Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Benefits of Entering Writing Contests

Three years before my midlife crisis swelled up and pushed me out of my torturous day job writing press releases for a nonprofit, I sat in my office with a girl I helped hire to raise money for our organization. We were throwing out crazy dreams we had failed to accomplish in our 30-something years. It was mostly she who was doing the talking, telling me how her “old money” upbringing was to have landed her at The Club every day playing tennis and lunching, but she felt compelled to stoop down and lift up those of us who had to work for a living. I leaned back in my office chair, there in the windowless office I affectionately called “the cave,” and admitted that my long lost dream was to write again.

Perhaps it was naive of me to think she would be impressed or even slightly supportive. Instead she perked up and yelped, “Me too! And I know the book I would write. It would be about growing up in Mountain Brook and how I thought we were poor because we had to go to The Club to go swimming.”

That was the very moment I realized that in order to be a writer again (I had written for newspapers for 10 years before getting sucked into PR), I would have to write again. And as long as I remained closed in an office tracking media impressions, I would be just the same kind of writer as my shallow coworker – a writer wannabe.

I have a lot of resentment for writer wannabes. Writing seems easy. We all have ideas and dialogs that float through our minds while showering or trying to sleep. We think one day we’ll get around to recording those thoughts. But it is not until we actually sit down to compose a story that we realize just how difficult it is to capture that voice, that nuance, that feeling you got when that story floated freely through your thoughts.

To make a long story short, I quit my job in August 2007. (It took another 6 months for me to leave the joint, but mentally, I was already gone. And in that time, my freelance business was slowly beginning to take off.) What I quickly realized is that though I had worked as a writer for 10 years, the following 10 years stuffed in an office writing drab press releases about the walk-a-thon-du-jour sucked the creative writing juices out of me. It was like riding a bike, though. Those first few pedals felt clumsy and I wavered a bit, but the basics gradually came back. What I realized then was that my writing had been pigeonholed by the same newspaper editors who hammered traditional newspaper writing style into my brain. Magazine writing required a more gentle hand, and to learn how to broaden my style I sought out the master of beautiful writing, Pulitizer Prize winning author (and visiting professor in creative narrative nonfiction at the University of Alabama) Rick Bragg. As a student in that class, I was able to sit next to Bragg and have my stories critiqued line-by-line. I also welcomed other editors’ comments of my work whenever they were willing to offer it. And I submitted my published magazines stories (there was only one in the calendar year 2007) to a local writing contest. I entered one of the most populated categories, knowing I likely wouldn’t win or even place. What I craved was the comments from the judges. Sounds strange, I know, but I was – and in many ways, still am – hungry for any opportunity to become the writer I always dreamed of becoming. After all, I had lost 10 years on my writing goal by swimming in the sea of public relations. (And Lord knows, I am still far from obtaining that goal.)

Needless to say, I didn’t place in that competition. And when I got my entry back, the only comment the lone judge offered was, “this sucks.” OK, maybe not that exactly. More like “doesn’t make sense.” It left me both baffled and frustrated. What part didn’t make sense? The lead? The same lead that Rick Bragg had called “beautiful”? (I had rewritten that story as one of my papers in his class, but kept the lead.)

This is the second year I have been saddled with heading up a writing competition for the group I’m affiliated with, Alabama Media Professionals (AMP). First-place winners from this local competition move up to compete in the National Federation of Professional Women (NFPW) contest. Last year I floundered trying to figure out the process. This year I have a better idea what I’m doing and I’ve initiated some changes.

The first was convincing our president to look at the competition as a professional development opportunity. Our members are all writers – most of them freelancers. Just as doctors are required to take continuing education credits, we should be, too. Lord knows the media business has changed tremendously over the years. And with that, so has writing styles to conform to different audiences and new platforms, like the Internet.

With our president’s blessing on changing the perception of the contest, I went to work on the judges. First, more than one judge will review each entry. It makes no sense for one judge to be the sole voice in deciding whether an entry is or is not qualified to compete in the national competition. Secondly, the judges are strongly urged to offer a written critique of every piece they read. Meager comments like “this sucks” just won’t suffice.

I realize by doing this I may be scaring away some participants. Constructive criticism isn’t easy, but how can we be expected to grow as writers – or in any field – if we don’t open ourselves up to other opinions and perspectives?

The contest deadlines February 11, 2010, and so far I’ve received no entries. Surely members are saving them up for our next meeting, which coincides with the contest deadline. We’ll see.

Whether or not you are a member of AMP, or even if you don’t live within the great state of Alabama, you are welcome to enter our writing competition. The more entries, the more opportunity for us writers to learn from others. For more information about the 2010 Alabama Media Professionals Communications Contest, visit the official Web site at

Friday, January 8, 2010

She married at the courthouse!

