter
This is the first time I’ve entered a writing contest, and I’m very encouraged by the response to my essay.
I’ve always wanted to be a creative writer. But my professional life went in another direction. For years, I worked with government agencies and national organizations to develop and promote public health campaigns targeted to policymakers, providers, consumers, patients, and the media. I loved the work. I still believe the health messages and materials we created helped people make lifestyle choices that improved the quality of their lives.
But my life changed several years ago when my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. First, I became a caregiver. Then, I became a widow. Watching him and loving him through his transition both humbled me and left me depleted. Along with my family and friends, prayer and meditation, yoga, and walking saved me.
Once I regained my equilibrium, I knew I had to reset and focus on my next life chapter. One day I “discovered” the WOW website (I don’t believe in coincidences!), and was fascinated by the array of online writing classes. After a week, I hesitantly registered for a class on writing personal essays, one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time.
My butterfly wings are finally beginning to open slowly but surely, giving my heart the courage to release stories I yearn to tell.
The Colors of My Life
My brother and I were bone-tired from a sun-drenched day at the beach. I was 9, he was 7. We quickly changed into dry clothes, eager to continue playing. My father called me over and started to scour my knees with Ajax. He rubbed the cloth vigorously over my knees, trying to rub away the skin darkened by the sun’s sizzling rays.
When I was 10, Aunt Bessie bought me a fancy lavender dress for Easter Sunday. The wide portrait collar barely grazed my shoulders. The circle skirt floated with each step. Best of all, the dress was lavender, a color I’d never worn. I didn’t wear bright colors like yellow, turquoise, orange, or lime. Only light-skinned girls wore those.
Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker coined the word colorism, which she defines as a form of prejudice based entirely on skin color. Legions of people worldwide bear the skin-deep emotional and psychological stigma of colorism—which is not the same as racism.
As a kid, I cherished my Crayola crayons. Like a mad scientist, I randomly mixed the waxy wands of pigment, filling pages of coloring books with my invented hues. One afternoon—my imagination unleashed—I mixed the blue crayon with the red and got purple, my all-time favorite color. I squealed!
“If you were the same color as your brother, you’d have a much easier life.” I was too young to grasp the gravity of Daddy’s remark. My younger brother was fair-skinned with dark auburn curly hair. He looked like Daddy. I was the color of caramel candy with long wavy brownish-black hair. A mini version of Mama.
The saleslady ceremoniously hung the deep-purple wool suit and frilly hot pink blouse in the dressing room. I stared at the ensemble in disbelief. Purple and hot pink? I couldn’t possibly wear that outfit to my upcoming business meeting. What would my colleagues—especially, my boss—think? I wanted to be accepted in that exclusive setting—a conference room packed with only White men and White women. My colleagues.
After a few minutes, the saleslady asked if I needed assistance. When I didn’t respond, she lightly tapped on the dressing room door. “Are you okay in there?” she softly inquired.
“I can’t wear these colors. They won’t look right on me,” I protested.
I wore what I considered the acceptable uniform for women in business: tailored navy blue suit, button-up white blouse, and black leather pumps. Even at 29 years old, I didn’t have the guts to wear the purple suit and pink blouse. Afraid to draw any undue attention to myself, I played it safe.
James Baldwin said: “It becomes clear—for some—that the more closely one resembles the invader, the more comfortable one’s life may become.”
“You’re adopted!” The girl spat those words at me. I was only 6, but I understood what she meant.
“I am not!” I screamed.
“No, you’re adopted!” she insisted. “Look at your father and brother. You don’t look like them at all.” I knew she was wrong. Still her words stung my insides like so many bees.
At dinner, I didn’t tell my parents about what the girl said. Instead, I anxiously searched their faces for confirmation. Yes, I looked exactly like Mama, even sounded like her. No, I wasn’t adopted. I was born into my family.
My closet is now a museum of purples—from sultry sangria to unexpected periwinkle. A long-sleeved amethyst dupioni silk blouse. A hand-painted scarf the color of mulled wine with grace notes of iris and cream. The full-length magenta cape that swishes and swirls.
