Marolt: Contest: Impossible
Columnists generally catch a lot of crap. We expect it, we accept it and, most of the time, we reject it in short order. The critiques that are hardest to ignore are the ones we haven’t heard before, so most of our angst occurs in the first few months we are working; after that it’s all old hat. I think you would be surprised how uncreative newspaper-perusing critics are, but if you’ve ever wondered why we generally don’t fight back by publicly saying things like, “If you think this job is easy, maybe you ought to give it a shot,” it’s because we don’t see much potential in the field of faultfinders whose notions of clever originality amount to zingers such as, “Do some research.”
Even as thick-skinned as we are, many columnists seek, in the core of our souls, to receive positive affirmation from educated aficionados of our craft. To this end, we enter writing contests without telling anyone in hopes that we might be awarded some prize or another for our artistic, if not toilsome, efforts. We do this in secret for fear of rejection and receiving “constructive criticisms,” which, as everyone knows, are the kind that hurt the most by a magnitude of 10 over the next-most severe form of criticism, which is an honest inquiry about the shape of your nose from a 4-year-old.
I give you this background before sharing my recent failures in a writing contest I entered with all expectations of finishing on top. I poured my heart into my entries. I followed the rubric as precisely as I would have a Venice street map. I polished and polished until the irony, imagery, foreshadowing and metaphors were as clear as a science-room aquarium on the first day of school.
The assignment was deceptively simple: Write an interesting story of exactly 132 words using as many literary devices as possible. Because I recognized the difficulty, I set aside plenty of time to write such a short piece. Please judge for yourself the result:
“‘It Crawls in the Family’
“Who could have known? Maybe the laboratory set up in odd Uncle Buzz’s basement should have tipped me off. It is one thing to have beakers, petri dishes and a microscope to use for a science hobby, but the spiderweb of electrical wires, lasers and raw, rotten meat might have clued me in. Who would believe: a contraption that turns people into bugs? He zapped himself into a common housefly!
“I feel terrible. I did not know it was him! He landed on my arm, and I trapped him to add to my bug collection. I squeezed too hard, and “squish”! Now he is gone. I can’t undo it, but I feel a responsibility to take care of the poor wife that he left behind. After all, she is my ant.”
Beautiful, right? Well, according to the judges, this and a buck will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, which is exactly what I was awarded — for 16th place! (The buck is what I left for a tip.) This happened in 2014, and I have only worked up the nerve to talk about it now.
Not to complain, not to despair and never to give up, I tried again this year. The only thing that changed was that they gave us one more word to work with. I came up with this gem:
“‘Better Him Than Me’
“‘My dog ate my homework.’
“‘Really,’ he sputtered, like a red party balloon with its knot coming undone. ‘Bring your dog in. I want proooof!’
“‘It died,’ I lied again. ‘It was too tough. He bit off more than he could chew and choked. It was hard to swallow.’
“He yellow-tooth smirked, pondering. ‘Write down the details.’
“So, I did. I scribbled, ‘Better him than me,’ across the top.
“Next class he returned my handwritten excuse. He subtracted 10 points for being late? And he wrote ‘B+’ on it? That crazy old man got confused and thought this was my homework!
“Encouraged, I tried the same trick in math class. She gave me an ‘F.’ I guess she was not a dog lover or had a less cluttered mind than my creative writing teacher.”
I worked twice as hard on this, so it should have been twice as good, right? Apparently not. I didn’t even get a cup of coffee!
I do take some consolation in that the contest, for all its apparent simplicity, is actually one of the most difficult I’ve entered and judged by a most discerning panel of experts. I am honored that the Aspen Middle School seventh-grade class considered my entries in their contest. I’ll be back!
Roger Marolt applauds the seventh-grade class and its teachers for a community writing contest well-run! And, yes, this is intended to butter you up for next year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.