Lessons from the Personal Essay Contest Meeting
The Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest judges met at TNQ headquarters yesterday to pick a winner. I was lucky enough to be nearby, and overheard some interesting discussions that took place, particularly on the subject of what is and what is not a personal essay. While we received a lot of submissions with great writing, not all of them could be categorized as personal essays; as I soon learned, a personal essay must be—believe it or not—both personal and an essay.
As Melissa explained it to me, it must use a personal experience as a jumping-off point for a greater theme, idea or discussion. A personal essay is not equivalent to a memoir, in which the author relates personal experiences and observations with a focus on themselves. Personal essays feature their author, sometimes prominently, but are not necessarily about the author; they have a larger purpose. A great personal essay, as I learned today, must both touch us emotionally and teach us something. And, as Susan put it, the writing must sparkle. Craft and organization are very important, too: the facts and citations must be carefully interwoven with the personal narrative, allowing a smooth (not disjointed) read. Yet another component in the decision making is what the judges refer to as 're-readability', which amounts to whether or not they would want to read the piece again. This is considered when picking all content for the magazine; a winner must be worth taking in a second or even a third time.
With all this in mind, the judges were able to whittle the shortlist down to seven essays. While I've heard that the arguments have gotten vicious in past years, this year's round-table discussion was surprisingly peaceful. Everyone was mostly in agreement that two of these relied too heavily on the imagination (i.e. they were more fiction than personal essay), a few were too list-like or disconnected, one had too much ego. In almost no time at all, they were down to two contenders for the grand prize ($1000 and a prominent spot in the magazine).
While I won't tell you enough about the winner and the runner-up to give them away, I will say that they were very different in terms of style and subject matter. At first the judges were split on their favourite, but after a break for careful re-reading, one shone through. It came down to voice and craft; while both have great writing, the judges decided that one essay had a more compelling narrator and a more nuanced construction. The winner was able to relate various personal anecdotes with interesting dialogue and 'wacky' characters while always coming back to the central theme with thoughtful transitions. The final decision was unanimous, and the lucky writer will find out the good news soon. Unfortunately, the rest of you will have to wait for the fall issue!