THE WRITING CONTEST: COMPETITION VS. ART

Two weeks ago I was at a Writer’s Conference in Boston.

Those of you who read TheRavenLunatic.com regularly might be surprised and alarmed to read that sentence since not too long ago I wrote a blog about my disastrous time at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference when an agent wouldn’t read even five pages of my memoir because she said the book had too many words.  (Pearls:  When to Push and When to Protect Your Art.)

But I’m nothing if not a determined Aries.  I am getting my book published.  You can count on that.

Luckily, the agents, editors and writers I came in contact with at the Boston conference were much nicer and more professional.   I got interest in my book from an agent on my very first day.  If nothing else happened, I was already glad I came.

Then something else happened.  It was called Literary Idol.

Literary Idol was a workshop on the second day of the conference that I signed up for because I didn’t like any of the workshops offered in that time slot.  The only other workshop I considered for just a moment was one called Writing Dark Humor.  But I figured teaching someone to have a sense of humor is like teaching someone to have sex appeal.

Although, come to think of it, I actually might take that second workshop.

I signed up for Literary Idol months ago without even understanding what it was.    I figured I would talk about Dickens or Mark Twain or Augustine Burroughs or some other author I idolized.  On the morning of the workshop, I finally got around to reading the description.  It said you needed to bring the first page of your book and submit it anonymously.  Then a professional actor would read it to a panel of agents and editors who would raise their hand when they got to a sentence that lost their interest.  If two or more raised their hand before the end of the page, you were out.  If you made it to the end–your first page would be voted on with the rest of first pages that made it to the end.  One of those first pages would be selected as the winner.

Awful, right?   Harsh?   Atrocious?  We are artist for god’s sake!    Artists are not in completion with each other!

I wanted to win that contest so bad I could taste it.

Let me tell you a little about my upbringing.  My family loved to play games like Password, Poker, Tripoli, Monopoly, Scrabble, Mystery Date, Operation, Mousetrap and Taboo.  No matter what the game, we played strictly by the rules and we played to win.   Playing games with the Hoffman’s was not for sissies.

This game-playing instilled a strong sense of fairness in me.  It also instilled a desire to win that is off-putting and unattractive to others.

But I don’t care since those others are losers.

Luckily when I got older, I matured and games became more about spending time with friends than about winning.

I’m kidding.

I stayed ruthless.

In the 90’s, I sent one friend ran out of my house in tears after I argued with her over a rule during a Scattagories game.   I apologized the next day—the same day she found out she had cancer.   A few weeks before she died a year later, I was at her bedside reminiscing.  “I can’t believe I made you cry that day,” I said with a tender chuckle.   “Yea, you were awful,” she said not chuckling back.

I actually did mellow out after that.

But still…a competition is a competition.   Why enter if you don’t want to win?

“Saul, wake up!  You need to help me with my first page!” I said jostling my husband.

God bless Saul.  I’m very lucky to have a husband who supports my writing.   Within ten minutes he was up and listening to me read my first page out loud.  Now the first page of my memoir has been the same for a long time.  But that morning I didn’t have the opportunity to wait until the top of Page 2 to get to the punchline.  I rewrote some sentences, tossed out the section about my mom in her green bikini weed whacking the front yard to the consternation of the neighbor’s wives, and got right to the meat of the story   Oh, and I took out an entire paragraph talking about my childhood idol, Mitzi Gaynor.  Mitzi had starred in South Pacific, but more importantly, had a yearly variety special where she sang and danced and did comedy sketches.  I adored that special and would watch curled up on the couch next to my mom,–but having to describe who Mitzi was took up too much space so I switched her to my other childhood idol Cher who has much more name recognition.  I know some of you may say this is cheating, but what’s a little artistic license when you need to win? And it’s not like my book is published.  I’m rewriting it as I work on this blog.   I was making  the first page better with these changes.

