I had the good fortune last week of winning a literary prize for a short story that came from a friend’s Facebook status (thanks A.D!), which goes to show you that you never know where you might find your material. After all, writers are lurkers, right? We have our ears and eyes open. We encounter the world with the thought of what we might do with this or that in a piece of writing. This goes against everything my mother taught me when I was a child. I wasn’t to eavesdrop; I wasn’t to put my nose where it didn’t belong. I was to mind my own business. As a writer, though, I’ve stolen from friends, family, and strangers. I may have even stolen from some of you, and maybe you never knew. I go out into the world by one means or another, and if I encounter something that mystifies me, that touches me, that brings me to something inside me that needs attending to, I start moving words around on the page. I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes the facts of your lives rub up against the facts of mine. That’s one way of thinking about what it is to be a writer.
That said, there are things I’ll never write about, facts of the lived life best encountered without the writer’s eye. Some of these facts are mine; some belong to others but affect me deeply and personally. These are the moments that I have to receive wholly as a person and without the strange filter that my persona of writer provides. . . at least for now.
Which brings me to some thoughts about writing contests. Oddly enough, at this time when I’ve won this literary prize, I’m also in the midst of serving as the final judge for another one. I’m going through a good number of manuscripts, knowing that only a few will survive. I’m in the position of having to search for reasons to say no. I don’t like that position because each manuscript has something to recommend it. I fall in love over and over with some portion, if not all, of a manuscript. But, alas, I have to keep eliminating. I have to turn curmudgeonly.
This means that when I encounter a manuscript with no page numbers affixed, I start to wonder about the writer who didn’t care enough about his or her own work to pay the reader this courtesy. It also means that when I come across grammatical errors (not just typos), I bristle over the lack of respect that the writer has for the most basic element of our craft, the proper use of the word. I won’t go into a list of all the errors I’ve encountered. Let’s just say that I’ve long tried to hold the line on the proper forms of “to lie,” and “to lay,” and I’ve become increasingly discouraged by the disappearance of apostrophes from possessives. I remember a story one of my writing teachers told about a famous editor who stopped reading the first time he saw a language error. At the time, I thought how unforgiving this was. Now, I see it for what it is, a reasonable expectation that a writer have a command of the language. Lord knows I’m not perfect; from time to time, my agent still schools me on some fine point of language usage that has somehow escaped me, but when I see grievous errors like the ones I’ve mentioned above, I find myself liking the manuscript a little less.
So much of what determines the winners of literary prizes is indefinable, based perhaps on variables we can’t control, ranging from the time of day when the judge reads your manuscript, to some conscious or unconscious aesthetic bias. The only thing that’s really within the entrants’ control is the preparation of the manuscript. With things like numbering pages and the capable use of language, there should be no reason for the judge to say no. The artistry of the treatment, however, is another thing. As both a judge and an entrant, I’ve come to accept that the process of selecting or becoming a winner is always an uncertain one. Judges make mistakes. Sometimes entrants win when they shouldn’t and don’t win when they should. I wonder what would happen if the same judge read the same manuscripts some years later. I wonder if his or her choices would be the same.
It’s a great feeling when I win a prize, but I’m well aware that I could just as easily have lost. Given another judge, a different order in the reading, a different this or that, and the results could have been very different. I offer this as a way of thinking about all the times when we don’t win the prize. We could just as easily have won. The judge’s decision, one way or the other, has no impact on the value of our work.
Last week, I came across this quote from the dancer and choreographer, Agnes de Mille: “Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” In addition to being some fine advice about the creative process, this quote also speaks to what happens when we enter a manuscript in a contest. We take a leap into the dark, and even if that leap doesn’t have the result we want, we make others. The story of mine that won the prize? It was first turned aside by other readers elsewhere. If there’s a lesson in this it’s to control everything we can and then to “take leap after leap in the dark,” whether that be entering contests, submitting for publication, or taking another shot at practicing our craft, trusting that eventually we’ll land right where we want to be.