February 8, 2010

Ride It Like a Good Horse

Yesterday, as I was chopping carrots and making pie dough for chicken pot pit, I listened to an old episode of This American Life. I love this show because, first, it’s endlessly fascinating and, second, it’s about real life yet is shaped into a satisfying story. This is something that I’m always thinking about: how to take the raw material of existence and, using words, shape it into a coherent and unified whole. Ira Glass has deep insight into storytelling here, here, here, and here.

The episode I listened to was #398 about long shots or, from the site, “stories of people betting on something with very bad odds, mostly because they have no other choice.” The prologue was about a high school football team in Utah who has not won a game in two seasons and won only two games the season before that. In fact, the other kids in their high school make fun of them. The prologue ends with reference to last year’s Kentucky Derby winner and the huge underdog Mind that Bird (50:1 odds) who came from way behind to win. The second piece is about a model prisoner who had a life sentence in California who, after many times, finally was deemed fit by the parole board, yet his parole still had to pass Governer Arnold Schwartzenegger. The final piece was by the amazing Wells Tower about his father and his father’s house.

In the piece about the football team, the interviewer asked the coach how he does it. Why doesn’t he just set the goal of, say, a couple of touchdowns. Or good defense. The coach said, no way. You can’t do that to them. No matter how many times they’ve lost, you still got to believe that you can win and act like it. You’ve got to make the kids believe that they can win. You’ve still got to go out there every game and play and do your best. You have to decide that you are the long shot.

As I listened to the language he was using ~ keep putting it out there, believe in yourself, long odds, despite what’s happened in the past ~ it struck me. That is exactly what it’s like to be a writer and be submitting for litmags and contests and agents and editors. There’s such incredible competition and such long odds. Each time you send something out, you have to believe that you have what it takes, that this time you’ll get that acceptance.

At the Kentucky Derby, when they asked the jockey how he did it, how he got Mind that Bird to win, he said, “I rode him like a good horse.”

We are, as writers, all long shots, and we have to ride it like a good horse.

What I’m Reading Today: Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming. I am totally blown away. I’ve always admired her work, but this, oh this ~ such a delicate touch, so much depth but so much light too. Alyson, this is my love letter to you.

PS Over the weekend, the Georgetown Review finally made it official, so I can announce it here: I’m runner-up in their 2010 Contest with my short story “Wanting”! It will come out in their next issue. Thank you so much, Georgetown Review! And, this morning, I got a very nice rejection on a partial of the novel.

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