“My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” -- Adlai E. Stevenson II
A while back I accidentally noticed one of my books had been an entry in a contest. Some book-of-the-month thing. No, no, I hadn't entered it in the competition, it was just there by default of having been reviewed during that particular month.
My reaction? Nope, not the giddy glee most authors feel, not the rushing off to Facebook it, to ask for votes. My reaction was a cold chill, a sort of panic. Shaky fingers poised over the keyboard to write to the contest site, to BEG for my book to be withdrawn. A please do not enter me in a contest. I don't want to BE in a contest. And my panic wasn't just a fearful one, it was also an angry one.
Remember (if you are as old as me) the infamous Academy Awards ceremony when actor George C. Scott rejected his award for Best Actor? His very public statement on how he felt about the Oscars? THAT was what I almost did.
And don't dare for a minute think I was afraid my work wasn't good enough. I've come far enough along in my writing career to be more confident than that. My talent has a long way to go, sure, but I just try to have more faith in myself and my work.
So why did I panic?
Old memories. Painful memories. One distinct remembrance from childhood that was my introduction into reality. The Valentine Queen contest.
Fifth grade. Mr. Harvey's class.
Valentine's Day was approaching. A truly fun memory from my kidhood. Handmade decorated boxes---complete with glitter, colored hearts, doilies, foil, romance. Painstakingly writing names of classmates on those tiny little Valentines. The big day of the party. Cookies with red and white sprinkles, red punch. Pretty crepe streamers. Beautiful.
Then the announcement came. The class was going to nominate---a popular vote sort of thing---a Valentine's Queen.How cool was that? An unprecedented event! Complete with a crown (I believe it was handmade, cardboard, foil and glitter, but it was a CROWN).
For a kid who'd never, until that time, experienced any sort of popularity contest, the event turned into an awakening.
The day of the party arrived. I wore my best jumper. I remember is so clearly. A beautiful black corduroy jumper with red and white embroidery trim. A white blouse with a high ruffled collar. A Christmas gift from Grandma Vivian who lived in Seattle and always sent pretty outfits to my sister and me from the Spiegel catalog.
Here's the funny part. I felt so pretty, I felt so confident. I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, thought I stood a chance to be voted Valentine Queen. Oh, yes. Even up against the most lovely, outgoing, sparkling gal in the class. Rella, her name was.
Yes, Rella won. And rightly so. It was a vote of popularity. She was popular, she was everything one would imagine a Valentine Queen should be, even for fifth grade.
I shouldn't have been surprised. Looking back, I don't know why I was surprised. Why I was...yes...disappointed. Silly, for sure. But I was genuinely disappointed.
Do you know why it never occurred to me that I stood no chance to be voted most popular in a popularity contest?
Because my mother never, ever told me I was not beautiful. She never clued me in, ever gave me a hint that I wasn't pretty. Oh, no, she never pumped her children up by telling them they were the prettiest, smartest, bestest. She didn't operate like that. But we were who were were and she never once told us that it was not perfect to be just that. Ourselves. In her eyes----without her ever having to say it out loud---I felt that I was A-okay just like I was.
In reality, looking back, I was as close to being homely as one could be. Big nose, awful hair (you remember the 50's short, short, short bangs)? Why, even once someone joked about my baby picture, commenting that I looked like Frank Sinatra. To look like Ol' Blue Eyes is okay...for Frank Sinatra. Not for a three month old infant. I just was...not...pretty. Not as a baby, not as an elementary student, not even in high school.
I see that now, but I never, ever, ever realized it then.
So when the first popularity contest of my young life happened, I was inducted into the world of reality. That people really did rate you. By looks, by personality, by how well you dressed, by many things. Even as children, we start to rate others. We start, so very young, to make life into a contest. Competition.
For that reason, because of that very deep, very primitive, helpless feeling of coming up short in the popularity world, I've been skittish about contests. Of all sorts. Popularity. Talent. Beauty. Most popular this, favorite that.
When I saw my book in this contest, those embedded feelings surfaced. I mentioned to a couple of friends that I wanted to remove my name from the list. And honestly? Yes, I'll be true and admit part of it was fear of being up against much bigger, much more popular authors than myself. I'm not going to lie about that. One thing I am, and that's brutally honest. It scared me to be pitted against popular authors. Here I was, set for rejection. Fifth grade all over again. LOL.
After whining to someone about it all, I was pretty much made to feel like an attention monger, a prima donna. I was reminded that those popular authors were good people, good writers. And shame on me for bellyaching.
Whoa! Wait a minute! In my heart, this is never----ever since Mr. Harvey's class---been about resentment. I don't resent the other authors. I didn't even resent Rella. But what I do resent is being thrown against the Rellas of the world to prove that I'm not...well...a Rella. Because, as petty as I may seem, it is a truth: popularity contests not only prove who is popular, they are monuments---by virtue of voting---to those who are not.
I simply don't like---for myself, and I only speak for myself and my own work---to be thrown into this whirlpool of contests, the best of this, the most popular that.
For me, it's not about the others. It's about me and my private---silly, irrational, surely---fears of coming up short. It isn't right, it isn't grown-up. But it's me.
Being raw and honest again, I'll even admit that I'm just perhaps not emotionally equipped to face the disappointment that comes from competition in contests. I can talk the talk and strut and say it is what it is, that it doesn't bother me. But I am human. And, yes, it does affect me, even though i wished to the gods it didn't. Yes, I have an ego. And, yes, it can get crushed. And it's one thing to crush it on my own by submitting my work to a contest. But to have a proverbial boot hovering over my ego just because my work is out there---in a perpetual competition, simply because it is out there---is terrifying.
And I'm a wimp. I don't have what it takes to not be afraid of comparison.
J. D. Salinger said There is a certain peace in not publishing during his absence from writing toward the end, during his years when it was found he indeed was writing, but not for publication. His situation, his comment, reminded me of those early days when I just wrote for pleasure. For a not-so-social miss like myself, I knew that peace he spoke of. I loved that peace.
Even a close friend of mine commented that she has seen the difference in my passion between my early writing-just-for-me days and my writing-for-publishing days. The days when writing wasn't a job, it was a hobby, a very private solace shared with only a handful. I miss those early days.
I wonder. Could I disappear from the social vortex and just...write? And never, ever be cognizant of the industry around me? Would my work be strong enough to pull the weight for me on its own?
Could I be this recluse writer-woman, this Howard Hughes type lady, who lived happily unaware of her own or anybody else's popularity status? In a mountaintop cabin with my laptop and cat and wind chimes and fresh air and hot tea. And just quietly write beautiful works---how could I not write beautifully in that surrounding?---but nobody ever know anything about me personally? Would my work hold up under such anonymity? Would I really be happy not ever knowing if my work---or me---was popular or not?
Salinger seemed okay with it. He might have been on to something.