Contest Loser?

For writers, but also people:

Every year nearby Mt. San Antonio College hosts a Writers Weekend conference.  It features workshops with professionals, and you can pre-send a piece of your work for one of them to critique.  I’ve gone the last 3-4 years and have been very impressed with the quality of the workshops and feedback.

This year there was something new:  a writing contest that would commence on the first day (Friday) with instructions, and then end on the last day (Sunday) after contestants had made their submissions, the entries were judged, and the awards were bestowed.

The instructions provided on Friday outlined two simple parameters:  the piece had to be under 1000 words, and it had to reference a mask in the text.  It could be all about a mask, or it could simply mention a mask.  It could be a literal mask (e.g., Halloween), or it could be a figurative mask (e.g., hiding our feelings from others).  I didn’t expect to win, but I knew I wanted to enter; in fact, I made it a personal goal to at least submit.

For some reason I decided to work on a poem I wrote years ago.  I saw that the topic (a relationship that had gone sour) offered an opportunity to include a mask (in this case the figurative masks worn by a new couple).  I thought it would be relatively easy: cut a few unnecessary lines, strengthen a couple metaphors, read out loud a few times to evaluate the poem’s cadence.  Instead, I was reminded of why I don’t write much poetry anymore:  it’s hard!  That led me to a martini.  Then another martini.  Then to my bed, but no problem – I still had Saturday night after the workshops, right?

I worked on that damn poem all the next evening – without resorting to any martinis – and by the end of the night I decided, ‘This poem needs major surgery, which I can’t do in a few hours.’  I gave up on the poem (for now).  I was feeling frustrated about the contest, or more accurately, about my ability to have something ready.  But it was my goal!  So I decided, no worries –  in the morning (Sunday – the due date) I would review some of my favorite blog posts and submit one as an essay.

The deadline to turn in my piece was 10:30.   At 7:00 I made coffee and began reviewing my blog.  Soon I found a post that really lent itself to the insertion of a mask (again, the figurative relationship variety).  I had to cut lines to bring it under 1000 words.  I printed it out and got ready to leave. The minutes ticked by.  Uh oh, suddenly I had no time to spare.  Then I just hoped I’d make it!

I backed the car out of the garage (remembering to open the garage door first).  Driving down the freeway (a little too fast, but carefully), I decided that I had done my best, and I should just relax and enjoy the day, come what may.

Until it hit me:  I had printed out the wrong version of the essay.  The second version in which I had shortened the word count but had not yet added anything about a mask.  My essay had no mask.  This automatically disqualified me.

Sadly, I must admit that the word “loser!”  kept repeating itself in my brain as I maneuvered through traffic, off the exit, and to the parking lot.  I was mad at myself because I’d made one goal for the weekend and then sabotaged it.  Jeez, Lynda!  (Figurative face palm.  Wishing I had a mask.)

I glanced at my watch.  Hey, surprise, it was only 10:20.  Was there anything I could do to fix the situation in 10 minutes?  If I had the piece on a flash drive, or if I’d sent it to my email, I could have found a computer and printed out the final essay.  I hadn’t done either.  But then a last-ditch idea came to me:  I could hand-write the line about the mask onto the printed copy.

Sure, it looked unprofessional.  Like something a fifth grader might turn in.  It was painfully obvious that the mask was a literal afterthought.  But did I have anything to lose at this point?  (No; contest “loser” had already lost it all!)  I dug out the essay, wrote the line, and turned it in at 10:29.  I hid it in the middle of the pile so that anyone submitting at 10:30 would not see my childish scrawl.

After a couple of workshops, it was time for the contest awards.  Third Place was announced first.  Maybe, just maybe, I could win third?  No, it went to a story I was not familiar with.  Next was Second Place.  Was there any chance in hell I could win second?  No, it went to a beautifully written essay that I had heard in a workshop.  Well, there’s no way First Place was going to be another essay.  And even if it were, it would not be my half-assed submission.

I must admit I listened with only half an ear (figuratively).  “And First Place goes to ‘Sex Is Not Just About Filling Holes – or Is It?’ by Lynda Smith Hoggan!”  I don’t think I even realized it was me until I heard my name.  Then I flushed bright red and flew out of my seat.  You’d think I had just won a Pulitzer, or maybe a Nobel.

Anyone who writes knows that writing is hard work, lonely and frustrating, with far too few accolades for all those aching fingers and words swarming like bees in the brain.  But what if you’re not a writer?  Maybe you’ve gained a little appreciation for what someone goes through to prepare even a small article, story or poem for you.  The bigger message is that even a Loser can turn out to be a Winner.  But only if you enter the arena, try your best, and don’t give up.

swarm of bees

Illustration by ‘Ms. Art Lady’ Sally Taylor

39 thoughts on “Contest Loser?

    • I often stress myself out over writing assignments by waiting until the night before the due date to get started. Consequently, it results in overlooking important details of the assignment and writing a half ass paper that I know could have been much better had I gave myself more time to work on it. In order to relax from the anxiety of turning in a crappy paper I think about how I did what I could at the moment and it was better than nothing at all.


      • I hear you! Of course, one might say that if you had started earlier, you wouldn’t be anxious about having done a bad job, and you could relax knowing that you did a good job. We all have to find our balance.