What Jackie Won:
3rd Place: Leah Olson
San Diego, California
Leah Olson is an aspiring writer (mostly by night) and an attorney currently working as in-house counsel for a nonprofit network of charter schools (by day). After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in journalism in 2007, she put her passion for writing on hold as she entered the professional abyss otherwise known as “being a Millennial in her twenties.” She spent two years working as a third grade teacher in Las Vegas with Teach For America before going to law school. She graduated from Harvard Law in 2012 and then spent four years working at two different corporate law firms in New York and San Francisco before moving on to the education sector. While she greatly enjoys her work, she has also recently rekindled her writing flame, primarily in the form of personal essays. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up as a biracial girl and transracial adoptee in white America. Her writing has appeared in HuffPost Personal, on the popular blog Scary Mommy, and in many publications on the platform Medium. She is a Maryland native but thoroughly enjoys living in Southern California with her husband and two young sons.
I Want Dark Brown Skin Like You, Mommy!
“I want dark brown skin like you, Mommy!”
I was floored when I heard my two-and-a-half-year-old son say these words. Although technically, I was already on the floor, sitting on the hard tile of our family room as he and I played “Monsters” with figurines from a Halloween party. (Naturally, it was July.) We had been observing the different shades of the toys’ plastic faces and limbs—dark purple, light purple, dark green—so I guess I could have predicted that he would turn his attention to our own skin colors.
But I was floored because this statement came from the mouth of a child with blue eyes, stick-straight towhead blond hair, and fair skin that America would consider decidedly “white.” (He was tanned from the summer sun and was innocently describing himself as “light brown.”)
As my son had just observed, I—a biracial woman who is half Black—have skin that is significantly darker than his. I know very little about my biological parents but the teenage mother and father are listed as “Caucasian” and “African American,” respectively, in the sparse file from my closed newborn adoption. In a shocking genetic twist, my biological son looks like a carbon copy of my husband and his Swedish ancestors. His brother, currently ten months old, looks like a carbon copy of me. Brown skin, hair, and eyes.
My son repeated with earnest, “I want dark brown skin like you, Mommy!”
I embraced him and said, “You have beautiful skin.”
I was floored as I—a brown-skinned, biracial, Black woman—sat there reassuring a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, fair-skinned boy that he should take pride in his own appearance. How many times has this scene gone down in America?
And I was floored because I realized that my toddler’s “want” was really in spite of, not because of, me. He and I have not yet had any conversations about race other than the occasional observation of skin colors but I am now entering a critical point where I can try to make some profound good out of my unique role as the Black mother of a presumed-white child. I cannot do that, however, if I continue to live the way I have for the past thirty-five years, which is in denial that I am Black.
I was adopted at birth by my white parents. Although I grew up in a mostly-white neighborhood, my parents immersed our family in diverse cultural experiences. They adopted five children after me: a sister who is white and four brothers who are Black. We grew up with family friends of all different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. My parents instilled in us that every person we meet has a story, has feelings, has equal value in society. They engaged us in candid conversations about racism and the injustices done to Black Americans in the past and present. They implored us to go out and work toward a better future for our country.
I instead went out and hand-crafted a white privileged life for myself. I attended academic magnet programs in middle and high school that were predominantly white and affluent. I chose the extra-curricular activities of swimming, cross country, and field hockey, which were predominantly white and affluent. I joined Teach For America in 2007 when the organization was predominantly white and affluent. I graduated from Harvard Law School and then worked for four years in corporate law, where the vast majority of people around me were white and affluent.
I took pleasure in my inability to code switch as I grew up. I enjoyed being called an “Oreo.” I felt relieved that my style of speaking, my cultural familiarities, and my name all fit the white stereotypes. I spent an inordinate amount of time and money trying to make my hair straight.
I prioritized friendships and relationships with white peers and declined invitations to join Black affinity groups. I told myself this was because I worried that Black America would see me as too white, but the more honest reason is because I worried that white America would see me as too Black.
In spite of all my efforts to live a white life, I have at times been the victim of racist words, attitudes, and actions. My response was always to feel a sense of shame and frustration that I had “failed” at being white. Rather than allowing myself to feel hurt or angry, rather than seeking solace from others who may personally understand this pain (my siblings included), I would go searching for acceptance from some other part of white America.
