1. Opportunity abounds.
On February 26 of this year, I was working on a short story when an email arrived. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the opening line, “Congratulations! You’ve made the longlist…” because I only had three days until the contest deadline for the story I was writing. And honestly, who pays attention to emails that begin with “Congratulations!”?
Happily, it wasn’t spam. Thirty-one writers had, indeed, made the longlist for the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize, and I was one of them. It had been months since I wrote the piece. I couldn’t remember the title and certainly hadn’t read it since then. I rummaged through a beautiful box that I keep just for stories, and there it was: “Restitution”.
Eight weeks have passed since that wonderful day. The experience has been unequivocally joyful, all the way through making the shortlist, and listening to David Heubert read his extraordinary winning story, “Enigma”, on the CBC Books website.
If you’ve spent any time with writers, or people who wish they were, or people who call themselves writers yet spend most of their energy making sure no one gets too happy, you may be persuaded it’s a doomed art. All the great writers are dead, they’ll tell you, or unapproachably brilliant. And then there are the ones who use the upcoming end of the world as their excuse for not finishing or not starting something. Fine. Whatever.
Fact is, there are more opportunities for writers these days than I’ve ever known. You can enter contests, submit manuscripts online (no more SASE, yay!), start a blog, share your work through dozens of social networks. Who cares if no one reads it? Someone might! What writing comes down to is output—i.e. putting it out there.
As it happens, I decided this year to take on Ray Bradbury’s challenge: “Write a short story every week,” he dares us. “It’s not possible to write 52 bad stories.” Turns out, the guy was right. I have written at least one good story, so far, with the creds to prove it. I have also learned that producing a story every week leaves you no time for hanging out with end-of-the-world whingers.
2. Enthusiasm is a flame. Fan it.
As emotions go, enthusiasm can be a matchstick. If you don’t bring it near kindling or a wick, it flares up and out. Life pushes in, wanting to look the way life did before that lovely but temporary thing interrupted it.
The hard-working, enthusiastic team at CBC Books made sure that didn’t happen for us finalists. They fanned our fires, both longlist and short, with Facebook posts, tweets, retweets, and frequent shout-outs. They created beautiful quote graphics, like the one you see at the top of this blog. When I read the longlist excerpt they’d created, I didn’t recognize it as my own writing. I was viewing my work through enthusiastic eyes. Fire fed!
What delighted me most was the attention CBC Books pays to the craft of writing. They wanted to know how it felt to write “Restitution”. What was the aftermath? Which author influences me most? Why? And my personal favourite: describe your story in five words.
As finalists, we basked in the enthusiasm of a publicist who shared (and continues to share) our bios and stories coast-to-coast. You begin to get the sense that, oh my gosh, this really is Canadian Broadcasting!
3. People’s reactions are their privilege. Enjoy and appreciate them.
The response from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers has been tremendous. Until something like this happens, you just don’t realize how much love and support is ready to burst into bloom around you. Maybe the impulse to cheer is part of who we are—I believe it is—so any opportunity to celebrate each other is a good one.
On the other hand, there were silences. There were lukewarm, unconvincing responses from people whose opinion I cherish. That was enlightening too, a reminder like a bug bite that what others think, say, and feel about me will stop itching if I leave it alone.
The same holds true for what I write. My subject matter, genre, style, even my punctuation may rub some people the wrong way, and that’s fine. Each of us is free to choose where we place our attention and how we respond to what crosses our paths. For myself, I cheer what I love, I appreciate those who cheer me, and allow the rest their freedoms.
4. Disappointment is a fog. Walk through it.
On Tuesday, April 19, the winner of the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize was announced, and it wasn’t me. As a writer, I know I’ll be able to milk that whomp to my stomach and heart for years to come.
The day before, I’d prepared for the eventuality of hard news by completing a 6600 word story and walking it to the post office with days to spare before another contest deadline. I was proud of myself for that. From that low rung of positivity, I thought about the other three finalists somewhere in Canada and knew what they were feeling. Empathy: climb another rung.
I have other writing deadlines, in addition to Ray B. sitting on my shoulder, but I didn’t go near them yesterday. Instead, I spent time with friends, visited the library and bookstore—found treasures in both—and saw “The Jungle Book”. Bless you, Rudyard Kipling!
The email from CBC Books from a person I’d come to know as a true heart, was addressed to us four finalists. She offered commiserations and congrats! Our writing, after all, had risen above thousands of entrants. We had every reason to feel proud. And there would always be next year, and the year after that.
Disappointment is a fog. Today is sunny.
5. To be treated like a VIW is a reminder, not a fluke.
When you enter the CBC Short Story Prize, you can be sure of one thing. Your story will be read. The jurors are seasoned and respected in their fields. To be read by them is no small privilege.
From the moment you are longlisted to the moment of the final announcement and beyond, you’ll be treated like a VIW, Very Important Writer. Like a luxury spa or world cruise, the experience is delicious, and a part of you wants it never to end.
Good news is, there is no ending. Writing is important, and we humans cannot live without our storytellers. CBC Books keeps these truths alive by offering prizes and opportunities, year after year, to writers. I am forever grateful.
© Elaine Stirling, 2016