The Writing Life: reflections by a working writer. The Writing Life

Reflections of a working writer, a university screenwriting professor, and the editor of Oregon Literary Review.

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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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The Writing Life...
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Saturday, September 30, 2006  
Literary contests
Finalists for this year’s Oregon Book Awards are announced Monday. One of the nice things about being a finalist, which I’ve been three times, is that it’s almost as good as winning. Finalists get to go on the same reading tour and the cash award to the winner is only $500, which is not that big a deal unless you are a starving writer. Most states, in fact, give more than this, some much more. Every other year Illinois gives seven grand to seven playwrights! Oregon gives one playwright $500 every other year. What a difference!

In fact, Oregon supports writers poorly in monetary terms compared to other states – and let’s not forget that the first thing Yeats said when learning he’d won the Nobel was “How much?” An Oregon corporation like Nike, of course, could change this local situation dramatically if the Boss Man cared more for books and less for jocks. Ain’t gonna happen.

But I digress. To make my point here, we need to do some time travel and go back to 2001 when the OBA finalists are announced. We need to do this so what I have to say doesn’t sound like sour grapes. I want to speak as a finalist, from a position of success.

Among the finalists in the Drama category is my collection SEVEN PLAYS. This is cool. But it also means something very different from what almost all inexperienced writers think it means. What it means, in essence, is this: a judge has revealed his or her tastes.

Think about that. I didn’t say a thing about my work or about writers or writing. I said a judge has revealed his tastes. Because that’s what contests do, they give a judge the opportunity to express taste or a panel of judges the opportunity to reach compromises about their tastes. It's very satisfying to believe my collection is a finalist because I'm hot shit but this is not what happened. My work happened to find a judge who responded to it. Luck of the draw. Repeat, luck of the draw. I can't take credit for being a finalist any more than I can take credit for having a winning lottery ticket. This is mostly the judge's doing, not mine.

A living example. Not too long ago I was one of three judges to give out the same seven checks to Illinois scriptwriters mentioned above. We had 70+ scripts to consider. We ranked them individually. And we agreed on almost nothing. Put another way, if any one of us had been the sole judge, then three different groups of seven would have received the checks. Does this say anything about the writers? Of course not. What is says is something about the judge making the choices. This is the way all contests work.

Usually the sponsors of contests plug into the myth that the affairs are mostly about writers. The OBA, for example, calls its finalists “the best writers in Oregon.” Well, according to the particular judges (in Oregon, a single judge but different judges for different categories), perhaps – but different judges would have different opinions about this. Instead of bragging about the best writers in Oregon, why not tell it like it is, and celebrate the selections of this year’s judges? Writers care about the health of the language. There’s a world of difference between saying “the best writers in Oregon” and “the selections of this year’s judges.” Why does an organization that cares about literature put a spin on the truth? We're not celebrating the best writers but the particular judges!

Young writers usually take contests too seriously. If they aren’t a finalist, they assume the fault is with themselves. Now it might be. Maybe they aren’t writing at a professional level yet. But it may be something else entirely! It may be that what they write does not connect to the particular judge. Period. Nothing more. Another judge may think their work is extraordinary. To get out of this quagmire, the young writer must learn how to be his/her own toughest critic and write to high personal standards. Then forget what everyone else says, judges or otherwise. Be your own toughest audience.

Contests are a mess -- and I haven’t even mentioned the influence of politics in the major awards. But doing well in contests is an important stepping stone in building a literary career. Winning a national playwriting contest as a graduate student changed my focus from fiction to drama. I’ve smiled all three times I’ve been an OBA finalist (before frowning when I didn’t win) – but actually, until I myself became a judge, until I met with two other judges who had fine credentials but very different tastes from my own, I didn’t realize that these affairs were mostly about the tastes of judges. Change the judges and you change the results.

So what’s a writer to do? Enter the contests the same way, the exact same way, you buy a lottery ticket. Because that’s what it amounts to. Contests are a crapshoot. In the beginning of a career, the credits from doing well in them are important even if the monetary reward isn’t much. Later, when you’ve outlived the need for a resume, winning or losing has no practical, only personal, consequences.

You’re going to win a few and lose a few in any writing career. Enjoy winning and don’t fret losing. Don’t take either – especially winning! – too seriously.

For every judge who thinks you’re hot shit, there’s another judge who thinks you stink.

(For a more elevated discussion of these matters, see Hamlet and the Philosophy of Criticism by Morris Weitz.)

9/30/2006 01:13:00 PM | 2 comments

You speak the truth...and it's precisely the kind of truth I needed to hear today. Thanks for such an intelligent post.
Thank you.

The bummer is if you say this "as a loser" you just set yourself up for throwing sour grapes. We need a winner to make these points in an acceptance speech.
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