The Writing Life

Contests Are The New Writing Prompt


When I’m stuck or need a break from something I’m working on, I will sometimes enter a writing contest. It’s good practice to stretch in another direction, feel out a story line or character of someone else’s imaginings. That I could possibly win is very motivating. There’s also a deadline. Again, motivating.

Cool people often judge these contests which can make winning that much sweeter. Once, I was a finalist in a short story contest judged by Dagoberto Gilb. That was pretty awesome.

Sometimes there are prizes. Like, had I won Tin House’s The Shirley Jackson Short Story Contest in which I wrote an ending to an unfinished Shirley Jackson story, I would have won publication, a Tin House gift bag, and The Works of Shirley Jackson from Penguin Books. Not bad.

And of course, if you have your own website, you can publish your losing entries, as I often do (See my dark and disturbing ending to Shirley Jackson’s story below.). So nothing’s lost, except the contest.

Why not sign up to receive daily writing prompts in your inbox, you ask? Because I’m not a fan of writing prompts, unless Steve Almond is dishing them out. He gives good prompt. (Seriously, if you ever get a chance to take a workshop with Almond, do it! You won’t regret it.) Writing prompts just don’t have that added charge, the incentive I need to take them seriously. A good contest comes with the possibility of reward, i.e. recognition. What writer doesn’t want that?

Entering contests can be expensive and there’s some controversy about whether magazines and journals should charge entry fees in the first place. I don’t have a strong opinion about this but it does make sense to enter contests sponsored by the best and brightest in the literary world. Poets & Writers is a good place to start your research.


To read the first part of Shirley Jackson’s unfinished story, click here. My dark and disturbing ending starts here:

It was just past the streetcar stop, at the next corner. I looked back at the newsstand man to see if he was still watching but he wasn’t looking at us any more. He was talking to a man in a mechanic’s jumpsuit, maybe selling him a newspaper or just talking it up.

We turned onto a street lined with bare, knotty trees and large enough for one lane of cars to get through. I only saw an old Buick drive past and the old man driving seemed not to notice us at all. Besides the house we had our sights set on and the vacant one next to it, there were no other houses on the block, but down a ways was what looked like a run down schoolhouse with all the windows dark or shattered. The weather had turned a few weeks earlier and the sidewalk was covered in dead leaves that crunched under our feet and rustled a little in the late-afternoon breeze. I drew my coat tighter around my shoulders and tried to keep pace with Hilda.

The house sat on a small hill and leading up to it were steps made of concrete. Some were cracked or crumbling a little. Along the sides, weeds had sprouted in patches, though they were mostly dead now. I looked toward the vacant lot next door. A house had stood there once. It’s foundation poked through the dirt like ancient ruins.

Hilda had gone on a few steps ahead of me but I caught up to her when she stopped in front of the house. “It’s getting late Hilda, maybe we should be getting back.”

“I knew you didn’t have it in you.”

“It’s not that—”

“Stay here, if you want. I’m going up there.”

I watched Hilda go up the steps. I thought about telling her that one of her saddle shoes was untied, but I focused instead on the cuffs of her cigarette pants that were ironed so flat I felt my hands smoothing the fabric of my dark slacks. Her black hair was cut in sharp angles, a modern bob that framed her deep-set eyes. Even though she’d tried to come undone after we left her mother, you know, to try and fit in with the people, she still looked put together.

“Hey,” Hilda said from the top of the porch, “Look at this.” She was opening a screen door.

I called to her from the sidewalk. “Hilda, should you be doing that? Let’s go back to the newsstand. Let’s tell the man we were robbed or that we don’t have enough to get the train home or—”

“Shhh! Are you coming or not?” Hilda waved me to her and what could I do but climb the concrete steps and make my way to the wooden porch?

It looked as though the house might have been pretty once. It was a white clapboard construction with dark green shutters on the windows. Some of them hung loose on their hinges. The front of the porch was decorated with latticework that was rotten and falling down in places.

I stepped onto the porch. The wooden slats were creaky and the white paint nearly stripped away. In the far corner, beneath a window with an ill-fitting metal screen, there was a wooden chair. Balanced on the porch railing just above it was an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a crumpled Pall Mall wrapper. The same ones my mother chain-smoked anytime she drove us anywhere on account of my father not allowing it in the house. Hilda hissed at me from inside, “Get in here! Before somebody sees you!”

I opened the screen door. It creaked on its hinges. I closed it carefully behind me and noticed a small hook on the inside and an eye nailed into the doorframe. An inside door with a small window for looking out was missing its lock, just a smooth round hole in its place. I left the screen door unlocked and looked around the room. Hilda had disappeared. She’d left me standing in this strange living room all alone. My eyes quickly adjusted to the dimness. It smelled of mold and wet wool. There was a hint of something else in the air, too. I recognized it from the nursing home where we visited my grandmother on holidays. An old woman lives here, I thought. I could smell her.

“Hilda?” I whispered. “Hilda, where are you?”

I peered into a doorway that led to a small galley kitchen. A single coffee mug sat on the counter, brown drips dried along the rim where someone drank from it. In the windowsill above the sink was a small vase with dead flowers. It didn’t look like anyone did much cooking here.

