On Breaking Up w/ Writing Competitions

I have rarely won anything in my life. The last thing I won was a raffle at an open mic back in February. I won a pile of poetry books (yes!). I cannot tell you how excited I was. You see, when I was small, myself and the rest of my class were forced to compete with another girl in my class.

Her parents worked for the school in many capacities, so yes, she was a nepotism baby—and boy did we know it! Nothing we did was ever good enough. I distinctly remember having a page torn out of my workbook and was told to start again. Shortly after, an announcement was made to the class:

“Everyone! Look at X’s work. That is what we should be aiming for.”

We weren’t our own people. We were children of the shadows. This began when we were five years old and continued until we were eleven. Our work was never looked at in the same way hers was. I always knew I had so much to say that would be valuable, but I wasn’t given the chance.

X was given every main part in the school play, no matter what. It was relentless favouritism; the effects of which have superseded the image of her. People make fun of me for calling out favouritism when I see it, but I was reduced to nothingness by that kind of treatment. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

I had thought it was over, but then I began entering writing competitions. For five years, I have lost every single competition I have entered. I have only been longlisted twice. It’s a frequent occurrence—the act of my eyes frantically scanning a list of titles, only to discover mine has been cast out to sea.

At the minute, I have a few to hear back from, but after those (assuming the results will be as they ever are), I am not entering more. Winning a competition isn’t indicative of excellence, and I find people are often upset by this. Art is subjective, and I find it obnoxious when people comment on how their poem/story was picked out of hundreds/thousands of others; as though that somehow makes them better than everyone. If you need it stating plainly—it doesn’t.

I will never understand why competitions are so lauded, given how many writers are neglected by them. I have spent so long keeping my feelings about them a secret because of what others might say, but I think there are more of us out there who feel this way.

It always strikes me as peculiar that we expect writers to take a mental beating in the name of “being a writer”. They don’t believe in changing the system, therefore, they want to find ‘simpler’ solutions.

I think back to a day in 2020 when I found out I hadn’t won yet another competition, and I remember how gut-wrenching it was. I slept for fourteen hours in complete darkness. When I awoke, I began to rethink everything. People I spoke to told me the old adage among writers: “You need to thicken your skin.”

Why? Why should I? Why are we adopting this stiff upper lip attitude? It’s unhelpful and quite frankly, dim-witted. None of our work would exist without FEELING something. You can criticise me until your face is a royal blue, but it will smother you.Writing competitions make me feel physically sick, as well as mentally. They are bloody boughs that fracture the spirit.

I refuse to be held up against someone else as though we are equal. Pope knew he was good. Plath knew she was good. Kafka knew he was good. In the case of the latter, people failed to recognise him. I have spent a long time in the shadow of others, and I won’t do it any longer. I am Courtenay Schembri Gray, and my work shall outlive me, in all its gore.

The dunces will forever have the most thunderous of mouths.


  1. Beng compared to another during our childhood will, leave that, permanent, scar, if we win, we feel we’re, superior, and that gives way for us to become, too, egotistical, and, if we lose, we get the feedback that, we’re not, good enough, and that seed of the, inferiority compex, rooted down, and, we get stuck, for the rest of our lives, trying, to breal free, from the, feelings that we will never, be, worthy, and end up, not taking thae chances, which present themselves to, us. So, either way, we were, already, screwed up, from, before we were even, aware.

    Liked by 1 person

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