To compete or not to compete

Someone recently pointed out to me the bleeding obvious. If you are not in someone’s universe, they cannot see you unless they go to the trouble of purchasing a high-quality telescope and have an urge to actually look for you.

This gem was part of a conversation about why its important for writers to enter competitions even if you have a suspicion they will be an absolute dead-set rank outsider and your entry will be met with a kind but firm lack of interest. There are drawbacks to competitions.  And many of them came into sharp focus for me this week.

Competitions can make you weird-out about deadlines. That may bring out your spirit of procrastination, and your sudden need for a long walk in the park in a far away suburb.
Competitions can feel commercial, and heaven forbid we capital A sensitive Artists be made to feel commercial.
Competitions can involve wet-blanket things like word limits, character limits, creative and technical specifications, themes and a requirement for the work to be something you hadn’t planned.
Competitions are competitive. Really. No kidding. That can be wiggy. Especially if you get short-listed and it’s down to the wire and oh the angst.

I have entered a far few competitions in my time. More than once I have felt like I could have just send my entry to the Department of Dead Letters for all the good it would do. The first-ever “big” competition I went for felt very much like a long shot. Imagine a skinny, freckly kid in a sunburnt outback town, who had never much been further than 150 clicks out of that town, entering a competition for a state Art prize run by a capital newspaper.  Imagine if you will the mutual look of  “oh, hell” between mother and child as this kid’s mother is carefully rolling the preciously slaved-over watercolour to fit into a mailing tube and all we hear is….riiiiiiip, riiiiiip, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrip. 

I will always remember that exchange of looks my mother and I had at that time. There was literally minutes to spare before the Post Office closed.  If we didn’t get this entry into the post today, it wouldn’t make the competition deadline down in the big smoke. We stood outside the Post Office, anxiously working on the hot bonnet of the car, Mum tightly rolling the painting and its mount to fit the mailing tube. We both heard it ripping, we both realised the painting was coming away from its mounting, the sticky tape giving way, rip, rip, rip and we both understood that the entry was not likely to meet the competition requirements because of it. You know what? We said nothing. Neither of us wanted to say it was all for nothing- all that careful planning and agonising I’d done to get the painting finished on time was melting away into this single horrifying moment of sticky tape malfunction. It was just too much to even think about.

We posted it.

We were not hopeful.  But we posted it.  All the way to the capital.  A distant universe.

About a month later, I learnt that I had won first prize. Busted mounting board and everything.

This was a very early lesson I had in just giving it a go.  It remains a source of inspiration in me. Little freckled aliens from other universes sometimes do get a look in. If they are good enough. Strong enough. Persistent enough.

And that last one is the kicker.  You need to keep trying.  Just because you’ve knocked on 76,000 doors that have remained steadfastly closed, it may be door number 76,001 that swings open.

To wit, I had my eyes set on a playwriting competition that closed this week. The theatre company in question is in a very distant universe from me.  I doubt they have heard my name but for in passing.

As of Monday the week before, I had very little idea of what I was going to write.  I just wanted to do it, because I promised myself to consider it at least and see what happened.  The competition requirement was just for the first 20 pages and I felt, you know, that’s do-able. Sure. I’ll just whip that one up. Heh.

But I had nothing. Zip. No idea. I literally had to tell myself, just sit down and write, and trust that it will come. And come it did. By Friday last week, I was a busy story-wrangler with a good plot, some mouthy characters in difficult situations and, as always when this happens, I realised I’d been secretly writing this one in my head for months.

Then I realised something of a disaster—rip!

In my free-ranging flow of writing, I had forgotten to look at the competition judging criteria closely enough to consider exactly what it was they were looking for (read the frikking guidelines, folks, there’s my super-tip of the day).  I had completely missed the discrete fact that the theatre company running this competition has a very small stage. Definitely shouldn’t be wasting anyone’s time by entering with this sprawling big number of a play featuring open cotton fields and motel car parks then. Jeez-louise.

So I stopped writing. I just left it. A couple of days went past. The deadline was looming. Rip, riiiip.

The conversation in my head about what to do went something like this — yes, so what, it’s a small stage. There’s the challenge, surely! Cottonfields in a ten-foot-square space is not a writer-ly problem it’s a design problem! no, it’s such an early draft, it’s under-baked, leave it, my ideas are half-cocked- or are they? Look, I’m reading through these pages I’ve written and, yes, there’s something compelling in it despite it being a little—is it too messy? is this embarrassing? No, it’s ok, it’s ok.  My son chips in sagely with ‘you shouldn’t send it because you should only send your best’, and he’s right, isn’t he—is he? what does that kid know? and when does a play become “one’s best”? I’ve yet to write the final draft of a play that I thought was my “best”. I bickered with myself like this for days over it.

In the end, I just did it.

Even though I could constantly hear the sound of metaphorical sticky tape ripping away from where it should be, rip, rip, rrrrrrip, I finished the required pages as best I could, filled out the forms and emailed it off to the competition bang on deadline.  Off to another universe, perhaps to be lost in the ether.

So which is it?  Was I right to compete with a section of work I wasn’t sure about, that really in my heart of hearts I realise will not likely be their cup of tea, but at least they will be reading my name on the title page and isn’t that better than them not reading my name at all? Should I be more picky with my competitions, and abandoned the task of writing for a competition with such a rushed approach and with a script that isn’t an obvious match for that theatre company’s staging?

For me, the answer is I’m glad I did it. Even if the competition’s panel of judges throw the script over their collective shoulders and wonder why I bothered, that’s not the point.  Deadlines force you to think and think quick. And even if you are thinking too quickly and writing any old dirty sock full of words, you are writing. The idea is to write. Without a keen determination to enter the competition, I wouldn’t have started on this play that I’ve been secretly cooking in my brain for months. The deadline forced me to start. And that’s always the best outcome.

I say let it rip.

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