Say contest and I get the heebie jeebies. Or maybe it’s the word loser that does it. Because as sure as every party has a morning after, every contest has a loser. Or two. Or a thousand.
I remember being six or seven and going to a fair at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church. They had a roulette wheel, probably the most dazzling and intriguing thing I’d ever seen, and I plunked my quarter down on my lucky number. (A six year old gambler? Remember, those were the days when parents told you to go outside and play in the traffic). The wheel spun, I held my breath—but no cigar. Losing was bad enough, but the true sorrow and shock were yet to come. As I reached to reclaim my quarter, the guy in charge swept it away. I couldn’t believe it. I’d assumed only the person who won had to pay! The indignity! The cruel and bitter unfairness of the world.
That was a contest of chance, of course. Nothing compared to when you pit your talent, vision, more or less freaking soul, against others—i.e., enter a writing competition. Which was why, when I was recently asked to judge two student writing contests, I broke out in a sweat. Both contests are sponsored by libraries, and who can so no to a children’s librarian? Not me, it turns out.
Judging was as torturous as I feared, for more reasons than expected. The entries were spectacular! One contest was stories, everything from mad adventure to chiling dystopia to the second coming of Holden Caulfield. I loved them all, reeling from laughter to heartbreak to my own memories of how intensely everything mattered when I was that age.
The other contest was letters students wrote to writers who’d changed their lives. They wrote to everyone from Emily Dickinson to Chuck Palahniuk, and let me tell you, the future of books and reading is assured. I don’t remember the last time I was so humbled and grateful to find myself a writer for kids. Books, they wrote, had helped them reach out to friends in trouble, discover their own powers, determine to become writers themselves. Books comforted them when they felt most alone, and taught them things like “truth can be scary” and “sometimes life doesn’t go the way you want it to” and “even though in real life you can’t shoot a jet of blue lìght from your fìnger toward someone that’s bugging you, you can learn from characters in books to be thoughtful in your actions”. Even if you’re a reluctant reader, once you find the right book you may well find yourself on “a reading rampage”. Some of my favorite lines were from a boy who forgot to give his last name. He was addressing Gary Paulsen, that great chronicler of wild-toothed nature. Your book, he wrote, “just made me realize that there’s more to life than normally 80 or 90 years of work. It’s the way things live, that’s what life is.” He added, “I might have cried once.”
“Losing” isn’t so hard on me any more—it comes with the territory of creating. But I’ll share some good news, both because it’s so nice and because I want to publicize the enormously valuable work this organization does. My fiction has received a 2012 grant from the Ohio Arts Council, www.oac.org, a state agency that “funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally and economically. With funds from the Ohio Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, the OAC provides financial assistance to artists and arts organizations.”
They give dollars to individuals like me, as well as institutions large and small. Where would we be without this official faith in beauty and meaning? Thank you, OAC, and thank you, legislators, who continue to fund the arts through thick and very thin.