Hello, writers —
Guess what? This is my 75th blog for the PNWA! That’s 322 pages of writing in standard format, in case you’re curious (or in case you were planning to print it all out), approximately the length of my dissertation; I’ve written shorter novels. Greater love hath no woman for an organization. When I reach Blog 100, we shall have to celebrate, perhaps with another contest.
But wait! We have a contest going on right now, and the deadline is NEXT WEEK — December 15 at midnight PST, to be precise. To save you all the trouble of leafing back through earlier postings to get to the rules, I am going to post them again today — handily enough, just before a nice weekend that just BEGS to be spent writing a superlative entry.
I have a holiday goodie to inspire your pen: the winner of this little contest will not only have his or her writing posted here, for all to read, but also on a respected literary fiction website.
Why is this double posting opportunity a particularly nifty prize? Because, dearly beloved, being posted on a third-party website DOES count as publication. You may legitimately use it as a bullet point on your writing resume and boast about it in your query letters — that’s TWO publication credits, and one contest win. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.
Trust me, if your past is shy of credentials, nothing dresses up a query letter like a paragraph citing previous publications. As I explained back in September — how long ago it seems! — agents and editors like to be the second or third person to recognize a writer’s talent, not the first. That’s why contest winners tend to attract droves of agents — someone else has already said, “Gee, this is a writer to watch.” In the publishing world, a contest win shows up like flare against a starless sky.
(Is this the right time to remind you that I landed my fabulous agent, and shortly thereafter my publishing contract, because I won the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for Nonfiction? Is it the right time to remind you that you should start working on YOUR entry for that fantastic venue, so you will be ready for the February entry deadline? No? Well, I’ll keep quiet, then — but since the publishing world is effectively shut down for the rest of the year, this would seem like the ideal time to be polishing up your contest entries, rather than querying… I just mention.)
Before I give you your assignment and deadline, let me share a tender tale of holiday festivity at Harvard. I remember this particular Thanksgiving distinctly, as it was the year that I unwisely agreed to share the festivity with my roommate’s family. Roomie’s father was a chemistry professor of great repute, and he decided that this was the year to determine experimentally just how little heat a turkey could be subjected to and still be served. In my opinion, a microwave oven was not the proper instrument to utilize for this experiment, but who was I to question the march of progress?
The following year, the professor actually won a Nobel Prize, so he must have had good ideas occasionally, but trust me, this was not one of them. When it came my turn to tell the assembled family what I was grateful for, holding hands around the holiday table, I couldn’t help glancing down at the bloody mess on my plate and blurting: “I’m grateful that I grew up in a family of excellent cooks.”
That year, I was taking an introductory Italian class, taught by a fiery European immigrant who dressed every day in fine black leather suits, claimed to be sleeping with several rather prominent 70-year-old economists then engaged in advising the current president, and moved like a panther in heat. She gave us Italian soft porn comic books to improve our vocabularies — which it certainly did! — and regularly bought out all of a particular shade of red hair dye stocked in Cambridge drug stores, so no one else would have precisely her wild shade. She liked to be noticed.
The class adored her.
Our midterm was set on the last day of class before Thanksgiving break, and for the essay section of the test, we were assigned to write a short piece on our family’s usual celebration. On the first day back from break, our teacher came flying into the room, late as usual. She crushed me to her monumental bosom, redolent of expensive leather, a trifle too much Chanel No. 19, and what I could only assume was the lingering affection of a major economist. With a resounding smack upon my startled head, she announced that I had won a bet for her with the other Italian teaching fellows.
In all of the Italian 101 sections combined, there were perhaps a hundred students, all of whom had been given the same midterm essay assignment. Out of those hundred, I had been the only one who had written a short story. Everyone else had written the Italian equivalent of:
“On Thanksgiving, our family eats turkey. My mother cooks it for a long time. I like gravy on my potatoes. At the end of the meal, we eat pie made from pumpkin, a kind of squash.”
