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Grief, Immortality And Pollution: Themes That Dominate These Finalist Stories In WAWA Competitions

While she grew up in Tennessee, 29-year-old Veronica Shreve - flash fiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA) ‘Three-Word Headline’ competition - spent a year in South Korea as an English language teacher before moving back home to work as as an online private English tutor for students living in the East Asian nation.


Majoring in Classical Civilization at the University of Richmond in Virginia, Veroncia spends her free time writing, drawing, and walking with her dog. She enjoys writing novels for children and young adults and while she has never tried to publish her work before, she hopes to do so in the future.


Upon hearing the news her flash fiction story entitled ‘Trash, Chemicals, Oil,’ was a finalist in WAWA, she said, “I feel incredibly honored that out of so many wonderful entries, you found mine to be memorable and worthwhile. This is the first writing competition I have ever entered, so I was very surprised and excited to hear that I had been named a finalist Thank you so much! You have really made me so happy!"

Here are some thoughts Veronica shared with us about her story.


Q: How did you learn about our writing competition and what made you enter it?

A: Although I enjoy creating stories more than almost anything, I have always felt nervous when it comes to the point of actually letting others read my work. I have only recently become comfortable letting my friends read my novels and short stories, so deciding to enter an international writing competition was a big step for me. I found out about this competition through Google. I am so happy I decided to enter!

Q: How did the idea for your story emerge?

A: Sometimes when I get writer’s block while working on longer writing projects, I like to take breaks and instead work on short, self-contained stories that I know I can finish in a few hours. Completing a short story gives me a sense of accomplishment and helps refresh my burnt-out brain. I came up with the idea for this story on one such afternoon. As the reader can probably guess from the title my story touches on the issues of pollution and environmental degradation. I typically gravitate toward more whimsical subject matter, but I think the problems of pollution and climate change have been weighing so heavily on me (as I am sure they have on all of us) that they bled into my writing.


Q: How many revisions did your story have before you were satisfied, and over what period of time?

A: This story went through two periods of revision. The purpose of the first revision was to tailor the story to fit within the 500-word limit. This took a few hours and was done the same day I wrote the first draft. The purpose of the second revision was to proofread the story in preparation for actually submitting it to this competition. I spent at least an hour nervously reading and rereading the story before I finally submitted it, changing one or two words each time.


Q: What was the most difficult challenge for you in writing your story?

A: It has been many years since I tried to make a story fit a maximum word limit. Although this was the most difficult part for me in writing this story, it also proved to be a fun challenge. I like how it forced me to be more economical with my words and cut out unnecessary details.


Q: Did you have several titles for your story before you decided on the final one, and if so, what were the others?

A: The rules for this competition stated that the title must be exactly three words, which I thought was kind of fun. The title I ended up using — ‘Trash, Chemicals, Oil’ — was actually my first and only idea for the title. There is a sentence in the story that contains the words ‘rash, chemicals, oil,’ and I worded the sentence in that way specifically to justify the title.

Trash, Chemicals, Oil

Since I was little, I longed to visit the ocean. When I was fifteen, I finally got my chance.

“Hey, Mom,” I ventured. “Amanda’s family has invited me to go to the beach with them.”

“The beach?”

“Yes, and I really, really want to go,” I pleaded.

“Dawn, no,” she said, looking bewildered.

“Please, Mom,” I begged. “Look, I know the ocean is dirty and disgusting—”

“Yes!” Mom nodded vigorously. “It’s full of trash, chemicals, oil—”

“I know!” I cut in, exasperated. “Still, what’s the harm in seeing it?”

Mom was quiet for several seconds. “You’re right, I guess there’s no harm in seeing it. Okay, you can go. But only if I come with you.”

“What? You… want to come… too?”

“Sure, why not? I’ll call Amanda’s mom.”

It was awkward seeing Mom interact with Amanda’s parents. Up until now Mom had never made any attempt to be friends with them. In fact, Mom didn’t really have any friends, only work acquaintances.

The first night we arrived, we all walked out to the beach. As soon as I caught sight of the ocean, I started running toward it. It was so vast! The moonlight danced on the waves as they playfully lapped the shore.

“DAWN! DON’T TOUCH THE OCEAN!” Mom practically screamed at me, startling Amanda and her parents.

I stopped abruptly.

“It’s… it’s dirty!” she added weakly, looking a bit embarrassed.

I nodded.

But now I wanted to touch the ocean more than ever.

The next morning, I woke early. I slipped out the door, shutting it softly behind me. I ran along the path to the beach. There was the ocean, stretching out endlessly before me, shining in the light of the sunrise.

I ran to the edge of the water, heart pounding joyously. After a moment’s hesitation, I dipped my foot in the water.

“DAWN! DON’T!”

I turned to see Mom staring at me, horrified.

A weird sensation shot through my legs. I fell to the ground, watching in disbelief as my legs fused together and transformed into a shimmering tail.

A mermaid’s tail.

“I told you not to touch the ocean!” Mom cried.

“Mom!” I struggled for words. “What…? Why…?”

“What was the point of you knowing? I wanted you to be able to fit in with them!”

“What…?” I edged back onto the dry sand. Mom knelt beside me.

“We can never go back to the ocean,” Mom sobbed hysterically. “Do you know what it’s like? To be covered in black oil? To choke on toxic chemicals? I didn’t want that life for you! If you can’t beat the monsters, you might as well join them! At least on land, you have a chance for a happy life!”

