Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Monday, February 27, 2012

Trial by Jury, the Jury of the Ontario Arts Council That Is.

Megan Findlay. short story maven and blogger extraordinaire, agreed to be a member of the OAC jury. Easy breezy? I think not.  This account of her experience is from her blog  

Dear Number Seventeen,

If you only knew how close you had come. How many friends you had in that room, and how valiantly they fought for you – and how it was just luck, at that point, which prevented you from placing in the top sixteen. We took our job seriously, we men and women of the Ontario Arts Council jury, purses clenched close to our hearts, stuffed with just enough to money to feed and clothe sixteen promising writers while they laboured over their novels. You fell into seventeenth place; for that reason, and that cruel reason alone, you will starve.

When I agreed to be on the jury, and when all 140 manuscript samples landed on my doorstop (waking up the whole neighborhood), I was glowing inside out with self-righteousness and illusions of great, heaping generosity. My instructions were to read each sample and rank it on a scale of Yes-No-Maybe, as though each were a note from a twelve-year-old boy sitting opposite me in homeroom (a fantasy: I was far more often the author of these notes than the recipient, and as such I empathize with you, Seventeen, all the more). On the appointed date in February, I presented myself at the OAC office in Toronto and was given a sharpened pencil and a seat at the boardroom table, flanked by alphabetized boxes of manuscripts which I could pull out as props whenever appropriate.

Megan Findlay with Milkshake

There were four of us on the jury; we were instant friends, because we had to be. There was no other way with which to greet those who had just survived the same experience as me, spending the last three months speaking to no one, going nowhere, grieving for atrophied muscles, and reading manuscript after manuscript after manuscript until our eyes glowed with radioactive concentration and our skin lost all pigmentation. We nearly collapsed in each other’s arms when we met, relieved that the day had arrived, that lunch would be catered, and that we would soon reach the moment at the centre of our maturing fantasy: the moment in which we would name the sixteen successful writers who would receive a great, big, validating cheque in the mail two weeks later.

But it was not so easy. John Degan, the OAC’s New Literature Officer, presided with kind but firm efficiency. We spent the first hour comparing our rankings. All manuscripts that had received a “No” from each one of us were dropped from the discussion right away, with an astonishing lack of sentimentality. Conversely, those crowned with four unequivocal “Yesses” were already halfway to the bank. The remaining contenders, about half of the original lot (including you, Seventeen), were the focus of several hours of debate. We hauled out our curled, coffee-stained notes, containing scrawled descriptions and impressions of each manuscript, and from these we preached and bargained and harangued each other, fighting for our favourites. All day we whittled the list down to half of its size, then half again, losing much of our earlier bravado as writer after writer fell away from contention. We all thought the same thing: these are our brothers and sisters, thrown to the wolves. These are ourselves. I have been in your place, Seventeen; I have applied for this grant, and have been rejected. And I know how little difference there is between being Seventeen and being One-Hundred-and-Thirty-Nine. Because all of us will have to keep writing in the early morning and late nights, writing around the big, hulking monoliths of our paying jobs, writing without affirmation from one of the few objective agents able to provide it.

I really do understand you, Seventeen. Just last week I hid myself in a staff washroom, pressing the heel of my hand into one eye and then the other, ordering myself – as you no doubt did, perhaps even as you stood, like me, next to a scene of septic revulsion masked by Hawaiian-scented disinfecting aerosol – to stop being such a thin-skinned sap. For me, it was this year’s CBC literary awards. I’d made the list two years in a row with pieces coughed up out of almost laughable laziness; it was all weird, dumb luck that got me there. This year, determined to finally put some muscle behind it, I wrote and re-wrote and conferred with my heartier, more established literary peers and re-wrote again. Such was my arrogance that I hardly even considered the possibility of not making the longlist at all. That list, after all, was my country! It was my homeland! And this year I was fortified by illogical confidence, which dictated that the harder I worked on something, the more the universe owed me a reward. I guess I figured that the literary jurists somehow knew what I had foregone in order to place that piece of writing at their feet, and all I had to do was hold out my hands and I would be heaped with praise and money. A despicable quality, I know, but one that has brought me back to my desk when I would rather have been doing almost anything else, and for that, I must preserve it.

It was also the quality, though, that landed both of us in that lonely staff bathroom, trying to shake off a loss that had taken us, arrogantly or not, by complete, bruising surprise. You have just received the same letter I once did: the OAC logo, the polite greeting, and the two words that whistle at you like twin missiles: we regret, we regret, we regret.

That’s the rub: I had forgotten, when I agreed to this assignment, that awarding 16 writers meant rejecting 124 others. It meant rejecting myself all over again.

I regret.

Seventeen: please. Don’t grow sour. Grow stronger instead. Hang out with the Greats, whoever they are in your individual world: the ones whose books made you love writing in the first place. Give yourself freedom to compose long, anxious, self-absorbed letters to those few friends still willing to read them, and end each one with a quote that will see you through to the next submission deadline. Here’s a useful example:

“Let failure be your workshop. See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.”
- Stephen Heighton

[Yes, it stings a little to take such advice from a novelist with a stack of books as tall as a Goodyear tire, but he started out with rejection letters, too. I hope.]

I fought for you, Seventeen. I still fight for you. Because: you are me. We are the same. Let us remember each other as we reassemble our masks of composure and confidence and leave that bathroom. Let us remind each other that every rejection is one agonizing step closer to acceptance.

In a way, we’ve both just made incredible progress.


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