During the pandemic shutdown, many swore they would begin writing the next great American literary work regardless of their past writing experience. The forced isolation inspired and allowed people to work on passion pieces that would otherwise remain ideas. With the increased volume of created content, this year’s Inner Loop Contest had plenty of entries to choose from and the selected winners exemplify the top local works produced during this tumultuous time.
When determining the winner for the three categories — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — Inner Loop Contest Judge Jose Padua focused on similar criteria for each.
“I tend to favor work that takes chances,” Padua says. “I do appreciate it when a writer is brave enough to go out there into some unknown or difficult territory.”
What stands out to Padua is not necessarily the explicitly edgy or wild topics, but rather pieces that are not overly prepared or workshopped.
As Padua explains, “Artists, whatever form they work in, shouldn’t be timid in what they do — that’s going to hold them back.”
In the winning nonfiction entry, “The Many Afterlives,” author Amy Lynwander embraces risk by tackling the topic of death and grief in an unusual and creative way. Lynwander wanted the piece to honor her father, who passed away nine years ago from pancreatic cancer.
“I wanted something on record about my father who was a quiet guy,” Lynwander says. “And [he] passed through this world without making a fuss but had some fascinating things about him.”
“We Have Coyotes,” the fiction winner, also touches on death but uses it as a detail to launch the narrative. In this piece, the main character recalls a road trip as a child with his father following the recent death of his mother. Written by Len Kruger, the entry is full of palpable tension between characters and takes risks by leaving multiple open ends, which is what made it stand out to Padua.
“The narrative hints at other directions and possibilities to the point where some seemingly trivial action feels like it could change the characters’ lives,” Padua says.
Kruger originally wrote a longer story that this entry is based on, but after receiving some feedback, he decided the story was better suited for a flash fiction piece that (successfully) keeps the reader guessing.
He wanted to capture the unfolding of a child’s understanding of family secrets. As Kruger notes, “When you’re a kid, things are happening around you that you don’t fully understand. Then there comes that moment when everything clicks into place.”
Padua found poetry to be the most difficult category to select a winner, but ultimately chose “Water Lilies Do Not Have Surface Leaves During Winter” by Alyson Gold Weinberg.
Explaining his ethos behind the decision, Padua says, “[The poetry] category was close. The winner is a brief, beautiful and complex poem [demonstrating] the power of the lyric poem.”
Gold Weinberg wrote her poem as a commentary on the romanticization of iconic Shakespearean character Ophelia’s death. Weinberg wanted to express her anger toward this literature norm and fixation.
“I wanted to reject the romantic idealization of pain,” Gold Weinberg says. “And the notion that girls and women are somehow the inevitable and rightful containers for it. While suffering in life is necessary, unnecessary suffering is not. You’ve got to fight for your life.”
For all three authors, taking chances and deviating from standard perspectives paid off. Each winning entry takes you on unexpected journeys, which sit with you long after reading.
Read the winning nonfiction entry “The Many Afterlives” by Amy Lynwander.
Read the winning fiction entry “We Have Coyotes” by Len Kruger.
Read the winning poetry entry “Water Lilies Do Not Have Surface Leaves During Winter” by Alyson Gold Weinberg.
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