What’s the point of writing competitions? Jen Herron (Winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing – 2022) recalls an experience that goes a long way towards explaining why she both loves and hates writing competitions (Irish Times)

What’s the point of writing competitions?

(Original Article from the Irish Times at the following link – www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/2023/08/30/whats-the-point-of-writing-competitions/)

Jen Herron recalls an experience that goes a long way towards explaining why she both loves and hates writing competitions

I have a secret. It’s pathetic but I’ll share it anyway. I’m addicted to entering writing competitions I’ve got no chance of winning. Like some sort of masochist, I savour the exquisite pain of waiting months for a rejection email. If I get one. Nowadays, not even the ten quid entry fee entitles you to a copy-and-pasted rejection letter. You usually learn of your failure by chance on social media, scrolling through pics of the prize-winners smiling at an awards ceremony. It’s akin to seeing your ex’s wedding photos on Facebook.

So, why do I do it? Why do I spend precious time and money competing in the writing Olympics when I’m more of a couch-to-5k. Like all adult foibles, my unfulfilled desire for success is rooted in childhood. Please enjoy the following piece of memoir, the origin story of my love for writing competitions, which, ironically, has never placed in a competition. Some judges are fools.


May 1995

When I was 13, something happened that would change my mindset forever. A posh English woman rang our house asking for me by my full name. With a clean, clipped voice, she declared I’d won the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Schools’ Anti-War Writing Competition. What a mouthful. She revealed they wanted Mum and me to come to London for an awards ceremony, all expenses paid (except for our spending money – of which we had very little). I didn’t understand how something so cool could happen to a wee doll from Craigyhill, but she said my English Teacher submitted a poem I’d written in class on my behalf. So, wherever you are, Mrs Greenlee, thank you.

Now, this might not seem like a big deal to most people. But for 13-year-old me, who’d never been on an aeroplane, never slept in a hotel, nor ever left Northern Ireland, this was a VERY BIG DEAL INDEED. And more importantly, it meant I wasn’t as thick as two short planks, which until that point, was how I’d seen myself.

I was a prestigious, prize-winning poet. Feeling ultraconfident, I wore my new, grown-up pastel-pink shoes to the airport. Heels, no less. My very first pair. I’d convinced Mum to buy them because I couldn’t look like a hallion in front of the posh London folk.

“But they’ll cut the feet aff ye,” she said in the shop.

“No, they won’t,” I replied, hobbling around Dorothy Perkins.

“Aye, all right, dead on … we’ll see about that.”

As soon as we stepped on the plane, I could already feel the blisters begin to bubble. I hid my winces. Showed no pain. I’d wear them even if they cut the heels clean aff me.

The same lady I spoke to on the phone picked us up at Heathrow. I forget her name now, but for the purposes of the story, I’ll call her Mary. She drove us to Central London in a tiny, tin-like car that seemed dwarfed by the metal monstrosities of the city roads. I closed my eyes every time a bus skirted past us at speed, with only inches of space to spare between us. Sudden death was surely imminent. Worse still, no one returned the sham wave when we let them out. Unforgivable.

I’d never seen a place so busy, and my initial reaction was one of revulsion. I felt London grey, dim and soulless, unlike my beloved Larne. It was probably at that age I realised I was not destined to be a city slicker, but a small-town girl living in the not-so-lonely world of lovely Larne. Have I mentioned I love Larne? Because I really do love Larne. Larne, Larne, Larne.

I digress. But God’s own country deserves its moment.

There was no time to rest. First, lunch at a special reception for all the winners (there were separate age categories). I was too scared to talk to anyone and clung to Mum like a limpet. What would they make of my nasal dialect, my culchie-isms, my flair for incorrect grammar? I done. I seen. Yous. But to be honest, the only one who seemed to care about any of that was me. Because for the first time in my life, I was treated like a pop star. And I loved it.

The meet-and-greet was followed by a full city tour, much of it on foot. Looking back, most of it was a blur, and I couldn’t have told you the difference between Westminster and St Paul’s. However, one memory remains blinding.

A few hours in, I couldn’t take it any longer. My feet were a raw, bloody mess. I hid it the best I could, waiting for Mum to get a dig in, saying I told you so etc., but utter those well-deserved words, she did not. Thankfully, we returned to the hotel before the awards ceremony, where I could rest my mangled plates for a blessed two hours.

[ Tanya Sweeney: Waving goodbye to my heel-wearing life was an easy step ]

Mum told me to have a good soak in the bath. The warm water felt like razors on my feet, and I’m not going to lie, I foofed a bit in the tub. Mum said she was popping out and left me to it, and I uttered a sheepish cheerio, sank my head under the water, and lambasted myself for failing to bring my trainers.

