But Brent Busboom, a public-school teacher in Reno, still encourages his students to go for it—among other reasons, because winning a competition can help sell parents on their child’s chosen career. Busboom points to a student who was poised to become a doctor or lawyer like his parents when he decided to enter a writing competition. “Winning an award legitimized his talent,” he says. “Last I heard, he was doing a master’s degree in writing at Columbia. Whether he would have gone into writing regardless is an open question.”
Carissa Chen, a rising junior at Phillips Exeter Academy who this year seized the coveted Bennington Young Writer’s Poetry Award, says the competitions provide “an extra push of confirmation” for young artists amid art-class cuts and increasing emphasis on “the value of STEM over creativity.” More importantly, she says, “The more competitions I enter, the more I understand that I’m not searching for a résumé filler but that I’m looking for connections, experiences, classes, and a community.”
For many young writers, engaging in such a contest comes with other benefits. Many of them use it as an opportunity to connect with like-minded peers. In the process, they gather tips and inspiration, says Brandon Young, a 16-year-old writer from Melbourne, Australia, who leads an online peer writing group called Inked Voices. “The desire to tell a good story comes before winning a mere competition.”
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Of course, it can be hard for teens to take loss in stride. “When validation is dispensed like that—in such small doses, and on the basis of technical prowess rather than sheer authenticity of emotion—I’m not exactly sure it’s good,” says Katherine Frain, a Princeton student who edits The Blueshift Journal.
Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociology professor at Brown, compares these prose-and-prosody matches to youth athletic events, whose participation levels have also skyrocketed. In her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, she writes about the allure of contests that divvy up tributes. When it comes to getting into college, she says, “It’s not enough to say you do something or that you are ambitious, you have to prove it.” Such competitions help measure motivation.
Belkhyr, whose resume reads like that of a poet twice her age, remembers more anxiety than bloodthirsty thrills. “I had panic attacks and felt utterly worthless and miserable,” she says, recalling the times she lost. She also admits to molding her writing based strictly on what she thought would impress the judges. “I wasn’t writing for me, I was writing for the contests.”
This destruction of self-esteem and erasing of voice is exactly what Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of the new book Ruby on the Outside, fears. Having taught for almost 15 years at organizations including Gotham Writers Workshop, Raleigh Baskin has seen those mindsets trending. She refuses to critique manuscripts to send off to literary magazines or to judge competitions on the grounds that budding writers’ voices shouldn’t be “held up against a random opinion. This is the time for exploration and for encouragement … Writing is all about process and setting these arbitrary achievements takes away from that.”