“What are you doing?” Hilda had appeared in the doorway. “Come on! I want to show you something.”

I followed Hilda back through the living room. As she walked, she pinched her nose and made a pretend gagging motion with her other hand. She led us down a short, dark hallway at the end of which were two doors on either side. One door was closed. It might have been the powder room. Hilda stood in the doorway of the bedroom and put her fingers to her lips. She pointed to the closed door as if to say, maybe there’s someone in there, don’t make a sound.

I followed Hilda into the bedroom. An old woman lay sleeping in a twin bed. Her mouth was open but she wasn’t snoring. She looked frozen though I could see that she was breathing from the rise and fall of the blankets on top of her.

A window at the far end of the room let in the fading daylight and some more light came from a small television set that sat on top of a tall dresser. The volume was turned down all the way and the light from it gave off a blue-ish hue that made the old woman look white and ghostly. The President was speaking at a podium from the White House on what looked like a sunny day. This reminded me of my father who thought Mr. Kennedy was a such a great leader. I was more like Mother, who cared little for politics, though I guess Mother cared enough to have her hair done according to how the First Lady was wearing hers.

“Hey, snap out of it,” whispered Hilda. “Look through those drawers, see what you can find.”

Hilda was going through the old woman’s vanity, looking inside little boxes and testing tiny bottles of perfume.

I slowly opened the top drawer of the dresser. Inside were men’s undergarments and socks in neat rows. The smell of mothballs stung my nose. I heard Hilda behind me rummaging through the small closet and I started on the next drawer. I was standing so close to the television that I felt the static and heat from the screen on my cheeks and forehead.

“Look what I found in the closet,” said Hilda.

I turned around and saw that Hilda held a small pistol in her hand. It was not much bigger than a deck of cards and had a pearly design along the handle.

“Is it real? You should put it back.”

“Maybe we should put this old hag out of her misery.”

“That’s not funny.” I was thinking of my poor grandmother again. Hilda didn’t have a grandmother, just a great aunt named Fanny who lived on a farm upstate.

“Oh come on, you know I’m only joking. I think we should keep it. Let’s take it with us. We could really impress some of the boys in school.”

“No, let’s just go.” I closed the drawer and started toward the door.

“Fine, but first I dare you to point it at her. Just pretend.”

“If I do, then can we go?”

“I promise.”

“Give it to me.” I took the gun from Hilda. It felt heavy in my hand. I wrapped my fingers around the base and through the loop of the trigger. It was the only way to hold it upright without dropping it on the floor. I stood at the foot of the bed. Hilda was standing now with her back to the door.

“Get closer,” she said.

I moved around to one side of the bed and stood near Hilda. I pointed the gun over where I imagined the old lady’s feet would be. I watched the rise and fall of the blankets, the one on the very top of her was white and crocheted. I was careful not to tighten my grip.

“Put it to her head.”

“No, Hilda. I’m not going to do that. What if it’s loaded?”

“I knew you weren’t up it. Just give it to me. I’ll do it.”


“What do you mean, no? Give it to me. I found it.” Hilda grabbed my hand and tried to pry my fingers from the gun.

“Stop it, Hilda. Just stop it.” I wasn’t whispering anymore and the old woman began to moan a little. In the scuffle, I don’t think either one of us heard the screen door swing open or the old man’s footsteps in the hallway.

“What is this?” the man bellowed. He was small, not much taller than me, and wore a thin overcoat buttoned to the neck. I loosened my grip and the gun dropped to the floor. It landed with a quiet thud on the braided rug.

“What are you doing here? What have you done to my wife? She’s very sick, you know.” The man’s voice was hoarse and he coughed a deep, wet cough. His watery eyes darted back and forth between Hilda, his wife, and me as he removed a handkerchief from a coat pocket and wiped his mouth.

“Yes, sir. This is all a mistake,” I said, but Hilda bent down to pick up the gun.

“I’m ringing the police,” said the old man.

“Mister, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I know how to use this. My daddy takes me hunting all the time.” Hilda was pointing the gun in the man’s direction.

He said, “Look here, put that gun down and get out of my house. You hear me?” He was red in the face as he stood shaking a hooked finger at Hilda. The old woman’s eyes were open now, I could see that, but she stared only at the television. President Kennedy was still there, flashing a toothy grin.

“Let’s go, Hilda.” I grabbed her shoulders and led her past the old man, through the doorway and dark hallway and living room that smelled like wet wool. Hilda still had the gun in her hand but wasn’t holding it out in front of her anymore. We spilled onto the porch, the thwack of the screen door sounding behind us, and ran down the concrete steps past the street car stop until we were back on that main road and passing the grocery store where we’d followed the girl.

Neither one of us said a word. We were walking now. My chest burned from running in the cold air.

We eventually made our way back to meet Hilda’s mother who was putting on red lipstick in the rearview mirror. We slid into the backseat of the car as Hilda’s mother pressed her lips together to even out the color. Through the mirror, she looked at us and said “Hi, girls. How was your afternoon?”

Hilda locked eyes with her mother while she slipped the gun into my coat pocket and pinched the back of my arm real hard. She smiled and said, “Good.”

2 thoughts on “Contests Are The New Writing Prompt

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