Fall 2017 Essay Contest Winners

Melissa Faliveno  is the senior editor of  Poets & Writers Magazine,  and producer/cohost of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College, where she also teaches workshops in magazine writing.

Melissa Faliveno is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, and producer/cohost of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College, where she also teaches workshops in magazine writing.

Thanks to all who submitted to our second annual essay contest. We received so many powerfully written entries! Below her thoughts on the adjudication process, contest judge Melissa Faliveno has also shared further reflections on each winning essay. Click the title of the essay to read.

Melissa writes, "The winning essays were those I found most transportive: those that took me to the landscape at the heart of the story, whose imagery and feeling stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. Each essay left me with not just a deeper understanding of a place, but also with a question about the relationship between our collective and individual histories."

Fall 2017 Contest Winners

first Place, "Out of Instinct" by Kristine Jepsen

The winning piece, “Out of Instinct,” by Kristine Jepsen, is a profound and often arresting exploration of marriage and family, the battle between commitment and instinct, and the decision to stay or leave when our foundations start to crumble. While the narrator rides horses in the rocky terrain of Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest with her husband and daughter, she contemplates a collapsing marriage and the idea of existing in the wilderness—and, ultimately, surviving everyday life—as “challenging the natural order of how things live or die.”  Brief descriptions land with a punch—her dog, who “fixes me for a black-eyed second, as steeled for the predator’s chase, it seems, as to run toward me”—while the landscape functions almost as a character itself, serving as a metaphor for larger questions: “From here, the canyon, the brokenness, seems slow and wide and gentle, though when you get close to the edge, your inner ear rings with a warning that it’s a drop of 1,000 feet to the floor.” And: “The water that washed millennia of stone to form this canyon flows too steeply below us, out of sight…. It’s hard to tell what happens of its own power and what happens by manufactured force.” This is stunning, delicately crafted writing that dives headlong into difficult questions, a story that held me in its thrall and kept me thinking about human nature, wildness, and the unlikely bonds of love.

Kristine Jepsen is a grant-writer and farm business owner in Northeast Iowa. Her creative nonfiction has been named the winner of the 2017 Diana Woods Memorial award at the journal Lunch Ticket and was selected a finalist by Proximity Magazine. She's writing a memoir about founding a local-foods brand as the movement itself came of age, a project that landed a spot in AWP's Writer-to-Writer mentorship program. Visit her at kristinejepsen.com and read more of her work at justbecauseisaid.com and differentbirds.com.

SECOND PLACE, "Birthright" BY Yi Shun Lai

The second-place winner, “Birthright,” by Yi Shun Lai, is an examination of citizenship, belonging, and home, set against the backdrop of Manzanar, a National Parks Service site of conscience that during World War II was a Japanese American internment camp in Owens Valley. The narrator exists between two homes and cultures—the desert of California and her native Taiwan—and wrestles with the privilege of citizenry, access to public spaces, and what it means to be “American.” What struck me most was a powerful and important observation at the heart of the essay, which examines the implications of our country’s dark past through the experience of public lands, whose splendor so often exists in stark contrast to a brutal history: “To know them,” she writes, “is to witness how we can imprint the worst with our own marks of beauty.”

Yi Shun Lai is a prose editor and co-owner of the Tahoma Literary Review. Her novel, _Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu_ was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Follow her on Twitter @gooddirt and sign up for her monthly newsletter at thegooddirt.org.

Third Place, "Hiking Uphill" by Mary Ardery

The third-place winner, “Hiking Uphill,”by Mary Ardery, is an uplifting look at trauma and recovery, a unique story by a wilderness therapy guide set in western North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest. Poignant and often funny, it’s a fast-paced essay that examines grief and struggle, whose swift dialogue works in concert with attentive descriptions of a difficult hike—both on the trail and off it—inciting Wendell Berry’s mantra: “I come in peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief.”     

Mary Ardery holds a BA in English Writing from DePauw University. After living and working in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina for two years, she has returned home to the Midwest to pursue her MFA at Southern Illinois University.

Honorable Mentions

I awarded an honorable mention to Elliot Drake-Maurer’s “Flotsam and Jetsam,” a quiet, lovely meditation on the slow destruction of the planet, which the narrator considers as he walks barefoot along Point Reyes’ Limantour Beach, investigating both the wonder of the ocean and the horrific footprint that humans so often leave behind. This is observed through vivid images of both beauty and corrosion, such as a seal carcass, its “white bones shrugging out of a decaying skin,” juxtaposed against the “silver scalloped edges of the waves washing up the slope of the beach.” I awarded a second honorable mention to "A Geography of Ideas" by Don Delo, a thoughtful inquiry into the idea of vastness.


  • "Horicon Marsh" by Jeff Burt
  • "On the Oregon Coast" by Scott Parker
  • "Cougar Ridge" by Stephanie Paterson
  • "Pieces of Earth" by Dawn Zera
  • "Smiling Into Ruin" by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
  • "Coming into Being: A Grand Canyon Hike" by Richard Kempa
  • "Outlaw Sunrise" by Matt Miller
  • "Katahdin Oreos" by Donna Little
  • "Dining with the Sky Gods" by Pen Hassmann
  • "Waking with Ghosts" by John Brantingham

Banner photo by Marc Ibert / CC 2.0