A few years ago, I took an adult education piano class for novices. There were only four of us slightly schlumpy middle-aged types registered. The teacher was a Hungarian-born classical singer who had performed in many prestigious venues in the U.S. and Europe. She liked to teach beginners because she had this notion that music belonged to everyone – even those of us who had lumbered into our middle forties without experiencing any training nor showing any particular aptitude.
We were all a few weeks into the class when she announced that we had to set a date for our recital. We looked at one another. A recital? Was she serious?
Oh yes. She was. With great passion she explained that things happen in a recital or in preparation for a recital that don’t happen otherwise. And by things she meant growth, milestones, skill, understanding. Good things.
She wasn’t interested in discussion.“You will all perform at the recital.”
So we did. We each invited a few friends or family members. There were flowers and applause. Each of us made a mistake or two but… I think she was right. She had given us an extra push in the right direction.
I thought of this recently as I moved back into more serious writing after months of being kept away by other commitments (loosely known as “life”). For various reasons I was floundering a bit about how to jump back in. I am lucky enough to have several writing Guardian Angels, one of whom forwards me any notification she encounters for writing contests (you know who you are, Guardian Angel) and just a week or two ago, she sent along information on a short story contest with a cash prize and publication. She always includes an encouraging note, as though all I need to do to win any contest is to submit my laundry list or my high school essay on The Grapes of Wrath: “Just pull something out of your files. It’ll be great.” So I did. Pulled something out, polished it up over a couple of days and submitted it exactly at midnight on the day of the deadline. And I’m glad I did – despite the fact that it’s unlikely I’ll get any prize or mention.
Here are my thoughts about why entering a contest or two may be good for you, too:
1. Contests have deadlines.
Can all you writers out there who don’t need deadlines raise your hands?
I thought so.
2. Contests force you to step up your game.
Yes, in theory we write to the best of our abilities all the time, but doesn’t it get easier to do that when you know that some Person of Authority is going to be reading what you wrote? It does for me.
3. Contests push you to find and finish things.
When my Guardian Angel suggested I “pull something out of the file,” I actually went and looked in my (electronic) file. Stumbling around I found 800 words of a piece — it even had a title — that I had no recollection of writing. And you know, it wasn’t bad. The lines of a story were in place. I wrote another 1500 words or so and sent it off. As I said above, I don’t think I’ll win anything, but I discovered and finished a short story that wasn’t even on my radar screen. In a couple of months, I’ll look at it again, revise and send it out to literary journals or to another contest.
4. It may not be all about winning – but hey, somebody has to win.
So why not you? Or, even if you don’t win, recognition as a finalist or a semifinalist in a major writing competition is cover-letter-worthy and may rescue your short story or novel manuscript from a slow death in the slush pile.
5. Now that I’ve convinced you, pull out your calendar.
Here are links to sites that compile information on grants and contests.
So go on, get to work. I’m pretty sure you’ve got a deadline coming right up.