Why do we write? We can’t pretend to enjoy it. Hours spent at a desk searching for Coleridge’s “best words in their best order” can be frustrating, humbling, even painful. And if we do manage to produce a few pages of which we are proud, we too often ruin the moment by deciding to share them with a friend or, worse, an audience. The open mic! The workshop!
If we learn nothing from our first attempt at going public, some demon then urges us to send our best work to a contest, a small magazine, or school newspaper, often for an added insult-to-injury “reading fee,” and we are doomed to an almost guaranteed soul crushing.
Right now there are poets and writers around Western New York pressing the “send” button and hoping against hope. The odds are not with them. Small presses offering a chance for a single book publication may get hundreds, sometimes thousands, of manuscripts in response. Who winnows that number down before passing a manageable stack of them on to the guest judge? A student? An intern? Melville’s “late consumptive usher to a grammar school?” Even local opportunities with a few dozen entries, like Just Buffalo’s Annual Members’ Writing Contest, may be judged by someone—this year by me—predisposed to poems with short lines, or bad attitudes, or dragons. The odds. But poets and writers keep trudging to the literal or electronic mailbox because maybe this time someone will finally see.
And there it is. Validation. Proof that you are not delusional. The act of writing may be thankless, but what writer can’t relate to Dorothy Parker’s “I hate writing, I love having written?” And, having written, what writer doesn’t want to hear from someone—anyone—that it was a job well done? Words belong to everyone. If we think we have a talent for arranging them in an interesting way we have to test that theory by sending them back to the community and waiting for a response.
The oldest signed written work is thought to be the temple hymns and poems of the Sumerian priestess, Enheduanna, composed over four thousand years ago. She heard her poems recited ceremonially for most of her adult life, but wanted, pressed into clay, what most writers want, personal recognition of what she had made:
The person who bound this tablet together is Enheduanna
My king something never before created
Did not this one give birth to it
This one and these thousands labored to give birth to words in a unique order and style, and their hard work is admirable. Even more admirable is their crazed compulsion to send the work out into the world.
Having been both the poet waiting for a response (with mixed results) and the panelist or judge responding (to this perfectly good work rather than that perfectly good work), I respect the courage of any creative writer who tries to find her Dear Reader. This month I am the responder, selecting the Judge’s Award for Just Buffalo’s 7th Annual Members Writing Contest. My judging will be blind, but the result will still no doubt reflect my tastes in poetry or my capacity for surprise. The Audience Award will also be handed out at the February 26 reading, giving you two chances to “win” an award and a guaranteed chance to have your work both seen and heard. You won’t find better odds than these. I urge poets of all ages and experience to enter the contest and to participate in the reading. Take a chance. Tell your friends. Go public.