The first time I really began to believe that I had a shot as a writer was during my Junior year of high school. I was in Mr. Baumstark's AP Language Arts class, and I was loving it. When I look back at the essays I wrote back then, I'm amazed at just how much I've improved since then, but at the time I thought my writing was awesome, and it probably was for 11th grade.
Anyway, every year the St. Louis Symphony has a writing contest called "Express the Music" for high school students in the St. Louis area. They record themselves playing a piece of music and send it out to the high schools. Then, to participate, students write something, 250 words max, which...well, expresses the music, I guess. It's pretty self-explanatory. It can be anything-a short story, poetry, anything.
And Mr. Baumstark decided that he would make it a mandatory assignment for everyone in the class to participate. I decided to write a poem. As I listened to the music, a story unfolded, and I wrote it out in a simple Quatrain form-you know, abab, cdcd, etcetera. It was a simple poem, really, about a princess who had waited too long for prince charming to come, and decided to take matters into her own hands.
The coolest part about it was that I matched what was going on in the story to the music, if you read it at the right speed. A line of descending notes was her running down the stairs. A pause was her hiding from a guard. Things like that.
Do you have any idea, by the way, how difficult it is to write 250 words or less based on a piece of music? Because I didn't. I wrote the poem, and it took me hours to take out words, one at a time, so it was under 250. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and I had no idea just how useful it would be.
I think a lot of people struggle more with writing enough, at least to begin with. In high school, people would go to crazy lengths to add space to an essay--taking each punctuation mark and making it a larger font size was my favorite. It was really difficult to notice, and added at least half a page. But eventually I got to the point where I always wrote way more than the required length, and most teacher/professors were really psyched about that, until I started taking my upper level major classes. Then, it was more important to make each individual word count than toss out a bucket of words and hope that a meaningful message ended up in there somewhere.
Anyway, I wrote the poem, but at no point did I ever think "Hey, this might actually be good enough to win!" I didn't try to put some deep, meaningful message in there. I just wrote a silly poem, and turned it in. So I was genuinely surprised when I found out that I was one of the 20 finalists in my division. There were actually quite a few people in my class who were finalists, including my best friend. And I thought, "You know what? That's pretty cool. It's awesome to be able to say I was a finalist in the first writing competition I've ever entered."
So I decided to go to the award ceremony, which all the finalists were invited to, where they would be announcing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners. We sat in a group on stage, and I was just enjoying being there, whispering to Sarah, my best friend, about something, I don't remember what. So I wasn't even paying attention when they called my name.
"Second place goes to Noelle Johnson."
I've turned out to be pretty full of myself at this point, and I always think it's crazy when I don't win the writing competitions I submit work to now (I haven't won anything since). But back then, I had no idea. I mean, I got all A's on my papers, so I knew I was a good writer, and I was just beginning to think that I might, eventually, want to write a book or two. But the thought that I might actually place had never even crossed my mind.
I would never even have entered the contest if Mr. Baumstark hadn't made it mandatory. Without that little push, my life might have turned out completely different. So, Mr. B., if you ever happen to read this--thank you.
I won $250 dollars that night, which was a huge boost to my car fund (though the one I ended up buying totaled itself six months later, and I have still, today, never managed to save enough for another-that's a story for another day). But the best thing I won that day was a glimmer of hope. I let myself begin to believe, for the first time, that I might actually be able to make it as a writer.
And, though I haven't quite made it yet, I think I've got a good start.