Homecoming Queen, 1956

Copyright © 1956 Duke University Archives

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was nominated for homecoming queen at my high school. I was one of three finalists. Actually, I was number 4 by a handful of votes and the oh-so-sweet Becky dropped out so I could be in the running for the final vote. I was awkward. Socially backward. And had spent the previous year without a single friend (not exaggerating). What hopes did I have of being crowned homecoming queen?

I can remember waiting backstage during the first assembly. It was mostly dark, the only light spilling from the stage into the wings through black curtains. I paced the floor, trying not to let my heels clink against the painted wood. I don’t know that I’d call myself beautiful, but I felt pretty in my borrowed dress and curled hair (which was usually found in a single braid down my back). And the whole time I chanted inside, “Congratulations Anna. Congratulations Shaylee.” The other two girls. They were both from the drill team and very popular with everyone. Why wouldn’t they win? And as much as I wanted the moment of feeling special… I knew that it really belonged to them. Not the awkward girl in biology who was accused of “undressing” for the senior football team because she had a nervous twitch of playing with her top button.

They sat, seemingly calm, in their chairs away from the curtains while I paced and chanted and paced some more. When the winner was finally announced it took a few beats for me to realize they had called my name. I was shocked. And I cried. (It was the moment I decided to never make fun of the weeping Miss America chick ever again). Winning was amazing. Is this what popular kids felt like all the time?

Fast forward to a few days ago. I felt the same panic, the same excitement, as I hit SEND on my email to Lydia Sharp for her writing contest. Done! I could have puked. I went straight to my husband and said, “This is just for a critique. It’s ok that I’ve already revised it 8 times. Whatever she says will be helpful to my novel and my writing…. right? I don’t have to win to be a good person? I’m not going to win.” And then the same chant from high school became my daily rhetoric, “Congratulations Better Writer. Congratulations Better Writer.”

Then I received her feedback. I was speechless. She didn’t change a thing. Not one thing. Had she read this? Was she tired after reading 74 other entries? But knowing Lydia (as much as one can know another person from their blog), I knew she gave every entry equal attention. And I knew she’d be honest. *stunned silence* was the email I sent back. So yes, my hopes increased that maybe… just maybe… I might get a repeat of that singular high school moment. The one in a million lottery of awesomeness. But still I chanted, “Congratulations Better Writer.”

And sure enough… someone else won. I have to be honest. I was just a little disappointed. Honorable mention ROCKS! And I’m grateful to have made the list. OH SO GRATEFUL! But “what had I done wrong that kept me from numero uno?” plagued me.

And that’s when it hit me. I didn’t do anything wrong. The aha moment was a blue sky in dismal January.

From NOT winning, I learned (or had reinforced) that…

1. Our writing is NOT us.
My writing and it’s ability to win/not win or be published/rejected does not reflect on my awesomeness as a person. It is VITAL in this industry that we separate our self concept from the success or failure of our writing. Our writing is a product. We are people. Our product is inanimate (as much as our characters feel real… they are NOT real). My MC is not going to go cry herself to sleep on her huge pillow because her story wasn’t chosen, so neither should I. Which leads me to…

2. Rejection of our story is NOT [always] an indication of our ability to write.
Lydia said it best when she wrote, “we asked ourselves, which of these do we, personally, feel passionate enough about to invest our time and effort”. Her critique indicated there was nothing to fix in my first 500 words. Why not pick me? Because her passion was for another work… maybe several other works before mine.

Agents are going to pass on our stories. That’s a part of the process. Some will ask for partials. Some might ask for fulls. But not all of them will pick our story out of the query lottery because they are not 100% passionate about what we are writing. And THAT’S OKAY! When I go to a book store and choose a book to buy, does that mean every other book on the shelf sucks? Nope. I just picked the one that resonates with me.

Of course there is always a chance that our writing really is horrible, but that is what a good critique group is for. Which means…

3. We canNOT disregard the feeback of awesome critique group–good and bad.
Trust is hard for me (there’s all sorts of issues there that would require me to lay down on some one’s couch so we’ll just skip those). But as difficult as it may be, I cannot discount the importance of my writing posse. Find amazing writers to read and edit your stuff. It’s imperative! I should say, “amazing, HONEST writers.” Listen to them. Be open to their feedback (check out Janice Hardy’s post, “Is it me? Putting Critiques to Good Use“). And then, when they finally tell you it’s good stuff. Trust them. Meaning…

4. We should NOT look for reasons why we suck.
When your group says, “This is amazing!”, you should say thank you! Or you might ask what they liked. Don’t start into “but this” or “but that.”

We need to give ourselves permission to ROCK instead of looking for reasons why we suck! I’m not saying you should get a rock star head or become a prima dona, but it’s okay to recognize that you are a good writer. (Just don’t go around wearing a banner and tiara). Be honest. Like your critique group is honest. Be excited, like you’d want your reader to be excited. Accept that you have talent and accept that you still have room to grow. But at the end of the day, remember that you and your writing are seperate.

5. We only fail when we do NOT try.
I’ll just refer you to Julie Musil’s post on Not Trying = Defeat. LOVE her post! When we stop writing because of a critique or because our story didn’t get picked or because we’re afraid, that is when we fail. Not before.

So a HUGE thanks goes out to Lydia for not only hosting the contest, but for teaching me a few things about craft and industry. This was a really great experience!!! And I am so appreciative of your kind (HONEST) words and that you would choose me as honorable mention. *blushes with gratitude and humility* I hope I didn’t come across as ungrateful, because I’m anything but.

And an honest, heartfelt congratulations goes to Audrey Lockwood! And all the other fabulous honorable mentions. In reality, anyone who submitted succeeded because you tried.

Keep pressing forward because someday you will win. Your name will be called. And you’ll step from the shadows of the writerly backstage and into the spotlight of publishing. It will happen. It will.