You Can’t Win If You Don’t Enter

Posted on 04 October 2010

As a teenager, I spent five weeks studying fiction at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (well, when I wasn’t busy writing humiliating journal entries, that is). Midway through the summer program, one of my fellow fiction writers experienced a mini-breakdown in workshop. He complained that he knew other people back home at his high school who were way better writers than he was, so what was he even doing here?

Our workshop leader looked at him levelly and asked, “I suppose those other writers didn’t apply for this program, did they?”

He shook his head no.

“Well,” our workshop leader continued, “you sent in the application and they didn’t. So here you are.”

Okay, so it wasn’t exactly the most reassuring thing she could have said (she did later offer a few more comforting words), but I never forgot that conversation. It wouldn’t have mattered if Pennsylvania was home to hundreds of high school writers way better than him, or me, or any of the 9 fiction writers who made it in that year. If they didn’t apply, they couldn’t get in. But because we had dutifully sent off our applications and then traveled to Harrisburg for interviews, and because we were chosen out of the applicant pool, we were admitted to a five-week, state-funded arts program.

This is something I keep in mind every time I send off a contest entry. And no, it’s not because I’m hoping I have a chance of winning if only because the other entries are from brand-new writers or people still stuck in their own humiliating journal-writing days. I keep it in mind because while I know I have an extremely slim chance of winning, and while there are no doubt finer writers than me entering, I have no chance at all if I don’t enter in the first place. And so I enter.

I just spent the last few weeks scrambling to complete as many novel revisions as possible so I could enter the manuscript in a contest in time for the postmark deadline. Realistically, the novel still has far to go. While I got a ton of work done in that short time frame, I still have more ahead of me. So I almost didn’t bother entering the contest — until I remembered, If you don’t enter, you can’t win. After all, if I hadn’t taken a chance last winter with this same novel and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, I wouldn’t have been named a runner-up. And if I hadn’t taken the chance with my story collection for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, I wouldn’t have a book coming out next year.

Of course, there is a difference between entering to be in the race and entering even when you’re so slow there’s no chance you’ll be able to keep up. But that is a post for another day.

On a much more somber note, the funding for all Pennsylvania Governor’s Schools for Excellence — including the Arts school I attended at Mercyhurst College — was cut for 2009/2010. That means there was no PGSA in 2009 or 2010. Maybe there will never be another one? How devastating. And how sad that I took it for granted that this program would continue even through the economic downturn.

Here’s a little something about this bad news from a former PGSA student. Here’s an article about just how powerful and meaningful these schools can be for students. And here is a video I found of the (former) PGSA director, Doug Woods, dancing with Afrika Yetu.

Photo: jwinfred


3 responses to You Can’t Win If You Don’t Enter

  • margosita says:

    I love this advice. It’s practical and true. It’s easy to despair a bit and see the talent in everyone around us and much harder to see ourselves as deserving. Even when we really want to be deserving, which is cruel irony.

    Also, excellent photo choice!

  • lisahgolden says:

    That is such a great rule of thumb for every aspect of life. How many times do we take ourselves out of the race because we’re sure we don’t have a chance to win. More times than I care to admit.

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