When Mum came back, I was still ruminating. She bucked me out of the bath so she could get washed, and I ambled into the bedroom. And there, atop the plush, king-size mattress sat a pair of flat, comfy pink clogs in my size, the label still attached. I lifted them and hugged them close. Mum stuck her head out the door, saying she thought they’d go better with my outfit. Aye, they sure would. And those bloody heels were going in the bin. But then, a realisation hit.

“Mum, what about our pocket money?”

“Ah, sure who needs it?” she replied. “We cannae have you sprachling about crippled. You’re waddling like a duck with a sore arse.”

We got dolled up and were looking mighty fine when Mary picked us up again. I couldn’t tell you the name of the building she took us to, but it was like something out of an Austen novel. Big, granite lions sat outside the revolving door, which spun you in and spat you out into another world. A Dickens-dwelling, Thackeray-themed, Byronically-brilliant world. All at once awe-inspiring and terrifying, but in a good way.

The hall was lined with plush curtains, stone busts, oil paintings of important people, shrubs and a butler. Okay, I’m not sure about the butler, but the building of my teenage memory was akin to Pemberley, the one in the 1990s version of Pride and Prejudice. And I was Elizabeth Bennett. But let’s face it, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m more like Lydia.

A massive marble staircase led to a big hall, where we were set to read our poems aloud. I was nervous, but looking ultra-slick in my new clogs, and I suppose I was happy to show them off. When the time came for my reading, I looked out at the smiling sea of faces and I felt warm inside. I read my work with confidence, and after the applause, my spirit soared. Seeing my wee mammy grinning in the audience filled me with even more pride. It was a gorgeous moment. One that everyone should have.

Afterwards, we went to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. I had to take off my beloved clogs and sit at a tiny table where neither fork nor knife could be had. Mum and I skellied at each other and knew we were in for it, and when they plopped two big bowls of what looked like dirty dishwater in front of us, our shock must have been palpable – especially when a big octopus sucker floated to the top.

“It’s seafood ramen,” grinned Mary.

I’d like to see this food go, I thought, not brave enough to declare it out loud, holding back my desire to ask for a plate of chips. But, in the spirit of adventure, I speared the octopus sucker with my chopstick and launched it into my mouth. I’ve never tried to chew an actual rubber, but if I did, I imagine it would taste something like that octopus’s arm.

I forged a polite smile and swallowed, hoping for the best. But the sucker had other ideas and lodged itself in my throat, where it happily remained for a few hours before we got back to the hotel. Thankfully, I boked it up in our en suite, and that little sucker went back to the depths where he belonged. I haven’t eaten octopus since, and I swear to God, I never will.

A creature that will never be eaten by Jen Herron. Photograph: David Fleetham/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
All being said, it was still a glorious, momentous day in my life. The day after is not quite so easy to talk about.

Even now, as an adult, I’ve debated whether to include the next anecdote in my story. But in the interest of authenticity, I will. Because a writer must take risks. Just please, don’t tell Mum. I suppose, looking back now, it’s a little funny. Funny in the sense the emotional scars are still here.

Before our flight the next day, Mary offered to take us to Camden Market to show us the stalls. I knew this was a mistake. We had no money. It’d be like taking a model to a cake shop – just pure, unadulterated cruelty. Predictably, Mum was well up for it, and I got this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and it wasn’t from the wee Ollie the Octopus.

You see, Mum is notorious for buying the biggest pile of pruck she doesn’t need. She’s the type of person who goes into Home Bargains for toothpaste but comes out with a beach ball, 600 toilet rolls and a foot spa. And most of it ends up in the back room. “She’s never bloody happy till she’s skint,” my da used to say. In fact, he still says it. They’re divorced now.
When Mum saw Camden Market her eyes lit up like Ali Baba in the Cave of Wonders. She wove in and out of those stalls like Linford Christie (1980s running icon for all you young ’uns out there) and Mary and I could barely keep up. Finally, Mum’s eyes lit upon a jewellery stall. She lifted a silver necklace with an amethyst crystal fob. Her eyes glinted with longing.

“Isn’t this lovely, Mary?” Mum swung it in front of Mary’s face like she was trying to hypnotise her. Facepalms weren’t a thing back in the 1990s, but if they were, I would have used one.

“Yes, that’s really lovely. Why don’t you treat yourself?” replied Mary.

Mum’s face fell, and she placed the necklace back on the table. “I would, but we don’t have any money.”

Well, I just wished the ground would swallow me up right then and there. I died inside. Several times. Now the organisers would know just how skint we were.

