When we’re wishing hard for something, we feel that the universe can grant only so many wishes, that one must prioritize, perhaps weigh the greater good against the personal gain. During Super Bowl Week earlier this year my family, like so many others in Seattle, was caught up in Seahawks Fever. Who doesn’t like a winner? Who doesn’t want to be a winner?
It was that same week that I learned I was a semi-finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman. Winning meant having your book-length manuscript chosen by contest judge Randall Kenan and published by Carolina Wren Press. I was thrilled, hopeful, and wishing hard to be the eventual winner.
My husband teasingly asked, “Would you rather that the Seahawks win the Super Bowl or that you win this publication prize?” Not exactly a Sophie’s Choice dilemma, but still a situation to test one’s grace and goodwill. Did I wish for the outcome that would please thousands or the one that would please primarily me, me, and me?
We play such games often, as if life is a game of binaries, only one of which is possible. Would you rather be Shakira or Joyce Carol Oates? Would you rather be rich or smart? Would you rather be legless or armless?
My answer to such questions is often both or neither, depending on the stakes. Why should I have to choose? But maybe that’s not how the universe works. We only have so much luck, so much karma. So even if you wish for more than your share of goodies, you’re bound to be denied something. Maybe everything.
So when the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl, what else could I believe but that the book publication prize had to happen for me? On March 13, I found out I had made it to the finalist round and that the winner would be announced sometime in April. Even though April was a busy month for me, every day I asked myself, Is this the day? And every day, it wasn’t.
At the end of that month, I read the feature in the latest Poets and Writers on writing contests, hoping to find a sign, a tiny hidden hint of how I might fare in the contest in which I was currently a finalist. Judges described their strategy for narrowing down manuscripts to arrive at a winner. They also offered advice to writers on entering contests.
Entering contests is not always just about winning. (Yes, thank you, I knew that. More often, they’re about losing.)
Literary careers are built in steps. (Yes, again, thank you. I started writing just over twenty years ago. I turn 62 next month. I don’t have a lot of steps left.)
Then I read the “Winners on Winning” story, in which winners of contests provide their perspective on winning and losing.
…I always go on the assumption that I won’t win…
To which I say, but you must harbor at least a bit of hope that you will win. Or why bother to submit.
You swing and sometimes you miss but, hopefully, you hit every once in a while.
I like baseball (or softball) metaphors, but this one doesn’t quite fit. Back in the day, I swung a bat with a pretty good eye and connected plenty of times. My acceptance/rejection percentage doesn’t come anywhere close to my batting average.
Then there was this advice:
There’s a lot of excellent work out there, and publishers aren’t able to bring it all into the world.Therefore, it helps to be persistent. Lucky, too.
This was something I understood well. My work was competing with a lot of great stuff, which was why even in my persistence in submitting to contests and querying small presses and once in a while an agent, I wanted that other element on my side—luck.
So when the Seahawks lost due to a poor call or the bad luck of an interception, I wanted to believe that I was destined to win the contest. Wasn’t that how it was supposed to work? Except the waiting for the contest decision was agonizing and seemingly interminable. And I began to think that it would be another close-but-no-cigar kind of outcome. I had been a finalist for the Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, and Brighthorse prizes. This time I more than ever needed and craved the cigar.
When the call finally came on May 6 from Robin Muira at Carolina Wren Press, I was not just flooded with joy, I was swamped with relief. The search was over. The rejections were history. The universe had delivered! So, go ahead, Seattle, blame me for the Super Bowl loss. But you’re all invited to my book launch in 2016.