  1. I once aspired to be an author, I haven’t given up on it completely but it’s on the back burner for now. I cannot even imagine the nerve wracking wait that comes after submitting one’s work for approval. That must have been so satisfying, just to know that not giving up and trying your best really can pay off. I think I’ll chack out that blog post now.


    • Don’t give up your dream! And don’t wait till “someday” (like I did). You can be writing now, even if it’s a little journal entry or story notes here and there. Taking a writing class can be great inspiration (recommended here: the great Professor Brantingham). Honestly, you get used to the nerves and rejection. And then a little encouragement like that award goes a looong way!


  2. I really enjoyed this! I remember when I entered a writing contest a few years ago how hard it was for me to think of something I even thought to be remotely mediocre. I kept putting it off until the very last minute. Even after turning it in, I wasn’t really happy with it at all. I ended up winning third place, and then moved on to the next round to win first, and then in the final stage I just got a participation medal. It’s so interesting to see how much we can get into our own heads and fill them with doubt. We really can be our own worst critics sometimes.


  3. How exciting! That sounds very worth all the efforts you made! Even if I were to have been in the same situation, I don’t think I would have ever used the word loser. Reading this made me feel sad that you would call yourself that and or really believe it. I think it takes a lot more than a simple mistake to be a loser! Anyway Congratulations! What a wonderful accomplishment and reward! As a writer myself, I do understand the art and appreciation one may conceive for writing, and I’m sure it was an awesome feeling!


    • Thank you for the kind words! Actually I was exaggerating a bit (for dramatic effect 🙂 ) by using the word loser. It’s more the way I felt at the moment rather than an overall indictment of myself. Good luck with your writing!


  4. When I was younger I really enjoyed writing, that kinda went away because I became discouraged I thought I wasn’t good enough. I guess there’s still hope and it’s never too late :). Thanks Lynda.


  5. This was a very motivational blog! My first year in college I got put into a 1A class and man we had a lot of essays…..just from previous years with English classes I knew that I was not a good writer at all! But I really do applaud actual writers for their work because every time I had gotten even as little as just a paragraph that my professor edited, it would still come back with lots of improvement with just a couple sentences. But through everything even though I still did every essay on time even with my errors I was also rewarded with an A…so I guess we can both say we were very shocked lol


  6. The message in this blog is so true. You will never be able to succeed at something if you don’t give it a try. This reminds me of my senior year in high school when I was applying to scholarships. I only applied because my counselor pushed me to but I thought, “I’m never going to win this. There are so many better teens out there that deserve the award over me.” If I never tried applying for them I would have never realized that I was an amazing student and that I needed to believe in myself.


  7. Thank you for sharing the story. I wish I could write like you. I have always told myself to try my best because when I lose, I don’t want to regret for not trying hard enough. Thank you for your amazing point of view: “even a Loser can turn out to be a Winner.” I guess the best thing in life are un expected.


  8. Any contest is nerve wrecking because of the competition. I love how you are just you. I remember in grade school my teacher put one of my essays in the school’s newspaper. I was embarrassed then now I see why she put it. I had just expressed my self so freely that it made sense. Kepp us inspired 🙂


  9. I couldn’t stop reading your story until I knew what happened. I think everyone can relate to your story. Sometimes one tries so hard to finish something , then might give up or at least feel like giving up, then realize how much they want it and do whatever it takes to accomplish it. Your story gives a good lesson about being rewarded for not giving up.


  10. This article spoke to me as a writer. I know the demons of self-criticism and writers block all too well. I agree that writing is difficult (especially poetry). It’s good that you went with your strength of blog writing. It clearly paid off. Congratulations! Was there a prize for winning the contest?


  11. Hello Lynda!
    This is great to hear that you won first place! Not just is about the first place award but the fact the you went out and did your best for that award and yes you may not have turned in the original you had been creating but you turned in another one that did not mention the mask but you still wrote it in after and it shows that you are a great writer and not a loser, but always a winner!


  12. Great story and fun read! I could really relate to this feeling, but with submitting essays. Where I felt the need for it to be perfect and just not being able to produce to my high standards. Im glad you won an award because its well deserved from all writings you produce!


  13. I enjoyed reading this. I feel this can relate to me outside of class. I am a student athlete and its hard being able to balance school and my sport at times. there were times I thought Id wouldnt make due to either lack of performance or even doing bad in class but I always tell myself to keep pushing and now Im one step closer to earning my scholarship from the University of Illinois.


  14. I also tend to overthink and start criticizing myself and work in times such as this. I used to write poems and small stories since I was in elementary, but stopped since I thought I didn’t compare. However, you were able to look past that and give it everything you got. Truly amazing!


  15. I think we all tend to get stressed and think of every little thing we did wrong or maybe not to the best of our abilities but we need to learn to push these thoughts away. You prepared and it paid of so good for you.


  16. Such an awesome success story Lynda! I struggle with creative writing and getting my thoughts onto paper. This year I faced the task of having to write a personal statement essay for physician assistant programs. Thankfully, I was able to meet a helpful friend in one of my courses just before the quarantine began and what a blessing it was! She helped me get my thoughts organized and expressed how they were intended to. Writing is tough but what a great feeling it is when a well written essay or article is achieved.


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