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Encouraging Words

How do you find up-and-coming writers who will make North Carolina proud? NC State’s creative writing program flushes them out with contests and cash prizes.

Since the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program began seven years ago, its fiction and poetry contests have spotlighted writers across the state.

“Major league teams have their farm teams; colleges have their talent scouts. This is our way of shaking loose some of the talent in the state,” said Wilton Barnhardt, associate professor and past M.F.A. program director, pictured above.

Rewarding Writing

The number of contest entries continues to grow, with 200 fiction and 500 poetry entries expected in upcoming contests.

The entrants, who have not yet been published, range from graduate students to fledgling writers in tiny towns. They compete for three prose prizes:

  • $500 for the best longer story (20 pages or less)
  • $250 for the best short-short story (5 pages or less)
  • $100 for the best undergraduate writer

The winner of the poetry contest, one of the largest free-entry competitions in the South, earns $500.

The money comes from those who know the value of an encouraging word. Barnhardt couldn’t stand to see the contests plagued with money woes, so he dug into his own pockets—and reached out to family—to help fund the 2011 contests, creating the Barnhardt Family Fund to cover prizes and program costs.

“We have a longtime family connection to the university and my mother—who has been my own greatest encourager in my writing life—decided we would support the contests, poetry and fiction, because it could be the first bit of praise or encouragement a writer gets.”

He hopes that for those who lack supportive family and English teachers, it could be the start of something special.

English professor John Kessel
English professor John Kessel says well-known judges draw attention to new writers and NC State's M.F.A. program in creative writing.

Winning Recognition

Accomplished, objective judges lend credibility to both contests, said John Kessel, professor and first director of the master’s program in creative writing.

“The contest brings our local writers, including some from our M.F.A. program, to the attention of a wider literary audience and increases the prestige of our program.”

Monday, Oct. 17, is the deadline for the 2011 fiction contest, judged by Ron Rash, a poet, short story writer and novelist who was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. Winners will be announced in November, and Rash will visit campus to award the prizes and read from his work.

Award-winning poet Barbara Ras, director of Trinity University Press, will judge the 2012 poetry competition next spring.

Here’s how to get involved in the statewide writing contests, which draw entries from across the state.