Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Win a Writing Contest: Part I

I won . . . or not.  So, not really, not in the traditional sense.  The truth is that I suck at contests.  The only two contests I've ever--almost--won were years ago.  But keep reading, I think I discovered the key to success!


One of the contests was when I told a Hell of a short story.  I was supposed to stick with the original tale, but I got completely off track and ended up telling a different story.  It went from a boring plot about rice pickers, to an epic adventure of love, lust and greed.  The rice paddies were filled with far more than water; they were filled with passion and adventure!   I'm not sure why, but the judges loved it, and even though I broke the rules, I went to the finals and won.

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The other contest, was a music contest.  It was for a scholarship to a University in Missouri.  A bunch of talented musicians lined up outside of an auditorium.  Everyone looked frazzled and nervous.  One cellist kept tapping his case like he was playing a song.  Another guy hummed softly.  I knew we were all there to be serious, but I couldn't stand the tension.

"So, how in the heck are ya?" I asked the girl next to me.  She wore her Sunday best while I wore torn jeans and a purple tank top.  "You nervous too?" I asked.

"I'm fine," she whispered.  "But I'm trying to hear what's going on in there.  Could you please be quiet?"  She pointed to the door.  We all knew ten judges waited inside.  We'd have to play for them, and the winner would get a full ride.  I knew the rules.  We were supposed to play one of the classical pieces selected for our instrument.  We'd hand them the sheet music and then play the song.  I thought about all that when a flautist opened the door and walked out.

A lady in blue-framed spectacles came after her.  "Elisa Beth?  Elisa Beth S.  Do we have an Elisa Beth S.?"

That's me.  I clutched my sheet music and violin which hadn't been in its case since I got there.  I looked into all of the judges' faces.  They seemed hard and cynical.  A couple appeared a little nicer than death, but the others didn't look nice at all.  I really thought they should loosen up. 

I walked toward them, got ready to hand them my sheet music.  But as I looked into the first judge's eyes, I couldn't do it.  He looked like that bad guy in the Popeye cartoons, just with some carpet for hair.  Maybe he'd been hit as a child.  Maybe his sweetheart had broken his will to laugh.  I suddenly got an idea.  I knew what I should do to help. I've always been so impulsive and I guess there's this huge part of me that wants to make people lean back and smile.

I thought hard.  In my heart, my true gift is creating songs, not regurgitating something that's a hundred years old.

I set the sheet music on the edge of the long table, before I walked to the center of the stage and turned my back on those stuffy people.  As I put my violin up, the light swarmed around me.  I felt strong and brave, like one of those beautiful women on a romance cover.  I smiled at the empty seats and then I played like I owned the place.  I ignored the judges' shocked responses behind me.  One woman whispered about me being the only one who'd turned my back on them.

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Picture taken by: Shear Luck Enterprises

As I played, I forgot about stuffy, carpet-wearing judges and thought about God instead.  I imagined how He could create everything in one breath--assuming He breathes.  I thought about the majesty of our world and the one I hope will come.  I dreamed of an eternity, playing my violin for God.  Wouldn't it be amazing to just play for The Creator?  I can't fathom how awesome that would be.  So, that's what I played, the song I'll play for God someday (and maybe even Zeke).  I just hope I'll be wearing boots, a leather jacket and playing an orange violin because a lot of music is actually in the presentation.

The notes rang high and strong.  I know I killed it because when I turned around, several of the judges stood and clapped.  "Beautiful!" one said.  "You wrote it?  That was amazing!"

I nodded.

"Absolutely stunning!"

"That's beside the point!  You didn't follow the music.  We specifically asked . . . that all contestants follow the classical sheet music," the grumpy carpet man stated.  "You've wasted our time."

"Wouldn't it say far more for your school, that I can read AND write music?" I asked.

"But we don't know that you can read music.  All we know is that you break rules."

"I'd be shocked if we find someone better than her today.  Even if we do, she's shown character and that's what our school really needs.  I'm giving her the best score so far."

"As am I," another judge said.

A few of them agreed, but some of them huddled together and I knew they planned my demise.

I left after that and a few hours later, one of the judges actually delivered my score.  "You would have won," she said, "if you'd played the sheet music like you played your song.  A few of us pulled for you, but Gary . . . well, Gary wouldn't budge."  She handed me the papers.  "He still gave you quite good scores though."

I nodded as I looked at his notes.  He'd written in bright red on top of the paper: Poorly dressed and extremely disrespectful.

Why had I been so impulsive?

"Who won?" I asked.

"A nice kid named Benny.  You were much better though."

I smiled.  Good ol' Benny.  I liked that kid.  So, maybe some of the judges thought I'd won, but I'd still lost the scholarship to a cellist named Benny.  "He was nicely dressed.  Was he respectful too?" I asked.

"Totally lacking in personality."  She smiled.  "You know what, if you ever come check out our school, stop by and see me.  Maybe I can pull some strings.  I'm not making any promises, but I'll see what I can do.  I really like you and so do some of the other judges.  That song was something else, what were you thinking about when you played anyway?"

"I was thinking about Heaven.  About how I might suck as a person, but I'd still like to play for God someday.  Have you ever read that scripture about our good works even being like filthy rags?"

She nodded.

"Yeah, that sucks 'cause if I don't make it into Heaven it would still be cool to play my violin at Heaven's gates.  I'd be like the poor girl, who'd always wanted to be rich."

The lady laughed and smiled.  "Romantic idea.  Why didn't you tell us that story.  That would have gotten to Gary for sure."  She went to leave and then turned around one more time.  "So, if you're still interested in our school, you'll come to see me?"

"You bet cha."  I winked and I never saw that lady again.

Anyway, the first rule to winning a contest is knowing who your judges are.  That's why I decided, if I ever want to win anything, I must think like a judge.  So, a few months ago I judged a contest; I became Judge 14 and learned far more than I expected.  I'll tell you all about that tomorrow.