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

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