Based upon past experience, my teacher had known that I was constitutionally incapable of writing an essay that straightforward. What won her a bottle of Veuve Cliquot was my little story about how my parents tended to invite every non-citizen they knew to our Thanksgiving repast, so my brother and I would end up vainly trying to explain the more nonsensical traditions to guests totally bewildered by them, much to my parents’ amusement. Then, when everyone was good and perplexed, my father would stand ceremoniously, holding the carving knife and fork aloft — and with a single swift stroke, slice the turkey clean through from top to bottom. Gasps galore. My mother, tireless in pursuit of that one awesome moment when a perfectly-stuffed slice of turkey fell onto the plate, as cohesive as though the whole thing were a ham, would spend hours on end boning the bird. One year, a guest fainted, and had to be revived with a rather potent Napa Valley Chardonnay. The following year, my parents made a suckling pig instead, so large that I was convinced for hours that they had cooked our Labrador retriever and hung a garland of cranberries around its neck.
What does this have to do with the contest, you ask? It points up the crying need for some more interesting stories about the holiday dinner table.
Why is it that, in writing about the festivals of our lives, we so seldom dwell upon the DISSIMILARITIES between our widely disparate families’ holiday tables? Oh, I know, there are countless scenes in movies that deal with the Thanksgiving meal: always an intact family, with parents permanently married, always the same beautifully-lit pink and beige foods heaped on the table, and almost always in a multi-story A-frame house, located somewhere in New England where the first light snow of winter wafts gently to the ground. There may be drama going on in the other rooms of the house, but in the dining room (there is always a dining room, even when the family depicted is very poor; at worst, there is the world’s largest kitchen equipped with a dining nook that would easily seat 8 adults comfortably), all is harmony and stuffing.
If I knew Thanksgiving only from movies and TV, I would think that every American was struggling to forge an adult relationship with her adorably graying upper middle class WASP parents (he, square-jawed, clean-shaven, and incapable of showing emotion to his nearest and dearest; she, stuck in some sort of arid 1950s oven cleaner ad where everything in the house remains perpetually clean with no effort) and ne’er-do-well brother/slutty sister/frigid sister played by Julianne Moore in an atmosphere of TREMENDOUS FAMILY SECRETS that everyone has known perfectly well for the last decade or two. And yet Mom (unaided, or perhaps with assistance from the non-slutty sister; extra points if she is played by Hope Davis and is an asexual corporate lawyer), bless her, always manages to get that perfect meal on the table. No one ever chokes on an underdone drumstick, and spices, beyond nutmeg and perhaps a bit of sage, are utterly unknown.
But for the vast majority of Americans, that is not the way this family festival plays out, is it? For starters, New England, as fond as the Puritans may have been of it, is a rather small portion of the country, geographically speaking, and almost none of us are actually descended from the first colonists. Westerners born and bred almost never see a white Thanksgiving (I am quite sure that when we ate suckling pig in California, I was in short sleeves), and Pacific Northwesterners generally go to Grandmother’s house over flat highways marked with grayish drizzle, rather than over the river and through the woods. Unless, of course, it is a period of especially heavy rainfall, in which case we drive our SUVs through flooded streets. Most of our trees are evergreens, so they do not change color at all, and in earthquake country, you don’t see a whole lot of multistory single-family houses, as we don’t like our kith and kin being squashed by falling rubble when the floor starts to shake unmercifully.
And that’s just how different the West Coast experience is on the OUTSIDE.
So here is your challenge, should you care to accept it: write a scene that shows what the holiday table is like in your neck of the woods, and post it via the comments function on this blog (that’s what the copy-and-paste function is for, my friends) before December 15.
Any genre is acceptable (wouldn’t you love a good Christmas murder mystery?), so feel free to submit in play format, if that’s what blows your skirt up. Or as poetry. Or as a short story, novel excerpt, or cookbook entry. What I want to see here is YOUR style of holiday table.
Standard format, please (if you don’t know what that is, do yourself a favor, and read yesterday’s posting), and nothing longer than 10 double-spaced pages. Winners will receive undying glory, an actual readership amongst your peers, and posting on a literary fiction website. Just a little resume candy to stuff your holiday stocking.
Ho, ho, ho. Keep up the good work.
– Anne Mini