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Real Simple Essay Contest Winners 2012

The year I turned seven, I discovered the unpredictability of the universe. Six had been a pretty solid age—I was a frog in the class play, my hair grew long enough for barrettes—but after my seventh birthday, in December 1986, the unfair surprises started and kept on coming: the true identity of Santa Claus, a case of chicken pox, summer camp. Most important, No. 1: My father died. And No. 2: I stopped learning how to ride a bicycle.

No. 1 was impossibly unfair. As a result, No. 2 only made sense.

At the time of his death (to answer the most common questions: sudden; heart attack; not overweight; not a smoker; 42 years old; yes, yes, it was), my father and I had gotten about halfway through the standard riding lessons. I understood that my training wheels would not last forever, but we hadn’t yet graduated to the running-behind-and-holding-and-then-letting-go part. That was supposed to happen in the spring. A lot was supposed to happen.

As the winter thawed outside our Washington, D.C., home, my bike stayed in the hall closet, waiting for me or my mom to grab it again. Months passed while the two of us ate our way through the hams of consolation and wondered when life would ever feel normal again. When my first-grade class was given a writing project that began, “If I could have one wish…,” I completed the sentence with “I’d wish that Santa Claus was real.” This broke the hearts of about half my classmates, and while I didn’t mean to hurt them, I can’t say I felt too bad about it. The universe is unpredictable, folks. I was just telling the truth.

By the time we finally fetched the bicycle again, nearly a year later, I had grown about six inches and looked like a bear in the circus, perched on the seat. My mother and I soon moved to another part of the city, and my bike was given away. The hall closet in the new house held only hats, coats, and umbrellas.

Not that I wanted a bicycle. As a gangly, awkward kid with a deep fear of failure, I wasn’t in a big hurry to learn to ride. When friends’ fathers would offer to teach me, I’d always say, “No, that’s fine, you all go on ahead to the ice cream store. I brought a book.”

Plenty of people tried to instruct me: family friends, uncles, pretty much any middle-aged man in the vicinity when my ignorance became evident. But I declined. I was afraid of falling and afraid of looking stupid, and besides, I wasn’t that easily fooled. Teaching me to ride a bike was my dad’s job—various sitcoms, movies, and bank commercials affirmed this—and, sorry, well-meaning family friends and uncles and random middle-aged men, you weren’t my dad.

Once I was in high school, the whole thing mattered less. Communal bike outings waned, and I was rarely excluded from group events because I didn’t know how to ride. I was still excluded, mind you, but more for reasons like being a giant nerd, joining an after-school Wiccan club, or bangs.

None of this changed—until I was 19 and sitting in a courtyard in Avignon, France, and watching my hand go up as if by its own volition in response to a question that began, “Si vous voulez une bicyclette…” I had gone there to study French between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I knew enough to understand what the nice lady was saying: Anyone who lived outside the city walls could borrow a bike for the summer to minimize the trek to campus. Did I want one? (Did I…what?)

To be clear, I didn’t raise my hand because I had suddenly become brave or tough. No, I simply hurt. I was suffering from extreme pain in my knees that year. The official name of the condition was chondromalacia patella, but what mattered to me was that my knees ached so badly that I couldn’t walk up stairs without weeping. The only thing the orthopedist said would help? Riding a bicycle. (The unpredictability of the universe, part II. Special heading: Irony.)

Here are some vocabulary words I learned in French that summer. No. 1: crème antiseptique, antibacterial ointment. No. 2: pansement, bandage. No. 3: genou, knee. I also got really good at an arm-waving, head-shaking gesture that translated as “I’m fine. No, really, please ignore the tears on my dirt-streaked face and the gravel embedded in my leg. I am totally peachy and do not need you or your moped, and I will be hopping back on this bicyclette any second now.” Then I would look down at the bandaged lumps in the middle of my legs and think grimly of how I had started teaching myself to ride a bike solely to reduce wear and tear on my knees. Irony indeed.

I kept at it. Yes, I was still awkward. Yes, I was still afraid of failure. But ultimately I became more frightened of not learning how to ride—and thus permanently damaging my knees. So every day after class I stuffed my books in my backpack and dragged out my heavy, rusty, gearless borrowed monster.

I fell, I bled—still, I didn’t give up. I kept riding, and falling, and riding again. And, after ripping several pairs of pants and becoming a regular at the pharmacy, I managed to get the hang of it. I completed my first turn. I hit a rock and stayed upright. I sped up. I slowed down. I was riding a bicycle.

I started riding it to school, past whizzing cars. I took it into the country. I rode alone every day for hours—not speaking French, not speaking English, just riding. Biking was supposed to function as physical therapy, but it turned into much more. My cycling inability had been my proof that life was unfair and that no amount of kindness could fix it. If my dad hadn’t died, I thought, I would know how to ride. It seemed perfectly logical to me, but it wasn’t true.

Because my dad died, a great many things were different: where my mother and I lived, what we talked about, how we functioned as a family. There were and are real losses and absences, and I mourn them, but there wasn’t actually any good reason I couldn’t ride a bike.

So I did it. And I fell in love with my bike—especially the speed and the freedom it conferred. I came up with this biking-while-smoking routine that felt terribly European—and which I now realize was terribly 19-year-old.