My sister got married today. There was no white wedding dress or gauzy veil. No overdone bridesmaids or hung-over groomsmen. No lavish rings or candlelit church. Just the two of them – my new brother-in-law and my sister – with the justice of the peace. She wore my mother’s wedding band, but otherwise, none of us were there. Not our father. Not me. Not her two daughters or his son. They even drove separate cars to the courthouse.

And I believe it was perhaps one of the most beautiful ceremonies.

My father called it “lovely.” This, the nuptials he didn’t see. I had to agree. It was a second wedding for them both. They had each married the wrong person before. Those unions gave them darling children. There is nothing to regret with that. And because Craig is the father of my nieces, I will always have a special bond with my sister’s ex-husband even though we almost never speak.

But my new brother-in-law, Dave, is the “meant to be,” that missing piece that completes lives. I know this; I married mine. My friends know this about me, about us. That Rick closed a drafty window in my heart. It has sheltered me from cold and wind and has been my shield against the intermittent pains that have rained down on me through the years. My father knows this completeness, too. My parents had this bond, and when my mother died, my Dad floundered until he found Anni. She grounded him again.

I had sensed it a million times since that year my sister admitted trouble in her first marriage and through all the inadequate men that blew into our Christmas gatherings and Easter dinners since. She still hadn’t found it, her “meant to be.” That’s the thing; You know when you have it.

The month before she met Dave, Heather sat on my couch and said she was giving up. She was taking her profile off the Internet dating site. She was going to take a break from men, heal her heart, find her soul, be her own missing piece, because sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can make that fit. And then came Dave. It seems love always happens when you least expect it.

I used to think all good weddings deserved big church productions and extravagant parties. I now know better. Love surpasses crinoline and lace and cases of champagne. It lasts longer than something old and something blue. It grows in hearts and minds and souls, and when it is right, it fills all the in-betweens.

And that, well, that is just meant to be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Calgon, Take me away!

We had barely cleared the house of pine needles and fake cranberries that my cat had bitten off the garland when Rick says he wants to buy me something. He has just set the iPod to play some sexy jazz, made a fire, and is sauntering up to me with dreamy eyes and a low-ball of three cubes of ice and a splash of Christmas-gift, single barrel, aged appropriately bourbon. He looks like one of those old-time actors who’d wear smoking jackets and grip cocktails and sit in rooms with cozy fires and flanked with bookcases. Well, three out of four isn’t bad – Rick’s wearing a Gap hoodie. I am saddled up to the kitchen counter making a dinner of I-don’t-remember-what and trying to keep Truman away from raw meat juices and sharp utensils. He says he wants to make dessert and he is pulling my largest pot out of the cabinet, lid and all. He sets it on the cooktop and then opens the pantry, stands in front of it like I often do, wondering what he can use for his masterpiece. This is when Rick glides up to the kitchen island. He says he wants to buy me something and I have to put him on pause or else Truman would try to rappel the pantry shelving and grab the sugar, and we all know what a disaster sugar on the floor makes. I pull out some jumbo marshmallows and some sugar sprinkles, and that satisfies him enough. He pulls the stepstool over to the (unlit) stovetop and starts dumping. Rick starts to speak again and Truman interrupts that by banging through the ultra messy spoon-and-spatula drawer and pulling out three items to stir his mixture.

“I want to do something nice for you for Valentine’s Day,” my romantic of a husband says.

“But you got me everything on my list,” I say, which is true. Everything, except for the bike, which he, understandably, said I’d have to go to the bike store and select on my own, and maybe I should wait until spring and he’d get one, too.

“No, I..,” he says, and as I try to tell him that between Christmas overindulgences and the unexpected four-figure car repair and the six-month car insurance premium that's come due, we need to engage in some financial recovery, but Truman is grabbing my arm now. Seems he’s been trying to get a word in edgewise (imagine!) but Rick and I just keep talking. He needs something for the dessert he’s making. He’s pulling my arm, wailing at the top of his lungs, “I need something from the oil group, Mommy. From the oil group! I need something!”

And Rick says, “… want to get you something…,” and Truman is pulling and I drag him to the pantry, and Rick pivots as we pass, and I pull out the olive oil bottle which is almost empty. I hand that to Truman and turn to Rick and Truman is pulling my arm again. “Not olive oil!” and I say, “but it’s from the oil group,” and Rick is saying, “…indulgent,” and just then it hits me like a ton of bricks. What I want. No, what I need.

“Spa,” I manage to say above the John Coltrane coming through the speakers and the 6-year-old tap-tap-tapping on the edge of the pot and the simmering veggies that need sautéing and the ice clicking in Rick’s low-ball and the wine glass next to me that must be refilled. “Spa gift certificate, please, and at least two hours to sit in the quiet room and eat that almond-and-cranberry mixture and drink sparkling water and sip that herbal tea that tastes better there than at my home and read a book and be away from everything. Like, ‘Calgon, take me away.’

And Rick nods. I think he understands.