Do you see a door or a wall?
I recently received a letter from a woman living in Virginia. A small yellow butterfly adorned her address label, and delicate blue cursive spelled out my name and address. It took me a few moments to register who this woman was, but, when I did, I tore into the envelope to read what she sent. I’d been hoping to hear from her since February, when I mailed her two sample essays and the obligatory reading fees – an opportunity I’d awaited since October 2010, when I first learned of the essay contest that she chairs: the MFK Fisher Award Contest.
Nervous exhilaration flooded my synapses: my breath rapid, heartbeat pulsing in my ears. There, on the page, was the familiar logo, the organization’s name, and the names of its board of directors. There, printed in no uncertain terms, were the names of those who won. There, in no uncertain terms, wasn’t mine. My idol’s ghost slammed the door in my face.
Doors open, doors close. I’m no stranger to rejection of my writing. Essays that appear on the blog are automatically at a disadvantage, since many publication venues consider them already “published” and are thus uninterested in “reprinting.” I continue to submit to those few venues that will consider my work. I’m okay with making the best of fewer options, and this was one of them… A contest blessed by the Grande Dame herself!
MFK Fisher is a sensualist whose prolific writing on the pleasures of the plate profoundly influenced the world of food writing today. I’ve had a crush on her since I first read The Art of Eating over a decade ago. (I’ve since read it half a dozen times more.) I painstakingly selected the two entries I sent to the contest, intent on honoring her voice, her spirit, and her life’s work. I wanted this. I, the resolute pragmatist, allowed myself to believe this contest might even serve as a gateway. With the rejection letter clasped between my cold fingers, I hated myself for my optimism.
My inner teenager shrieked and mentally threw a bucket of blood red paint on the winners’ cars. My inner grandmother clucked and shook her head, weary of a lifetime of wisdoms. I cried all night – a wretched, inconsolable mess, leaving behind a wake of soggy tissue and useless self-pity. Then I pried my fists from my swollen, bloodshot eyes and forced myself to stop. I wrote the award chairwoman a thank you note; gathered up the sour, limpid remnants of my humble pie; and moved on, jaw set, all the more determined to produce the caliber of writing necessary to place in the next award contest, which occurs in 2014.
My husband and I live and work at a boarding school, so, between our own children and the ever-fluctuating student body, much of our day involves direct interaction with impressionable minds. We model our behavior and actions on those qualities we wish for others to see and learn. It’s a stance I embrace: instructive and inclusive. Many of the students I know have graduated but continue to follow my written work, either on Facebook or directly on the Eater Provocateur blog. How many times have I told them to keep faith in themselves? What would they think if they saw me curled in fetal position and wailing like a toddler on a sleep-deprived tirade? What message am I sending my kids?
I was not born with an honest, easy sense of sportsmanship. I suffer Scrabble poorly. But I am trying. I want them – my children and the students – to be strong, proud, and unafraid of facing frightening challenges, even if they don’t surmount them (though I desperately hope they will). I want them to learn how to quickly recompose themselves after the wind has been knocked from them, and to extend a hand to those who have fallen around them. I want them to be Davids to the Goliaths of life. So I have to be all of those things myself.
Disappointment is a condiment that overwhelms the palate, rendering all things bitter and unsavory. I am not proud of my unprofessional petulance. In my defense, I would like to point out that a year and a half is a really long time. Most contest deadlines range between three and six months; the MFK Award contest occurs every two years. The anticipation kills. Between October 2010 and the contest deadline in April 2012, I’d taken the MFK Fisher award out for many dates and we’d settled into a comfortable relationship. I’d visualized our eventual marriage, our idyllic future. The breakup was devastating.
The official results have not yet been published online, so it would be unethical to disclose the winners’ names. I can say that the winners are cookbook authors, bloggers, chefs, and restaurateurs… even authors of highly regarded memoirs on the New York Times booklist. Most of my competitors operate in much larger social and professional spheres, and have resources like agents, assistants, editors, and publishers. Many have books of their own. I competed against 82 talented female writers, each of us working in our own way to bring back the pleasures of the table and raise culinary awareness.
Now that the sting’s faded, I feel proud that I contended with such strong writers, especially as a newbie lacking in external professional representation. That counts for something. Clearly, we are all deeply passionate about the culinary world, contributors to culture and literature – also important. But defeat is defeat, and disappointment is a key ingredient in humble pie. Other ingredients include hubris, self-doubt, lack of confidence, and a fundamental oblivion to the enormity of the odds at hand. Humble pie pairs well with tequila.
I write notes to myself:
Be kind to Jules… She’s the only one of you that you’ve got!
Ambition is not a dirty word!
I write notes to the students:
It doesn’t hurt to dream big – dreams are free!
Life is short – live each moment!
Never be afraid to show your compassion, intelligence, humor, and talent!
I won’t lie. I thought briefly – again, petulantly – about quitting: ending the blog, giving up on submitting essays to venues. I thought: What’s the point? Why do I even try? I can’t go through this again! Why is it that in a moment of turmoil, my first impulse was to abandon the passion that sustains me? This is my forum for singing my love. Giving up is not an option.
Doors open and doors close. The trick, as ever, is finding the right doors to open at the right time, and never relinquishing hope that they are there to be found.