PRISM’s 2013 Non-Fiction Contest: The Winners!

The results of the 2013 Non-Fiction Contest are in! We received so many amazing entries this year—ultimately, Andreas Schroeder had to select one winner and two runners-up.

We’re excited to announce the winners:

  • Grand Prize: “An Excerpt from Horse Camp” by JonArno Lawson
  • 1st runner up: “Narrative Supplement” by Carolyn White
  • 2nd runner up: “The Skeleton Coast” by Jean McNeil

Judge’s Remarks: 

Let me begin by admitting a bias. For years I’ve monitored – and in several cases judged – the creative nonfiction competitions of a variety of literary magazines, such as PRISM, Event, Fugue, Grain, Prairie Fire, Malahat Review, etc. I’ve tracked the genre when it’s been the focus of the CBC’s annual literary contest, and I’ve assessed the creative nonfiction manuscripts of UBC Creative Writing’s MFA applicants for more years than I care to admit. In the process I’ve encountered a lot of fine cnf writing, but what’s bugged
me for years is this: why do so many cnf writers in North America seem to define the genre solely as memoir? Here we have a literary form whose definition and potential ranges so widely that, at its extremes, it can seem utterly apples & oranges (try judging personal essays against docu-poetry in the same competition) — and yet for the most part we’re merely using it to tell personal anecdotes and reminiscences. A nonfiction form of fiction, in effect. Meanwhile, its formidable capacity for the contemplative, the rhetorical and the experimental is being wasted or ignored.

Happily, PRISM International’s cnf competition of 2012/13 turned out to be something of an exception – if not in the overall range of its entries, then at least in its winners. In all three of the best-written submissions, straightline narrative has been enhanced or even replaced by approaches and techniques that emphasize exploration, contemplation, and a certain productive unpredictability. “Horse Camp” is a wonderfully cheeky, free-wheeling intellectual romp pretending to be a treatise on horses, but like some of the best creative nonfiction, it’s primarily about itself, refusing to be unduly limited by thesis or theme. “Narrative Supplement” makes imaginative use of the ambiguity and insensitivity of bureaucratic forms and jargon to explore the pain and effects of suicide on those left behind, while “The Skeleton Coast”, which uses a 150-kilometre trek through the Namib desert (“The Land God Made in Anger”) as its narrative base, spends a lot more time tracking a parallel desert in the narrator’s emotional psyche. In some ways I liked this piece best of all, not least because of the way its author attempted to take Aristotle’s theory of narrative (in the beginning everything is possible; in the middle, one or two outcomes are likely; the end is inevitable) and reverse it, though I had to eventually conclude that the attempt probably caused more problems for the piece than it solved. Still, it’s the kind of headset that will help us make fuller use of this literary form’s extraordinary potential, and I hope competitions like this one will encourage more cnf writers to experiment with approaches a bit more outside their comfort zone. May I make that a challenge?

Andreas Schroeder

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