As my professor reads the winners of Arapahoe Community College’s Third Annual Literary Contest from the podium, I remember an icy February night two months ago. Stuck in rush hour traffic during a snow storm, I was determined to turn in my nonfiction essay before the literary contest deadline ended. Although the school parking lot was mainly deserted when I got there, I buoyantly trudged my way through the quickly-accumulating snow up to the fourth floor of the main building. Relieved to see my professor at her desk, I delivered my entry in a manila envelope, hopeful that my story might be one of those selected for publication in the school’s upcoming literary journal.
When I first considered entering the contest, I didn’t feel that I had anything worth submitting. As an emerging writer, I felt uncomfortable attempting to write something “literary.” But finally, with the encouragement of a classmate and my writing professor, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot. At the very least, I told myself, I would gain valuable writing experience in the process.
After weeks of working and reworking a six-page personal essay, at last I had a final draft that I was pleased with. The day of the deadline arrived. I felt invigorated after such intense mental exertion but cautious, too. Knowing that the chance of acceptance was slight, I only told one other person, my eleven-year-old daughter, that I had entered the contest. Weeks went by and I tried not to think too much about the contest results. Still, when the rejection letter came in the mail, I was surprised by my feelings of disappointment. Quietly, I tucked the letter away and didn’t mention it to anyone.
Now, listening to the winning author’s voice lilting along in practiced cadence, I alternately feel embarrassment about my own work and admiration for hers. Mesmerized by her rich, metaphorical expressions, I realize how blatantly amateurish my story is, how riddled it is with false sentimentality, how predictable and superficial it seems in comparison.
I glance at the judges sitting in the audience, grateful they can’t physically identify me as the author who entered such a substandard piece. Inwardly I console myself with the words of Theodore Roosevelt who said, “The credit belongs to the man [or woman] who...strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again ... who spends himself [or herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he [or she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Yes, I took a personal risk in putting my work out there and I didn’t succeed—this time around. It would be so easy to tuck my writing away for awhile, to give in to discouragement, but I have to admit that going through this experience has helped me recognize where my writing needs improvement. In my mind, I see each of my children: my sixteen-year-old son whirling around and around perfecting his favorite break dance moves; my eleven-year-old daughter carefully balancing before her ballet teacher during a pointe shoe evaluation; my eight-year-old daughter lovingly working on an intricate drawing; my four-year-old son making good and bad shots with his junior-sized basketball; and my one-year-old son standing and teetering as he takes his first steps.
Then I imagine myself, reaching for the stack of past ACC literary journals, essaying my resolve, and attempting once again to match the dogged drive and tenacity of my children.