Mary shuffled awkwardly and took out her purse. I could loan you the money if you like, and you could send it over to me when you get home. Mary took out three clean, crisp notes and waved them in front of my mother, who sniffed the air like a hound.

“Oh no, I couldn’t …”

Mum looked at me for approval. I whitened and couldn’t speak. I could only stare at my feet, adorned by the new bloody clogs that had got us into this mess. Technically, I was a party to this crime. If she hadn’t bought new shoes for my stubborn feet, she could have afforded this wretched necklace.

Mary handed the cash to the stallholder and passed the necklace to Mum. But she didn’t put it on, stuffing it guiltily into her bag.

The plane journey home was quiet.

I don’t know what I was sadder about, the fact my London adventure was over or that Mum had tapped the organiser.

I was lost in thought when she took my hand.

“You know I’m really proud of you.”

“Thanks, Mum.”

“I always knew you were special. I always knew you’d do something good.”

“Thanks, Mum.”

Though I’m over 40 now, just last week, Mum repeated the very same thing. She tells me all the time how brilliant I am, even though I’ve never published anything substantial. She still insists one day I’ll get there. I’m not so sure. But Mum’s continuous support throughout the years helped me forgive the fact that poor Mary is still in London somewhere, waiting for her thirty quid.

[ A quare spake: a celebration of Irish rural dialect, so it is ]

Present day

Inspired by this article, I googled that old poetry competition and found the organiser, who, like me, is a teacher. I emailed his sixth form college in London, thanking him for organising the competition, explaining how it has impacted my life, both as a writer and a teacher.

True, writing competitions have many, many negative effects. They’re costly, time-consuming, distracting and provide mostly short-term pleasure. They fatten the coffers of those who can’t be bothered to acknowledge your genius.

Despite the absolute torture they create, they are important. Whilst winning seems like a one-on-a-million chance, it’s still a chance. And what sort of story would Charlie and the Chocolate Factory be if Charlie Bucket didn’t believe that one day, he’d find a golden ticket? Life would be very dull indeed without hope.

I’ve passed my love of writing competitions on to my students, and I encourage them to enter EVERYTHING. I’m probably creating monsters but personally, I think competing in a non-athletic way is important for children. Yes, there’s the inevitable rejection at a young age, but they might as well get used to it. Wrapping children up in cotton wool is as damaging as protecting them from any hardship. Plus, let’s not forget the fact that sometimes, you might actually win.

In 2022, a miracle occurred – I won a poetry competition. The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing. It was a relief to know I hadn’t peaked at 13. I can’t really explain what winning this meant to me and I won’t get all sentimental. But for a moment I thought my wee mammy was right, maybe I was special. But before I get too cocky, I’d like to stress I’ve won nothing since. Moreover, a few weeks ago, I applied for a major writing opportunity only to receive a stock reply entitled ‘Rejection Template’. There’s nothing like the icy arm of rejection to pull you back down to earth.

But I will keep going. I will keep trying. Let the rejection rain down. Go on, bring it. I dare you. Because I’ve won two competitions out of hundreds of entries spanning 30 years. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you rejectors, you.

In a strange reversal of fortune, I was delighted to be asked to sit on the judging panel for the Seamus Heaney Award, 2023. It was an amazing experience – particularly in seeing the other side of the process. It gave me a real insight into the work behind the scenes, and how hard it is to scale down so many wonderful poems to a handful of winners. It’s no easy task, and perhaps I’ve acquired a little more sympathy for judges. Just a smidge, mind.

I’d also like to say thank you to Conor, Shelley and Steven at the Community Arts Partnership, Belfast, who do such fabulous things for the writing community, both children and adults. It’s organisations like this who help promote creativity and give writers a platform for their work. For where would we be without the arts?

So, I’ve tried to pass it on, and do for others what was done for me. Recently, one of my students asked me why I encourage so many pupils to enter writing competitions and I told her about winning when I was younger. It set me on an amazing path, a path inspired by a love of language and creativity. It’s why I’m here right now, typing out this story for you to read. It’s why I’m a teacher. It’s why I’m a writer.

Competitions are so much more than competitions. They’re surrounded by a realm of creative industry. Teachers, parents, arts organisations, writing groups, charities and community groups – all should be recognised for the opportunities they offer writers, young and old, and for helping us to compete creatively.

So, what’s the point of writing competitions? Who knows. They’re terrible. They’re wonderful. I both love and hate them. And should you bother to enter any? Yes. Absolutely. Sure, what else would you be doing? Writing simply for the pleasure of it? How boring is that?

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.