Douglas James Troxell
Writing Poetry isn't that Different from Bungee Jumping
Writing is all about taking chances.
Just sitting down to put words on a page is taking a chance. What's going to come out of you? Will it be any good? Will you be dedicated enough to actually finish what you start?
When you let someone else read your work, you're taking a chance. What are they going to say? Will they like it? Hate it? If it's a friend or family member, will it change the way they think about you?
For those writers who seek publication, it's an endless game of taking chances. Is your work good enough? What if the agent/publisher doesn't like it? What if they DO like it? Will the next rejection be the one that shatters your spine?
This past weekend, I attended the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Conference in Bethlehem, PA. It's not that far from where I live so I try to go every year. The conference holds writing contests in three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I try to enter at least one piece each time I go. Even though it's a local conference, I usually don't know anyone there so I can't beg for votes or stuff the ballot box. My work has to be good enough to legitimately win the competitions which are voted on by the conference attendees.
Writing contests are always a little intimidating because you have to believe your work is good enough that people will read it and think it's better than a bunch of other people's work. Sometimes the other people are published authors with actual books and agents and business cards and shit. It's even more intimidating when you can stand next to readers as they're reading (and judging) your work.
Six years ago I won the non-fiction writing contest. That was a risk because I'm not a non-fiction writer. My wife had just suffered a miscarriage and I wrote about it. It was an emotional piece and probably one of the best things I've ever written and I won first place and I totally deserved to. I usually enter the fiction contest (which is what I write) and I've picked up a few second and third place finishes over the years. I finished third this year with the opening of the new novel I'm working on so I was happy about that.
But I also wanted to take a risk this year and do something I had never done before. I entered the poetry competition. I've scanned through my computer files and discovered that I've written six poems in my entire life (not counting poems I wrote for my high school girlfriend when I forgot about Valentine's Day or her birthday or some other gift-giving holiday). Don't ask me why I felt like it was necessary to enter. I guess I just wanted to challenge myself by doing something out of my comfort zone. I am not a poet. I have nothing but respect for poets because I respect anyone who can do something that I, myself, cannot do. When I write poems they are absurd and humorous poems meant to be so over-the-top as to disguise the fact that I am not good at writing poetry.
The best poem I ever wrote was in grad school called "The Hot Girl Who Will Never Have Sex with Me." I read it at a poetry reading and it was ridiculous and awesome. The population at the conference tends to skew a bit older so I went with something more conservative. It was another grad school poem called "The Express Lane." It's a poem about how annoyed I get when someone takes more than 15 items into the express lane at the grocery store.
And you know what? The risk paid off. FIRST PLACE, BAY BAY! Yup, out of more than 20 poems, my ridiculous poem earned the most votes. It certainly was not the best written poem there, but it WAS the most entertaining and the content spoke to people (which is a lesson in itself). I won a certificate and ten dollars to the conference book sale and a goodie bag containing some pens, a scented candle, and a Kit Kat and Kit Kats are delicious so yay me.
The lesson I learned (besides that my poetry is the best poetry of ALL poetry) is that sometimes taking risks pays off. So in that respect, writing poetry is really not all that different from bungee jumping (Now the title makes sense, doesn't it?).
And now that I wrote this, I realize that the only contest I've never won at the conference is the fiction contest...which is what I write. Hmm. Maybe I'm not taking enough risks?