I finished the rewrite with minutes to spare.  I raced to the hotel where the conference was being held.  In my haste, I had forgotten my badge and had to charm the volunteers into letting me in.  Apparently, I don’t need that sex appeal workshop after all.

Agents from pretty big agencies sat in front of the room where the contest was being held.  The first thing they said is that the first pages being considered would be picked randomly and there might not be time to read all of them.

My heart sank.  Losing after they heard my page read out loud was one thing, but what if I didn’t win because I randomly wasn’t read?   This was probably the worst torture you could inflict on me.

One hour and fifteen minutes later, I was squirming in my seat still waiting for my first page to be read.  The majority of the first-pagers had been voted off.  I was texting Saul like crazy.  I don’t think they are going to read mine!  I’m in Hell!  

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Oh, by the way, I finally figured out what the name of the workshop meant.  Literary Idol?  American Idol?   Get it??   Maybe you already had gotten it.

“Okay, we have time to hear one more,” said the particularly gruff agent who was very much like a female Simon Cowell.

I began hyperventilating in in my efforts not to scream out READ MINE, YOU FOOL!

“The next piece is entitled.  Cindy Brady Gets a Penis.”

I couldn’t believe it.

They were reading mine!

As the actor began to read, I watched the agents/judges alert to whether or not they were going to put their hands up to stop the reading.

To be honest, there was some really good writing before mine that I admired a lot.   There were first pages about unrest in Turkey and grandmothers who were geisha girls–but since mine was the only one in that pile that was funny, it stood out because it made people laugh and that always gives you an advantage.  This is why I don’t want others to take that dark humor workshop.

The judges liked my first page and the reader made it to the end of the page.  But then the unimaginable happened.  They accidentally placed it in the DISCARD PILE.

What could I do??  The contest was anonymous so I couldn’t stand up and scream AN ABOMINATION HAS JUST OCCURRED! but boy did I want to.

I had to think fast.  I sidled over a volunteer.  “They put my piece in the discard pile even though it made it through.” I said in a quiet panicked voice as if I were announcing a bomb was discovered under my chair.

“Are you sure?” the volunteer asked skeptically.

“Oh yes, I am sure!   I have never been so sure of anything in my life!” I said tensely.

By the look on her face, I could tell this last statement came out as somewhat of a threat.

She scrambled up and told the judges, and they fluttered around for a moment before correcting their mistake and putting my page in the TO CONSIDER pile.

Now it was time to decide.   I texted Saul.  I made it to the end!   I don’t think I’m going to win.  I think the Holocaust piece will beat me.  

I started to gather my things proud of myself for getting this far.

“Well I guess Cindy Brady gets a penis and first prize!” the mean agent announced.

“What?”

I won???

I leapt up to the front of the room and did my best to look humble.  After all, everyone else in the room had lost.

Late that day I met up with Saul.   He knew I needed this boost and his joy for me was touching and heartfelt.

As we walked through Boston, I thought about the other first pages in the group.   I thought about the excellent writers I had heard.  I thought about the writers who were beginners.  I would have written a very different first page when I was just starting to write.   I thought about the ones who might have needed a boost and didn’t’ get one that morning like I hadn’t gotten one in San Francisco.

I remembered when I was at a workshop years ago in Greece with several other amazing writers and we read our pieces out loud for each other.   My  funny piece followed a very beautiful but very serious piece.  Then I was followed by someone who had written a poem.  I can’t write a poem to save my life.  I realized in that moment that I wasn’t competing with those other writers.  We all had such different voices.    All I had to do was find my voice and make it as strong and clear as possible.  It was a huge revelation.  One that is important to remember as I fight and claw my way to get published.

In that moment with Saul in Boston, I sent good wishes to the other writers who had been in the contest  and then to everyone who sits down and writes from their heart.  The world needs good writers and it needs a lot of them.

May we all keep forging ahead finding our own voices.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Keith Hoffman won Literary Idol

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