When I arrived back home, I had changed. My knees hurt less. The rest of me hurt less. I understood that the universe was still unpredictable, but not always in a bad way. For example, No. 1: Starting my sophomore year, I brought my aunt’s old bike to campus with me. I rode it to keep my knees healthy, and I eventually regained the ability to walk up stairs without excruciating pain. To this day, I ride regularly to yoga class and the grocery store. I even bike-commute to work—16 miles each way from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

Also, No. 2: Two weeks after telling a college friend that “all I want is to meet a boy with a bicycle,” I met one. On our first date, we rode to an arboretum. I fell off my bike. He bought crème antiseptique and pansements for me at CVS.

When I was seven, I learned how unfair life can be, but that summer in France taught me that life can contain unexpected and joyful surprises, too. Case in point: The boy with a bicycle and I just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.

I’ve also learned what I’m capable of overcoming. Now, when faced with various challenges—new jobs, a cross-country move, a new baby—I often think to myself, Remember, you taught yourself to ride a bicycle. How much harder can this be?

Dorothy Fortenberry, 31, of Los Angeles, emerged the winner of our thirdannual competition, claiming the $3,000 prize, round-trip tickets for two to New York City, a two-night hotel stay, Broadway tickets, and lunch with the editors of Real Simple. Fortenberry, a playwright who has never published an essay before, says she had wanted to write this story for years. “But I’m glad I waited,” she says. “It was a more honest piece than it would have been when I was 20.”

This was far more difficult than I imagined! There were outstanding elements to each and every piece, whether it was structure, language, or theme itself. Each essay revealed itself in more depth each time I read it.

— Dina Honour, one of our two guest judges on the selection process


Hippocampus Magazine’s 2017 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction drew a record number of submissions, and, after months of reading, narrowing down, and hearing from our guest judges, we’re pleased to share this year’s results. It was perhaps our closest contest yet.

* * *

Beautifully written, lyrical, and tragic.

Gorgeous and tragic.

I’m stunned. Everything about this piece is beautiful. The carefully rendered form, the delicate emotion, the insightful imagery, the sonic quality… just wow!

Beautifully written and imagined. Haunting repetitions that weave together a singular, unique voice.



Those were words and comments found in notes from reading panel members as they read the winning story for the first time.


We’re pleased to share with you this year’s grand prize winner, Anne Gudger. Here’s what our judges had to say about her award-winning essay, “Helix”:


“Helix’s delivery and pacing . . . pitch perfect. I left this narrative completely satisfied.” — Laurie Jean Cannady

“…’to allow her shadow self to breathe’–beautiful; lovely language…scar on hand, carried from a former life; not wanting her depression on her sister’s chart; the whole theme of unhealed wounds was handled really well; simultaneously sad and uplifting; binds and binding (of lives and wounds)…” — Dina Honour


Congratulations, Anne! We’re honored to publish “Helix” in our special contest issue, and we hope our readers enjoy it as much as we did.

Anne Gudger is an Oregon/Montana/Oregon writer. Sea and sky flood her cells. She’s been lucky to have words in Real Simple Magazine, The Rumpus, Slippery Elm, Pithead Chapel, Entropy, and more. [Read her winning essay here.]



We’d also like to congratulate Yvonne Fein. Her essay “Taunting the Abyss” is this year’s runner-up. Members of our reading panel called this piece “riveting” and “breathtaking.”

Yvonne Fein, daughter of Holocaust survivors, was driven to write about the fallout creatively, investigate it academically, and seek religious answers unsuccessfully. Past lecturer at Australian Jewish Museum, she holds an MA from Monash University and diploma in creative writing from Prahran College. [Read her story here.]



We’d also like to recognize the following four writers, our other finalists; their stories stuck with us as well, and you can read them in this issue:

Congratulations again!



Semi-Finalists & Short List

We had a short list of about 25 stories, and 14 made it to our semi-final round:

  • Lisa Chavez – “Suicide Note”
  • Blair Donahue – “Powerlines”
  • Natalie D-Napolean – “Crossing”
  • Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons – “Construction with Benefits”
  • Rosanna Gargiulo – “Rite of Passage” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Alle Hall – “Crashing”
  • X Hanna – “The Metaphysics of Us”
  • Terri Kiral – “Humbled”
  • Claire Kortyna – “Waitressing and the Cosmo”
  • Evelyn Krieger – “Who By Fire” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Tyler Lacoma – “Xerocole”
  • Christy Lynch – “Vee Dubya” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Michael Nixon – “Consequences” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Jon Shorr – “Beats” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Sharon Silver – “Trick Shot”
  • Stephany Wilkes – “Personal Effects” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Hannah van Didden – “Water and Light” (Semi-Finalist)
  • Kirsten Voris – “Swimming with Headscarf Ladies” (Semi-Finalist)



Running an annual contest, one that draws several hundred entries, would not be possible without an outstanding and dedicated team of volunteer readers; so many members of our reading panel ramped up their efforts during the contest period. A sincere thank you to our reading staff and copy editors for their hard work on this (and every) issue.

We’d also like to especially thank our guest judges this year: Laurie Jean Cannady and Dina Honour. We’re so grateful for the time and careful consideration you gave to our six finalist stories.

To our readers, thank you for always being there for us. We hope you enjoy this contest issue as much as we enjoyed building it.

Congratulations to all of our finalists!


[Editor’s note: we updated this story on 11/4 to correct a misspelling of a writer’s name; Kirsten Voris was mistakenly listed as “Kristin”.]

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