“And the winner is…”
A reflection on writing success
I was pretty sure I’d win.
After all, I’d been writing for six years—mostly for curriculum publishers and magazines, and I was confident that I really had my act together.
The writers’ conference I was attending had a short-story-writing contest and, thankfully for me, although the work needed to be unpublished, the author didn’t need to be.
Yeah, that definitely played in my favor—competing against all those wannabes.
I almost didn’t think it was fair that I was able to enter. After all, I had a master’s degree in storytelling and had many of my personal stories and short stories published.
So, I took one of the stories I was working on, one that hadn’t been picked up by a publisher yet, and submitted it.
The awards were given out at a banquet on the last night of the conference.
I wore my best tie.
I wanted to look sharp for the pictures afterward.
One of the conference speakers was seated at my table. He asked me what I wrote, and I explained that I’d mainly been published in magazines. “But I have a collection of short stories coming out later this year,” I added quickly.
“Oh really? With whom?”
I mentioned the publishing company.
“Hmm,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve heard of them. But congratulations.”
Finally, as people were finishing up their dessert and the servers were collecting the plates, it was time for the awards.
There were four categories: best unpublished novel, best screenplay, best short story, best work of creative nonfiction.
When it came time for the short-story awards, I turned my chair so it’d be easier to get up from the table.
The emcee told us that there’d been stiff competition this year, that the judges had had a difficult time choosing the top three stories. “And now, in third place . . .” She opened the envelope and read a name.
It wasn’t mine.
Well, I hadn’t expected it to be.
Everyone applauded as a young woman went up front to receive her award.
The emcee opened the second envelope and read the name.
Again, not mine.
Well, that wasn’t a huge surprise, although I would’ve been able to live with second.
A wiry gentleman, grinning from ear to ear, ambled up to the stage.
“And now, this year’s number one short story,” the emcee gushed.
And read the name.
I rose to go and accept my award.
Only after I was out of my chair did I realize that he hadn’t read my name.
For one brutally long dumbstruck moment, I stood there and then quickly slumped back into my seat as the real winner, a matronly woman near the back of the auditorium, made her way between the tables to the emcee.
“You okay?” the conference speaker asked me.
“Yeah. Sorry. I just . . .”
I wanted to come up with an excuse for why I’d stood, but there was nothing to say. Instead, I sat there shame-faced while the other awards were being handed out, berating myself for being so arrogant, for being so focused on trying to beat my fellow writers in a silly contest.
But I was slow to learn my lesson.
A few years later, my first novel was a finalist for a major award.
I felt a huge dip of disappointment when I failed to beat someone else for a plaque with a name engraved on it.
At least that time I didn’t stand up when I didn’t win.
That event was sixteen years ago. Over the intervening years, I’ve had many novels and nonfiction books published. Some have won awards and acclaim; some have not.
I’ve learned a couple of things in watching what goes on in my heart when a book hits a certain bestseller list or receives a starred review from one of the trades or wins a certain award.
And I haven’t been happy with what I see.
Writing for applause and accolades is a losing proposition any way you cut it. Basing your feelings of success (or, worse yet, self-worth) on whether or not you win a completely subjective contest somewhere is like building the edifice of your self-esteem on quicksand.
All of those awards pale in comparison to the true success I’ve had over the years.
Two letters pop to mind.
One man wrote simply, “Thanks for writing books that don’t suck.”
The other letter came from a teenage boy who wrote, “I hate reading but I loved your book.”
Yeah, when you get right down to it, that’s the acclaim that matters most.
Steven James is a critically acclaimed novelist who has taught fiction writing on four continents. His latest thriller, Every Deadly Kiss, released in the summer of 2017.