How I Got My Confidence Back, or The Story of Winning The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest

When I found out that my essay “The Wrong Way” had won The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, I was ecstatic, but also sworn to secrecy. Considering that the piece was published in November and I now also have an interview up on the TNQ website, I think it is safe to say that I no longer have to keep it on the DL.

So, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about the curse of perfectionism, grad school, failing, and validation—or, how I lost my confidence and how I got it back.

In September 2011, I started an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I would say, and I think most would agree, that UBC’s master’s program in creative writing is easily the best in the country. My year was, apparently, one of the most competitive ever.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time and, on a whim, I applied to the program a mere two weeks before the deadline. I only submitted in two genres (three is recommended), creative nonfiction and screenplay. I wrote at least part of both submissions during that two weeks.

After I submitted my application, I realized that I was never, ever, ever going to get in. I realized that instead of showing breadth in my writing, I submitted the same thing with each piece: comedy. Stupid, stupid! Why did I do that? I was tortured by the fact that there was no way I was going to make it in. I was betting that after reading literally hundreds of applications—probably filled with some pretty serious writing—the Graduate Committee was going to read my manuscript submissions and laugh.

Now that I think back, that is probably exactly what happened. They probably did laugh. But not in a bad way; more like in a relieved way. No doubt, my writing stood out from the mass of serious writing because it was funny and lighthearted and that made it different. Different enough to get noticed.

When I got into the program, I was nervous and excited, but also confident. I had always been at the top of my class. Then I started taking workshops and I realized that we were all The Best. Over 300 applications were received, half of which were immediately discarded because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements of UBC’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. Out of the remaining 160-something, it was whittled down to less than 25 students. I was one of them. I was The Best. Just like the other 20-odd students.

But, if we were all The Best before coming to UBC, we certainly were not all The Best in the program. No, the program only had one person who was The Best and I was most certainly not it.

It’s really hard when you have one of those crazy Type A personalities and some sort of perfectionism death wish and then all of a sudden, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be The Best. My best—which had always been more than enough—wasn’t good enough anymore. In the past, if I needed to succeed at something that was difficult, I just tried harder. But in grad school, surrounded by astonishingly accomplished and talented writers, I found that no matter how hard I tried, my best would never make me The Best again.

It was a really difficult lesson, but I learned it over the course of Fall Term 2011. I accepted that I would always be on the congratulating side of things and never on the congratulated side. I watched as my new friends were awarded prestigious national awards for their writing and went on book tours. And I was happy for them. Very happy. But I wasn’t so happy for myself. Actually, I was pretty sad.

In Spring Term, things got better. Two small pieces that I had written in Fall Term had been published (in WestCoast Families and Fringe). I wasn’t thrilled because I hadn’t been particularly attached to either piece, but a couple of my classmates pointed out that they hadn’t published any of their Fall Term pieces.

Then I wrote “The Wrong Way” in early 2012. The workshop was divided, literally, in half. On the right, the students felt it was too long and I should cut, with a thousand suggestions of what should be omitted. On the left, the students insisted I shouldn’t cut anything. Andreas Schroeder, our Creative Non-Fiction writing instructor, sat back and watched the argument boil. Occasionally, he would smirk this little smile towards me, as if to say, “Isn’t this funny?” When the workshop was over, he declared how much he enjoyed watching a spirited debate.

Normally, when the camp is deeply divided in a workshop, it means that something needs to change. But after class, Andreas told me, “This essay is practically perfect.” He told me not to submit it to the slush pile, but to only submit it to contests “because it will win a contest.” Knowing that he’d judged many contests, I never doubted him.

Andreas requires that everyone submit a re-write of each assignment. I went through the comments given to me by my fellow students and made some changes and submitted my re-write to Andreas. When he wrote back and told me to change everything back to the way it was except for one sentence, I knew the piece was ready. I had also been scoping out creative nonfiction contests and had decided the TNQ‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest was the best fit for “The Wrong Way.”

In July 2012—several months after submitting the essay—I found myself sitting in the parent waiting room at my son’s tutoring service. I decided to check my email on my phone. When I saw an email from TNQ, my heart sank a little. Like most writers, I am close friends with Rejection. I assumed it would be another rejection, and although I was bummed, I looked at the date and realized that I still had time to submit it to another contest.

Now, remember, I was reading this on my phone, on a tiny screen, just a few words at a time. I saw the sender. I saw the subject line, which read “TNQ Personal Essay results.” Then, just as I was about to read my rejection, I saw that someone had been cc’d the message. As an editor at a literary magazine, I was skeptical that they would cc someone on a rejection letter. That just didn’t make any sense. Unless…perhaps it wasn’t a rejection letter.

And then I was filled with a new thrill. What if I was short-listed?! In that moment, I honestly didn’t even care if I won, I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of just being short-listed.

Then I read the email:

Dear Sierra,
The editors have completed the judging process for The Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest and I am delighted to inform you that your essay, ‘The Wrong Way’ was the winner. The judges were hugely impressed with your ability to tackle the difficult subject of grief in a way that was personal but not melodramatic and overall felt that it was a thoughtful, original and well-crafted piece. …Congratulations on a superb essay. We look forward to introducing our readers to your fine work.

Best regards…
The New Quarterly

Just like that. Just like that, I went from what seemed utter obscurity to a state of acknowledgement, validation, and acceptance.

Yes, I know it was just one contest. But it was my first. And you always remember your first, right?

Although attending an MFA program, especially the non-fiction class with Andreas Schroeder, led to a vast improvement in my writing, winning the contest gave me a new confidence in that writing. And, well, I think confidence—or, rather, the ability to make friends with Rejection without letting him bum you out when he gets all negative—can make the difference between success and failure.

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