Kissing Goodbye and Enjoying the Ride

Today and the next couple of days are a time of reflection for me on matters that have little to do with writing. As I examine the scars of the past and understand them to be a large part of what makes me who I am, I have arrived at the edge of a decision which will bring a liberation of sorts.  My last submission to this years six rounds of the Whittaker Prize went off last night and for the first time in a long while I am completely free from the pressure of competitive writing.

In one way or another I have been competing at something  since I was about 4 years old whether it was with horses or work —in the scramble to hit the glass ceiling; needlework or writing.  I had convinced myself (and think somewhere in the archive of this blog, I tried to convince everyone else too) that competition was good for a person because it was a highly efficient motivator and to paraphrase  the cliché, what didn’t kill would only create strength.

It has taken me about 12 months of writing angst,  when I have fought against an overwhelming tide of negativity at times,  to realise, finally, that competition is having a very negative and not a little confusing effect on my writing.  This has been something of a Damascene revelation because I recently thought I had turned a corner with these issues and was back on track.

To reach this conclusion, I decided to  test my theory and carry out a bit of an experiment with three previously submitted pieces to critiqued competitions, each of which had been through the mill more than once. Frankly, I was curious what a fresh pair or eyes would make of these stories and very hopeful that they were as good as they could possibly be.

In each case the work had undergone fairly rigorous rewriting in line with feedback previously received. Although I came in a respectable 5th in 2011 Whittaker, none of my work submitted over the 9 rounds had anywhere near the success of 2010 when I won the competition, in fact some of the work was absolutely slaughtered by the judges. I wasn’t alone, but at the time that wasn’t much comfort.

I won’t say that some of the critique wasn’t valid because it was; some of the work has definitely been strengthened by the judges’ recommendations which I implemented during the rewrite process. Nevertheless although scores have improved significantly, none of my three experiments have scored a hit in this year’s Whittaker, in fact the most recent results speeded up my decision to largely withdraw from competitive writing for a while and I am pretty sure when I get the results of the final round that this decision will be confirmed by another set of mediocre scores.

Interestingly the first of these pieces went out straight back out into a different critique competition and was in fact highly rated which simply underlines the fact that this form of competition has a highly subjective basis, any judge will have their personal preferences and leanings.  Naturally they will also hopefully have bags of experience in pointing out the technical and craft flaws.  The critique from this year’s Whittaker, in addition to the changes already made, would in some cases result in the story being so changed from the original that it would no longer be the story I set out to write.  I must say though I have nothing but praise for this year’s judge since I believe on the whole his comments have been balanced and fair. No, my issue is not with the judge, my issue is with myself and before we go any further let me make it clear, this isn’t me taking my bat in because I didn’t win.

I am not the sort of person who can easily enter something just for the fun of it, there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I am a highly driven individual and have been imprinted with an imperative which tolerates nothing less than winning. There have been too many years of conditioning built into my psyche to expect that to readily change. Wiser souls can enter these things and stick firmly to their own voices whether that suits the judge or not; I am not that wise.

The final phase of my experiment was rolled out and my submission was this time a story which was written exactly how I wanted it, knowing that it would be a little like Marmite, the judge would either love it or hate it. Let’s just say he’s evidently not a Marmite kind of guy. Had I written the piece to please, i.e to try to win, then it wouldn’t have been the story it is, the story I wanted to write, written in my voice— it would have been someone else’s idea of what should be written, in a completely inauthentic voice.

Unfortunately in 3 years of active competition, all too often I have written to try to please judges and in the process have lost sight of my voice to the point that I’ve just about rendered it mute.  The net result is that the joy of writing has fled and with it to a greater extent a large amount of my true creativity.

A couple of years ago, I worked my way through the Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron) and found it to be highly beneficial but ultimately the effects were constrained by massive changes at that time in my personal life which although it remains in something of a state of flux, it is a manageable turmoil.

So I’m ready to try something new now and am focusing for the foreseeable future on trying to reconnect myself back to me and in the process hopefully rediscover my lost, authentic voice without the burden of massive amounts of competition. I am also concentrating heavily in the coming months on living mindfully and am shortly to start an eight week Mindfulness program which will run alongside a course I am taking with Writing Our Way Home.

If this works out I will be concentrating on the final draft of my novel and in the coming months plan also to release a collection of my shorter work.

Kissing goodbye to competition will be hard and I will be making the odd foray back into certain on-going competitive environments but I hope when I do I will have a lot less focus on the winning and more on enjoying the ride.



2 replies »

  1. Wishing you the very best of luck, Sallie, with your forthcoming work. Your post struck a chord with me.
    I am thinking of cutting back on competitions too. I believe I’m using too much energy and passion on the process of entering and checking for results. I’d rather spend that time on writing in my own style and listening to my own voice.
    I’ve been talking so much about bringing out a collection of short stories and sending out my almost-completed novel. Now I’m tired of hearing myself babbling about these intentions while turning back to the competitions yet again. I’d rather just keep writing for myself. After all, the competition successes already achieved have proved we have the ability to write.
    Sometimes I believe that entering competitions is my way of seeking approval for what I do. And now the time has come to get on with it.
    I’m looking forward to reading both your novel and your story collection, Sallie. And I have no doubt at all that you will succeed.
    Good for you for reaching an important decision and best of luck with the writing. Enjoy very moment of it.

    • Thanks so much, Joanna, for taking the time to read and comment. It is very much appreciated. I think for too long I have convinced myself that I needed competitive deadlines in order to be productive when in reality it was having quite the opposite effect. You have had far more success than I, but I agree entirely about the approval issues. For me, not being a product of the MA/MFA route to creative writing I have often felt like the poor relation and I believe this, to a degree, fuelled my need for validation along with the early professional career conditioning of always having to prove oneself to be better than the next guy.

      What finally tipped me over the edge, and I am glad it did, was one of the things which has annoyed me most about writing for competition and that is the constant urging by those allegedly “in the know” to be original, to step outside our comfort zones and experiment, only to find that when you do, judges either don’t get it or slam you for it; damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

      All of this has brought me to the conclusion that the only way to grow, is to step back and plough my own furrow for a while.

      I know I will see your work on the shelves soon and it will be, as always a joy to read.