Cursive Letters: the prize winner’s guilt

Dear Cursive Letters,

I recently found out that I won a minor literary prize. It’s not much money, but it’ll help, and psychologically it’s enough of a boost to keep me going for some time. A lot of writers are giving their prize money away to people or groups who need it more, and I know there are a lot of worthy causes out there especially with this government’s brutal cuts to the arts, attacks on refugees, etc. So is it rude not to donate some of the money to other artists or to a charity?


Dear Prize Winner,

Sometimes fellow writers are like friends in an abusive relationship. You keep putting yourself down, and we can’t make you see your own value.

I think part of the obligation of any writer or artist is to demand that creative work be valued. That’s not a matter of ego, but about changing the way we talk and think about artists and writers. If you write responsively and responsibly, working against cliches of thought, you offer your readers a fantastic opportunity to walk out of their lives and into the life of another human being. It’s a huge gift to offer, a great act of intimacy, and it helps the world to be more human and connected. Hard to put a price tag on that.

The work that activists and charities do is also vitally important and threatened and essential to human wellbeing and the struggle for social equality. But here’s the thing: a group of people who believe in what you’re doing are giving you money because they want you to keep doing it; they think it has inherent value. You need to learn to take a compliment, accept their gift, and use it. If you want to support a cause, work that support into your writing. You have something far more important to offer social causes than just money: your voice.

Yes, in the present climate a lot of organisations are struggling hard against huge cuts to their operating budgets. So join the campaign against the cuts. If you can afford it, by all means share your good fortune, but don’t feel a special obligation to give your money away. Most of the money we make as artists goes right back into the industry anyway, subscribing to journals, buying a painting or some zines, going to an art gallery, seeing a band. Let’s face it, however much you’ve been awarded, it’s small bickies compared to the tax dodges of your average planet-poisoning billionaire.

So I don’t think you should feel that parting with your prize would do more good than keeping it. On the other hand, that kind of gesture can be a wonderful publicity stunt, as when Richard Flanagan embarrassed the PM by donating his PM’s prize money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. On a much smaller scale, I have a personal rule that I give coin to every busker I see while I’ve got grant money and buy some books with every award; I know painters who choose to spend some of their prize money on someone else’s work. There are plenty of ways to support the creative ecosystem without sacrificing your whole reward. As for literary journals, sometimes the best donation you can make is a subscription!



Dear Cursive Letters

The guidelines for short story competitions ask that stories be unpublished (including online). That seems straightforward enough, but what if you’ve had a story published online over a decade ago, changed it considerably (including the plot) but retained a few of the old sentences in the new story? Where is the line in regard to it being a new story and unpublished?



Dear J,

Change the title.

I mean obviously don’t resubmit the same story under a different title, because that would be dishonest. But if, say, the character names were different and the language you used was different and the plot had changed significantly, I would say that was a new story. How many sentences are we talking here? It’s probably okay to recycle a half dozen good lines from an old story but any more than that and it starts to look pre-loved.

But wait on – haven’t you written anything in ten years? Why are you so keen on submitting a story that’s over a decade old? Wouldn’t it be significantly easier just to write something new about different people, using fresh language, with a new plot? If you want to write seriously, you need to learn to let go instead of repeating what you think of as your one good moment in the hope that it will one day be rewarded, because the latter strategy will eventually drive you insane.

Please note, gentle readers: the guidelines for short story competitions in fact vary considerably, so it’s important to read them carefully.


Got a literary dilemma you’d like some advice on? Cursive Letters’ door is always open. Submit your correspondence via this link.


Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

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  1. “A lot of writers are giving their prize money away to people or groups who need it more…”

    I stopped reading this rubbish after the first sentence.

    In which land is this type of thing happening? Fairyland? So, you win, lets say $1000 and you’re supposed to donate some of that money back?! Don’t think so. I rather pay my rego (which in Victoria is $771 annually) and maybe take out a subscription to another journal. No one is donating me money while I try to book a music venue for a gig.

    That sentence should be “”A lot of RICH writers are giving their prize money away to people or groups who need it more…”

  2. I agree with Francis.
    But that sentence should be: “Some RICH writers…” because whatever work you do, you do it for the money. We work for money. And writing is work. So you earned it.
    Now, if after paying your bills you have some left – then if your inclination is to give to a charity – then do so. But only for that reason.

  3. The tone of this column is beguiling, even refreshing.

    I don’t write poetry for money, but when money happens, that’s no problem at all. Guilt wouldn’t really occur to me as an option.

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