Rebecca Swirsky – A Winner’s Thoughts
On the corner of my desk sits a grey pebble, inlaid with tawny-gold filigree.
It was slipped in my pocket when the sun was a meaty yellow, and the salty breath of Bridport waves were helping clear my celebratory prosecco-clouded head. While each of the pebbles layering the beach could be counted as beautiful or striking, while each spoke about the pebbleness of pebbles, in the end, there was only one I took home. And I treasure it.
Two months earlier, an email had dropped into my inbox, its subject heading ‘The Bridport Prize’. After preparing myself for a technicality regarding my entry, instead I sat blinking as I read, ‘I’m delighted to tell you that your story…”
Okay, so I hadn’t won one of the top three prizes; my short story Star Sailor (Aistron Nautes) was one of ten Highly Commended entries and would be included in the prize’s anthology. But it still felt like I was gulping down the sun. Having been shortlisted in previous years (no mean feat, considering the 6-8,000 entries per year) but never commended, the inclusion in the anthology felt pretty special. My week burned even brighter once I learnt that I had also been shortlisted in the flash fiction section, and that I’d won an apprenticeship with Stella Duffy through The Word Factory for my collection.
In the form of all good omens, the prize-giving day dawned fresh and clear. Welcomed into the wooden-floored Bridport Arts Centre, I was itching to match authors to the stories and poems that I knew would be my company on the train to London. For the first hour, expressions on winners’ faces ranged from bemused, to nervous, to downright ecstatic, but with guest judges available to chat with winners, the atmosphere was generous, and it was clear from conversations with organisers how much effort had gone in, not just to the ceremony itself, but in the months of preparation ahead.
After hearing people read their work (names I’m certain we’ll be hearing more of in the future) it was revealing to discuss with others their varied experiences of submitting. For some, entries had ‘slipped out’, while others, myself included, had taken longer to craft and hone. Intriguingly, while it’s eminently sensible to allow entries to ‘breathe’ in readers’ minds by entering early, many writers (in which category I count myself) had nonetheless squeezed in at the last hour, convinced stories could shimmer better with a few well-judged nouns or adverbs added or subtracted. In the end, probably the best advice is to just do whatever feels right.
I’ve commonly heard the Bridport Prize described as a “yearly tithe”, or “annual donation”. So let’s be honest: is the fuss really worth it?
My hunch about the prize’s value is that it offers a sense of validity – a powerful emotion for emerging writers that, as Fay Weldon has said, is “not to be sniffed at.” Previous prize winners speak for themselves, with Vanessa Gebbie, Adam Marek and Esther Morgan among the list. Judges also, are of consistently high calibre –cases in point being Andrew Miller, Liz Lochhead and Tania Hershman, who are at the helm in 2014. And it’s a mark of the prize’s prestige that winning doesn’t necessarily preclude from re-entering. After the opening of the 2014 competition, writer Kerry Hood wrote on twitter: “Heck, trying to find ‘the’ story to work on. Forgot I have to actually write it – and I came 2nd last year!”
Another bonus is that literary agency A.M. Heath take the time to read not just the anthology, but shortlisted short story entries also. Having been awarded the A.M. Heath Prize in 2011 for my Creative Writing MA submission at Sheffield Hallam, I have experienced first-hand the professionalism of this high-profile agency.
Although many other excellent competitions are in existence, connection to one of the UK’s most prestigious open writing prizes means that when one faces a blank page, or struggles with old, stale words, there is the knowledge that someone out there believed in your characters, and in what you were trying to say, and this helps you believe in yourself. Sometimes we need that extra push. So if you’re entering this year, in the words of Hilary Mantel, “do the best you can with every sentence.” And go for it.
Finishing this blog, it seems to me that my desk-top pebble resembles an egg. A spherical, Jurassic Coast creation. As with stories, I wonder what it might hatch. Where it might lead me to. Time to get writing, I think.
Wishing you much inspiration for 2014,
This article was first published in The Bridport Prize Newsletter