How to enter a competition without wrecking your week

3000 words is a lot to write from the heart. I’d sent off a personal essay to a competition. I knew I’d created something good, something that ached to be shared. 

Entering had been hard enough, a dizzying mess of angst and paperwork. Waiting for the results, I flickered between imaginary scenarios, trying to find a stable way to think about the process. When the email finally arrived I could see it was a NO without even opening it - “Thank you for your entry…”

I felt a crush of grief in my chest, followed by a deluge of doom-laden thoughts. I began to spiral. My heart pounded, my face flushed, my shoulders drooped in response to the horrible things I was telling myself. My protective brain had jumped into action. Its mission: to make sure that I never take this “unsafe risk” again.

I applied all the band-aid self-soothing strategies I could think of, quelling at least the emotions that I was having about my emotions. Then, above the howling storm, I heard a deep, wise, reassuring voice. 

It calmed me down straight away. No, it wasn’t God.

It was David Attenborough.

What David told me

“Most hunts end in failure,” said the British accent in my head. I flashed back to the nature documentary we’d watched the night before. 

Scene: an arid golden plain. The lionesses pace with laser focus towards a giraffe. The huge animal is out of their league, but maybe, maybe…

They fail, as the footage shows. They fail on the next hunt too. 

What do they do? Eat junk food, get drunk, or find another way to numb the feelings of being a lioness-sized loser? 

No. They get ready for the next hunt.

They expect that most of their attempts will fail. They learn what works better, develop strategies, and look for opportunities. They live without guarantees, but with hope that over the long run, their efforts will be worth it.

I’m a poet and I love metaphors. If I choose to enter more competitons, this is what I’ll hold onto: Most hunts end in failure. That’s a fact, and that’s okay.

Stuck in the middle

Creatively, a ‘hunt’ is a long-shot, big-reward venture. This can include applying for residencies, entering art awards, approaching dealer galleries, sending off show reels, asking for funding, pitching articles, or submitting work to publishers.

You risk wasting your time, or pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You risk confronting the question: “Who the hell do I think I am?” And most of all you risk rejection, disappointment and wondering if your work is rubbish.

Going for these big wins is only one of our available strategies. Many creative people don’t choose to take these kinds of risks, and are happy and successful without them. Others focus on these risks and get good at managing them, leveraging the positive outcomes they do occasionally get.

The hard place to be is in the middle.

Once a year you tell yourself, “I really ought to enter the ceramics award - that’s what proper artists do.” You spend a week doing the necessary stuff (making a Creative CV, remembering where you saved your bio, figuring out how to package the work, freaking out, etc.) 

By the end you’re frazzled, and instead of feeling like a proper artist, you feel totally confused about your work. Then when you get the results, you might have an experience similar to mine, and vow to never enter anything again (until next year).

Have no fear: you CAN increase the amount of big-reward risks you take, without most of this stress.

Do it better

The first step is to choose how much of this activity you want to undertake, and what that might look like for your creative practice. What strategically is manageable for you, with the best possible outcomes for the least effort? How many times in a year do you want to do this? What are the options for your work?

Ask yourself: Do I want this because it will benefit my practice, or do I secretly hope it will make me feel legitimate? (If you picked option B, only you can provide this for yourself, and now is a good time to work out how.)

Next, create a structure. Put dates in your calendar, reminders in the preparation time leading up to them, lists of awards/residencies/galleries, what you sent where, the results, and so on. 

Get your systems in order so you can easily find a bio, an artist’s statement, reviews - whatever you use once, label it clearly and put it in the folder. Over time, the paperwork side will get faster and easier.

As much as you can, take stressful emotion out of the process. Part of this is how you think about your attempts. You may struggle if you interpret each lack of success as a sign of your uselessness (as I did). If you keep the big picture in mind, the worst risk becomes: ‘15 minutes of disappointment’. 

I believe you can cope with that.

Whatever the outcome, keep the learning. You’ll get better at finding opportunites that suit your work. As your strategy develops, it will become a normal part of ‘what you do’.

If you do choose to go for the big wins, remember that most hunts end in failure. But some end in victory, whether it be recognition, awards, or opportunities. This feeds your confidence, nourishing your creative practice.