My tail, now dry, began transforming back into legs.

So many emotions were running through me—shock, excitement, anger, sorrow, and above all, pity. Tears filled my eyes as I gazed at Mom. I wrapped my arms around her. She sobbed into my shoulder.

Originally from Cork, Jennifer McMahon, 54, is a flash fiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA) competition on the theme of Time. She has lived for the last fifteen years in Wexford. When her successful IT career was cut short by serious illness in 2006, she turned first to song-writing and music production as a means of expression. This led her back to creating fiction, her first love from a very young age.


Jennifer has been writing full-time for the last five years. She has been twice published in Frontier Tales and earlier this year was selected as a finalist in the Women on Writing Winter 2022 flash fiction contest.


On receiving the news about being a finalist in our WAWA competition for her story 'Old Boys,' Jennifer was thrilled:


It’s a great honour and a privilege to have been selected as a finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards from among so many great writers and stories.


Like many of us, Jennifer has experienced the disappointment of rejection, but bravely with persistence, she pushes on.


I submit regularly to flash and short story competitions, and rejection is unfortunately the norm,” she said. “Rejections, I use as a spur to do better, but when success comes, I celebrate it, and take it as a sign that my craft is improving.


In a generous gesture to all those who entered WAWA, she added, “Sincere congratulations to all the finalists, and, most of all, to the worthy winner.


Jennifer said her story went through seven revisions, from first draft to final version, and the title changed three times, as she developed it from ‘The Immortal’ to ‘Immortals’ and finally to ‘Old Boys.’ “In the end, the story itself provided the final one,” she said.


As her story focused on grief, she said: “I wanted to write something that spoke to the grief we all carry, for loved ones we’ve lost, for old lovers still yearned for, and for what might have been. Grief, I’ve found, can be cumulative, and an old wound reopened can bring everything to a head. That’s what I really wanted to capture, grief restrained at first, then allowed to pour out and overwhelm us, when it’s safe to do so. To reflect this, I wanted the story to have a restrained quality, as if it too was afraid to utter the plain truth.”


Immortality was also a prominent theme in Jennifer’s story. “I wanted to play with the sense of immortality we all feel when we’re young, and full of vitality. Life has a way of curbing our hubris, and reminding us that, no matter what we may think, we all have feet of clay.”


As for the characters in ‘Old Boys,’ she added, “They arrived through a process of free writing, which helped me to discover the part of their story that the reader gets to see, and the deeper backstory that is only suggested.


The most difficult challenge, Jennifer said, was word choice. "With a five hundred word limit, every word has to count, so word choice was challenging. Each one had to carry its weight, and earn its place. I deliberated long and hard, to find just the right ones that would evoke an image in the reader’s mind, and an emotion in their hearts. Hopefully, I’ve managed to achieve that."

Old Boys

Holden hasn’t seen Edgar Blake for decades, but the picture in the newspaper, accompanying the obituary, can be none other. Being in a café, in the company of friends, he restrains his emotions, and makes only passing comment.


“Good old Edgar. We knew each other, at Cambridge. We’re all getting old, I suppose.”

Later, within the privacy of his home, he kneels on the floor of his dining room, and cuts the notice from the newspaper, taking care to make the lines straight. Only then does he permit himself to cry, and to remember.


Morning light, piercing the curtains in Holden’s rooms, slices stripes across the bed, and sketches a lattice on Edgar’s naked chest. Holden rests his hand there, and feels the contrast between coldness and warmth, light and shadow. Within, a heart beats with unbridled vitality. He laughs.


“What’s so funny?” Edgar asks, catching his eye.


“Nothing, really. I was just thinking how we’ll grow old and die, someday.”


“Not me,” Edgar says. “I’m going to live forever.” He rolls away, out of the bed and onto his feet. Toned muscles bunch and separate on his back as he stretches and yawns.


“Then you’ll outlive me. However will you manage?”


Edgar reaches over, and smacks his lover on the rump. “Oh, I expect I’ll just have to muddle through, somehow.”


The funeral service is barely tolerable, and Tiffany, Edgar’s diminutive wife, sheds not one tear. Her two sons, both grown men, remain stoic and silent throughout. Afterwards, though Holden tries his best to avoid her, Tiffany manages to corner him.


“You were one of the old boys, I believe.” She stabs a black-gloved finger at him, and Holden feels it as an accusation.


“Old boys? Really?”


“That’s what he called his special university chums. It was a term of endearment, I think. Were you close?”


Holden pictures taut buttocks, slender hips, tanned skin. It seemed endless, their time together, but youthful summer days are always eternal, when in love. He laughs, and shakes his head. “We hardly knew each other, to be honest.”


After the funeral, Holden withdraws from society, just as he did when their Cambridge days ended, and Edgar left to cut a furrow through the world. Then, his grief was immature, and muted by shame. Now, it is feral, and seasoned by many other losses. He doesn’t hide it from himself, nor offer contest to his scalding tears. A week passes, then two. On the third, he emerges, shaky and pale. At the café with his friends, one enquires about his absence.


“Because of Edgar,” he explains, not feeling the need to deny it now. “I was sure he’d outlive me. So was he.”


“Poor Holden. However shall you manage?”


Holden recalls toned muscles bunching and separating with youthful hubris. He smiles. It is Edgar’s gift, to grant such abiding memories to an old boy, and is an immortality, of sorts. “Oh,” he says, “I expect I’ll just have to muddle through, somehow.”

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