Recently I received word that a story of mine had been short listed for a literary prize. It’s a complement to be shortlisted…… and yet, the part of me that wants to break through and be at the head of the line for once wasn’t over the moon about it. Still, that was actually the story’s second contest; it hadn’t even made the short list for the first one so in a sense this was progress. And I remember being so down about not making the cut in that first contest that I wanted feedback but contests don’t have time to give feedback to every writer who submits; I know… I run one. So when I got the opportunity to participate in a writers’ workshop over the summer, I submitted the story for feedback. Got lots of feedback, most of it positive feedback, too, but also enough constructive feedback that I knew the story needed work and now I had a compass to direct me to what wasn’t working. The story remains a work in progress. For a while I was stumped, some of the feedback being so contradictory, as happens in workshops where different opinions contend. Plus there was so much of it, my muse kind of froze up like my laptop’s prone to doing when I ask it to do too much at once. It’s been slow going with a few reboots along the way. But recently I was on a roll with the revisions; felt like I was getting into the rhythm of it so that when news of being short listed came I was able to roll with it because I felt like I was on the road to breaking the story down and rebuilding it as something stronger. Sure a small and petty part of me, still wishes the story had been deemed good enough the first time around and better still the second time around, but don’t we all when we put our best foot forward and find ourselves tripped up by our own hubris and shortcomings? Wasn’t there a teenie-tiney part of me that wanted the story to win just to prove that the first contest had it wrong in the first place? The part that sometimes hears Barbra Streisand singing “even when you get some recognition, everything you do you still audition” from Putting it Together:
And, no, I’m not not not comparing myself to Streisand but I certainly relate to the anxiety of putting your work on exhibition for judgment by the folks who hold the key, hopeful that they’ll look at your work, find it worthy and finally let you in through the front door…does that feeling ever go away??? My intimate relationship with that feeling informs how I relate to the Wadadli Pen hopefuls; as many rejections as I have and continue to receive, I never want to be the cause of a young writer doubting his or her talent and giving up. But I understand too that the rejection is also part of the process of getting better and I’m invested in always trying to get better. That’s something else that I also encourage among the Wadadli Pen hopefuls; be invested in becoming a better writer. So when news came in of the story making the short list, I was happy that the story was getting some recognition, but I was already deeply invested in making it better and that helped me cope with the disappointment of not making it to the top of the list.
So, this in mind, I came across this post at Kenyon Review about this story and it made me think of all of the above. In telling us why the particular story was selected, what made him keep reading, the editor was also telling us why it was almost overlooked and that’s interesting to know as well.
And while I agree with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that you don’t win contests or get publisher acceptance by painting by numbers according to what you think they might be looking for, rather by being truthful and writing the best story you can, it was intriguing to have a sort of glimpse through the window, to see the process the person judging the story goes through mentally.
And in the end, what the editor said kind of proves Adichie’s point, the story identified in the link above was selected because it didn’t paint by numbers notwithstanding the editor’s pre-existing biases re the chosen form, because there was a purpose to the use of that form and the writing was “fresh and moving. And of course this is one of the secrets of fine storytelling: in one sense there are no ‘new’ models. But excellent writers bring new life through the dramatic specifics of their tales.”
The other thing reading the Kenyon post, Why We Chose It, got me thinking is about how we go through this process with Wadadli Pen as we whittle down the entries to the year’s best; you know, we do an abbreviated version of the why we chose it, publishing with each story some of the judges’ commentary on the story . Now I’m thinking our chief judge should do something as extensive as the Kenyon post. It might be an interesting exercise, eh. I’m going to tag the Wadadli Pen chief judge of the past two years (and hopefully the coming year) and see what she thinks. So, B, whaddya think?
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.