Having overcome my near paralyzing anxiety about submitting my novel to two contests, I submitted it to three, one of which I had deleted from my list two months ago because I thought their attitude was, well, snotty. Maybe snooty. All the text on their site was a flashback to the very worst days of grad school and the”lit crit” lingo I despised even then. If you have ever been in a doctoral program in English, you will know exactly what I mean.
Back in the Nirvana of the Big Name Literary Critics, all male, it was possible to read an entire article in one of the journals without having any idea what even one sentence was attempting to say. Sometime in the 1970’s, I attended a convention of the Modern Language Association in New York and was excited about hearing one of these men speak on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a favorite of mine. I was hungry for new insights. At the end of nearly an hour, when it was clear he was just getting started, I stumbled into the hotel lobby and, had I not known ahead of time, I would never have been sure I had just attended a talk in my field. It could have been Physics. Actually, the lectures I have heard on Physics have been less abstract. It wasn’t long after that convention that I made the best decision of my long teaching career. I left the doctoral program and took a job at a small independent secondary school.
But a couple of weeks ago, tempted by the prestige of the award and the prize money, I returned to the offensive novel competition and started re-reading the home page, not as bad as I remembered, and the guidelines, much worse. It seemed to me that every third word, embedded in a threatening phrase, was REJECTED. These people didn’t want to leave a shred of doubt as to the consequences of your violating even one of the guidelines. YOUR MANUSCRIPT WILL BE REJECTED. The most horrifying elaboration on this theme was that, in the case of the worst offenses, it would be rejected without even a glance. The document would not be opened. And you would never know it had happened. You would not be notified that you had blotted your copybook. I followed this train of thought and realized that, in the likely event that you didn’t win the competition, you would live the rest of your life without being sure whether you had broken a rule or just written a bad novel.
About halfway through this intricate set of instructions, my anxiety doubled. There really seemed to be no hope of my even completing the application process. Because those instructions were not just pretentious and insulting, they were confusing. They were very badly written and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what they were telling me to do. With the help of a friend, editor, and co-author who is better at details than I am and, more importantly, less inclined to panic, I actually downloaded the several different documents required and hit “Submit.” As part of what I now realized was Chaos, the actual entry form, with payment of the submission fee, was to be printed, completed, signed, and handed over to the United States Postal Service.
I even managed to do that, typing my responses neatly into the form before printing and signing. I printed an envelope, a little off-center, and used one of my Flannery O’Connor stamps featuring the author and a peacock. I felt some pride in having gotten that far, and my entry form really was splendid. Several days later, I received an anxious email from a co-founder of the competition. They had received my envelope, but it was empty! I was to look all around my desk, in the trash can, everywhere, to see if I had inadvertently failed to include it. I couldn’t find it. Neither could they. I printed a second completed form, signed, and mailed it. The day it went into the post, another email arrived from the competition. They had found my original form, but my debit card wouldn’t go through. I checked. I had reversed two numbers in the first four on the card. I emailed back frantically. Would it be acceptable if I emailed the correct number rather than correcting the form and sending it again? It was fine since they were now in possession of two forms bearing my signature.
Having braved the lion in his den and endured what felt to me like public humiliation–I always am sure I have made a fool of myself–I took enough of a breath to realize that, in the course of the series of disasters, the woman on the other end of the email exchange and I had struck up a relationship. I saved the entire thread of emails and, when I read them over, I am delighted. They become warmer and warmer, and I seem to have made a friend. Too bad she doesn’t read the entries. Life is often unfair in this way.