I have always enjoyed biography, autobiography, and the personal essay, but my study of memoir as a subject is only two years old. It started when I saw a 2007 literary contest announcement in the local newspaper, The Kalamazoo Gazette. The three categories were poetry, short story and memoir. That choice was easy, since my favorite genre, the personal essay, is a form of memoir.
Entering contests was not at a new phenomenon for me either. I identified with both the mother and her writer-daughter in the memoir, The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio. My own mother loved contests and showed me how to send off for free things in the backs of magazines when I was growing up in the 1950’s. Going to the mailbox was fun because a fat envelope might be lurking there. I entered lots of contests and won more than my share of prizes–all with my mother’s encouragement, and sometimes, with her help. A number of my most vivid memories focus on contests; my young imagination was fired by them.
My mother herself was a housewife “prizewinner”–someone who found scant opportunity to exercise her gifts of speaking, writing, acting, and making music as she laundered on Monday, ironed on Tuesday, cleaned on Wednesday, etc. She loved reading stories and telling stories to her five children. She even published a few feature articles and spoke in many churches. She praised the stories and pictures we brought home from school. In addition, she encouraged us to enter newspaper and magazine contests. This eagerness to compete and to create has never left me. The legacy it left in my life is a mixed one. I have “won” many contests–4-H, the Bobst Award, admission to graduate school, grants, scholarships, various jobs, a presidential leadership award, etc. However, it is hard to listen to the still, small voice of the spirit with the roar of the crowd in one’s head. And it is easy to get attached to winning. Like Sylvia Plath, I went into depression at one juncture of my life when I failed to win a fellowship I wanted badly.
At age 60, I am able to turn away from some contests, like nominations for prestigious jobs, even if I might win them. This seems like spiritual progress to me. To make such decisions well, I have to pause, meditate, seek counsel, and interrogate the greatest sources of wisdom I know. If I don’t, I can still be addicted to my own adrenaline.
In the last two years I won memoir writing prizes in the Kalamazoo Gazette contest and also two other honorable mentions, the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference and the Soul-Making Literary Competition in San Francisco. These contests got me started.
I also entered a handful of other contests and did not win!
External recognition can be one of the signposts we look for when asking how to use our precious time and exercise our gifts in the world. But it is not enough. I desire to follow my heart and soul to deeper levels of reflection through reading and writing memoir–even if I never win another contest in my life.