Thursday, July 2, 2015

On young writers and early competition

Beth Kephart blogged about the pressure of young writers' competitions, referring in turn to an article in the Atlantic, "Behind the Scenes of Teenage Writing Competitions."

I read these with interest. One reason is that when I was a young writer myself, I earned a prize in the Scholastic Writing Awards, which are discussed in the Atlantic piece. But I had to laugh, reading these lines from the article: "Writers are invited to collect their awards at a special ceremony at Carnegie Hall in early June, and certain submissions, such as senior portfolios, can each win as much as $10,000 in scholarship cash. Either way, medals can translate into invitations to attend choice summer camps and colleges."

I did not go to Carnegie Hall, and I did not receive anywhere near $10K. I did not receive any invitations to summer camps and colleges, let alone "choice" ones. I received a sum of money in the low two figures.

Now, my prize was a fourth place, and this also happened way back in Olden Times. Back in the era that the Atlantic describes as, "Previously, just a select few, often identified by AP English teachers, would enter these competitions, as would a handful of secret bedroom scribblers." Obviously, the whole competition scene has mushroomed since then, just as the SATs and college admissions and everything else about being a teen that was high pressure before seems to have become Out-of-Control-Major-Deal-Pressure in the years since.

And so I know where Beth Kephart is coming from when she says, "Let the young be themselves. Their breakthroughs will have more meaning." I agree that there is a danger to people entering the arena of competition during the time when they need to be studying, practicing, and exploring their craft. There is a risk of stunting one's artistic growth, of chasing the ends at the expense of the means, of pushing work that is too raw into the public eye, of pushing one's self into the glare of public critique when one is still learning to trust the inner self over external judgments.

I feel the same way about publishing. It has become so easy--in the practical, technical sense, that is--to self-publish, that at many book festivals now I usually see a table or two with an author who is still a minor selling his or her own books. Whenever I see that, part of me cheers for the young writer, admires the guts it takes to finish and publish and promote a book. Part of me loves to see any person chase a dream at any age. But part of me wants to fold a protective cloak around the young author and say, "Maybe wait? Publishing can be so brutal, and writing takes such patience to master."

There's no single answer. The award I won while I was still in high school, the story that a magazine published when I was seventeen, gave me huge confidence boosts that I really needed. There was no internet then; I could not find other writers online. I could not find them anywhere. I knew nobody else who was serious about writing, knew nobody else who was published. My early successes gave me hope that my impossible dream of being an author was possible after all, just maybe.

But those early successes were rare glints in a dismal heap of rejection slips. And as good as I thought my work was then, most of it deserved to be rejected. I'm now glad that most of it was never published. I'm very glad I didn't publish a book at a time in my life when a negative review would have crushed me. (My early publications were short stories, which hardly ever get reviewed.) I'm especially glad that stories that now make me cringe didn't make it into the Library of Congress.

There are writers who can handle publication and the big-time spotlight at a young age. There are writers whose work is mature while they are still in their teens. I have met some of them. They are so much better-adjusted than I ever was. I can't say that teens shouldn't grab for that brass ring; it's really an individual decision. But it's just something to think about, something to consider: the chance at the brass ring comes with all sorts of costs, many of them not immediately apparent.

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