In my life I have been both a victim and a perpetrator of racism and white supremacy. I have undoubtedly caused hurt along the way and I am sorry.
As I tearfully embraced my son that July day, while he cautiously asked if we could get back to playing Monsters, I added with more sincerity than I had ever felt before, “You have beautiful skin, and so does your brother, and so do I.”
I want my kids to grow up taking pride alongside me in all of who they are and all of who I am. I should feel honored to be Black. Black lives are beautiful and valuable. Black lives are brave and resilient. I am in awe of all the Black individuals who continually rise above profound pain, fear, and societal prejudice to live their lives to the fullest. I have a lot to learn but I know that there are people out there who can help guide me.
I am grateful to the people in my life—especially my parents, husband, and siblings—who have loved and accepted me but also pushed me to be more honest on my identity journey. And I am now grateful to my two-year-old for getting me to the finish line. Or really, I should say, the starting line.
What Leah Won:
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 phenomenal and can help you reach your writing goals. Write on!
Journaling Power Heals The Issues In Your Tissues
As writers, we know the importance of keeping a journal and committing to Morning Pages. Mari L. McCarthy, The Journaling Guru and founder of CreateWriteNow, also knows this firsthand. Over twenty years ago, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and lost the feeling and function of the right side of her body. The doctors weren’t helping and neither were the prescription drugs, so she turned to journaling as a way to heal and recapture her quality of life. Her transformation was nothing short of radical. Over the years, she’s helped thousands of people put pen to paper and transform their lives, too. Her self-paced journaling courses are incredible and will inspire your best writing and best self. Journal every day and the possibilities are limitless.
Visit CreateWriteNow and find out more: www.createwritenow.com.
Check out Mari’s award-winning books, Journaling Power: How to Create the Happy, Healthy Life You Want to Live! and Heal Yourself with Journaling Power
“If you’ve ever doubted the therapeutic and transformative benefits of journaling, you need to read Mari L. McCarthy’s Journaling Power. A powerful tool for positive change, this book also contains the inspirational journaling exercises and encouragement that Mari is famous for, so you can embark on your own journey of transformation.” ~ Angela Mackintosh, Publisher, WOW! Women On Writing
“Heal Yourself with Journaling Power is a breath of fresh air in today’s stressful world. The idea that all you need is a pen and paper to change your outlook, create a new life story, or even enhance your health and wellbeing is revolutionary. Author Mari L. McCarthy takes readers on a guided journey to a more fulfilled life through motivational wisdom and journaling exercises. What I appreciate most about this book, as with all of Mari's journaling workbooks, is the individual nature and deep soul connection with the journaling work. Everyone will find their own aha moment as they work their way through the journaling exercises, making this book a deeply personal experience for each reader.” ~ Angela Mackintosh, Publisher, WOW! Women On Writing
Thank you, Mari! You continue to inspire.
Congratulations to the runners-up! It was very close, and these essays are excellent in every way.
Click on the titles to read:
How Not to Get Kidnapped: A Suggestive Guide by Meredith Towbin, Cincinnati, Ohio
Bushroot in the Flesh by Leah Olson, San Diego, California
Divorce Ranch by Courtney Harler, Las Vegas, Nevada
The Barbie Scale by Nancy Fowler, St. Louis, Missouri
My Big Tree by Debbie Kasper, Los Angeles, California
Exit Wounds by Sue Hann, London, UK
A Future, Bright and Free by Cassandra Crossing, Chicago, Illinois
Congratulations to our Essay Contest Honorable Mentions! Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.
Tracing by Sophia Safdieh, Brooklyn, New York
Home Sweet Home by Kathy Humenik, Henderson, Nevada
Breath Marks by Linda Campbell, San Francisco, California
Medical Records by Laura Slauson, British Columbia, Canada
While I Wait for You to Answer by Amy Culberg, Evanston, Illinois
I Held My Breath by Tricia L. McDonald, Grand Haven, Michigan
Harvest Moon by Leslie J. Cox, Glendale, Arizona
His Hands by K.M. Kastler, Alameda, California
Period Plane by Lexus Ndiwe, United Kingdom
White Smoke Rises by Anne Walsh Donnelly, Ireland
What the Honorable Mentions Won:
This brings the Q1 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!
Check out the latest Contests: