Thursday, November 3, 2016

Stretching and Winning

Tooting my own horn here:
From the web archives: Stretching and Winning

I’d never won anything in my life – the lottery, a door prize, or even the booby prize. I’ve come close in contests. When I was in graduate school, I won an honorable mention for my poster. The judges enjoyed playing with my removable model of a protein twisting and folding with the help of another protein. How I longed to win.

My days of scientific pursuit are long gone. I exchanged them for children and children’s literature. To stretch my writing this past year [2004], I have been entering the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL) contests. I tried writing a mystery story, but failed because I only had some dead chickens, a couple of dogs and a boy. I had no plot, no motivation; therefore, no story. I’m definitely not a mystery writer. But I tried. In other categories, like picture books and nonfiction, I thought I submitted a good story, but when I read the winning entries, I knew I wasn’t even close. When the sports stories came up, I thought, I am not athletic, never have been and don’t know a thing about sports except how to play with ropes and sticks and stones. But I took the challenge, writing about a game that I played with sticks as a child in India. It placed in the top twenty. [And was published in Fun for Kidz in 2006.] Wow! I was stretching. Getting better. Perhaps I should draw more upon my own experiences.

I bought Writing from Personal Experience by Nancy Davidoff Kelton. It made me examine my own life and draw upon it for emotional truths. I suppose I’ve always done this instinctively – all my stories have some element of truth in them. But I didn’t dig too deep. Too emotional. Too painful at times. But I’m learning that there’s gold deep down. For one of the writing exercises, I wrote about the time I taught my mother to drive. It made me laugh. And cry. I miss my mother, even now, after she’s been gone from this world for twenty years [now 30 :( ].
 

When I saw the ICL contest for contemporary young adult fiction, I knew I could write a story about a girl teaching her mother how to drive. It felt fresh – it’s not the typical teenage experience – the tables were turned. I anchored it in Pullman, WA, where I spent many years, and the details made the story come alive. Perhaps because I was missing my mother so much, the story, which started out funny, took a sharp turn with the mother heading to her grave. I drew upon those memories when I knew my mother would die. I cried when I wrote the first draft. Two Advils later (I always get a headache when I cry), I knew I could shape it into a story that was cohesive. It took me a month to polish and I submitted “Driving Lessons” to the ICL contest, with all my hope.

The day that the Caldecott and the Newbery winners were announced, I got an email as well. Sandy Stiefer was one of the ICL judges. I knew then, that I was in the top five. Why else would she want to talk to me? But imagine my happiness and inflated ego when she told me that I won! I cried again. Quietly and quickly. After all, this was going to be my first time to be interviewed as a writer. Sandy told me that there were over a thousand entries. And my story stood out the very first time she read it! My kids peeled me off the ceiling. I carried this wonderful secret inside me for a few hours. That night, I wrote to my family and friends. I wished and wished that I could talk to my mother. She would’ve been proud of me. I dug deep, stretched a bit more, and won my first writing contest.

I have stories to tell. You do, too.

"Stretching and Winning" was first published in June 2005 issue of Kid Magazine Writers.
 
Update: Oddly enough, Driving Lessons story hasn't sold. There aren't many markets for YA short fiction. But this may become a chapter in a book (it's half baked right now). Too many ideas, not enough time. LOL.

4 comments:

Mirka Breen said...

So glad you re-postd this. Beautiful. Now I want to read your winning story.

Barbara Etlin said...

It's amazing the things you can write about when you think you can't (because of lack of experience or knowledge). One of the articles I'm proudest of was an interview with a basketball coach, when I, as editor, had to fill in for a sick sports writer.

You never know unless you try...

Vijaya said...

Thank you Mirka, and Driving Lessons will see the light of day again.

Barb, that's so true. It's in the trying we discover we can write ... You should be proud!

Evelyn said...

Vijaya, I loved reading your article and would love to read your story. You have a wonderful gift of writing.