You might think that writers who win awards have natural talent and dash off their stories in an afternoon. That’s the stereotype. Yes, a story I wrote called The Meaning of Mangoes won two national awards! But I didn’t dash it off, and it took me forever.
Here’s the path of my mango essay and what I learned:
Sixteen years ago, I wrote a piece about my parents and mangoes. A start-up website published it. It happened because I sat next to a woman during an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference, and told her a few stories. The next day she introduced me to her boss, the editor of a food website, who asked if I would write a daily column of personal essays about food.
I said I’d write one weekly. I coudn’t imagine meeting that deadline day after day! One of the stories was about how my immigrant dad imported a crate of mangoes from Asia so we could gorge over them when they ripened. This essay wasn’t really about mangoes. It was about grieving for the past, and how my parents tried to figure out their identity in the new world, through food.
Lesson 1: Write about whatever editors want, but also about what interests you.
That first lesson was a hard one for me. As a journalist, I hid my own story in dozens of features and news stories for decades. It took a big shift for me to write about myself and my family.
Lesson 2: Write the story only you can tell.
Nobody else was writing about their Iraqi-Jewish parents from China.
A few years ago, I joined a writing group and wrote about it here. I wanted to write personal essays again, after a long absence. About a year in, I dug out the old mango piece. I deepened it and polished it, writing a few more drafts. I sold the essay to Lucky Peach, amping up the Asian angle. Then I revised it and sold it to Edible Vancouver, since the piece was also about Vancouver, where I grew up.
Lesson 3: Recycle your work. Food writing doesn’t pay, so you might sell your pieces more than once.
(Actually this didn’t go as smoothly as it sounds. When Lucky Peach didn’t respond to my pitch for two months, I gave up. I revised the piece with a Vancouver angle, and sent it to Edible Vancouver. Within a week, the Lucky Peach editor emailed to say he wanted the piece. And then I had to explain that to the Edible Vancouver editor, who was not happy. But eventually she ran the essay.)
When it came time to apply for annual awards, I couldn’t get up the nerve to submit the essay to the Beard awards. But I did apply to annual awards of IACP, Les Dames D’Escoffier International, and The Association of Food Journalists (AFJ).
I wasn’t even a finalist for the IACP award. But I won the Grand Prize MFK Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing from Les Dames. I also won Best Food Essay from the AFJ. And the essay will be included in Best Food Writing 2016.
Lesson 4: Apply for awards. It’s the only way to win them.
It’s been a heady time. Soon I have to go to the Dames conference, wear a gown, and give a short speech. It’s sobering that The Meaning of Mangoes was the first personal essay I tried to get published in 15 years. I’ve lost a lot of time. Here’s the final lesson I’ve learned, which resonates particularly:
Lesson 5: Don’t give up. Keep writing.
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(Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link.)