What Winning Taught Me About Losing
Reluctant winner Agnes Bookbinder shares what happened when she unexpectedly won a writing contest. Spoiler alert: it's not what you'd expect.
Everybody wants to win. To be called a “loser” is an insult. Even though we teach children good sportsmanship when they are young, those lessons get lost as people grow older. I’m not sure why --probably a combination of fear and ego, like everything else that goes wonky in the world. When you tie a person’s sense of who they are and their ability to earn a livelihood to winning, there’s bound to be a little stress involved, and so everybody wants to win.
But I’m not everybody.
Now, I don’t mind winning. I recently got to experience winning a writing competition for the first time (the First Worldwide Flash Fiction Competition) after years of rejections and silence. I appreciate that people took time out of their busy schedules to judge the contest. I appreciate that the story I wrote connected with those judges. I appreciate that it came with a cash prize --they paid me to do something that I love, that I would do and have done for years for free! But there is a part of me that has no idea what to do with the feeling of winning. I knew exactly what to do with the cash prize... but the rest?
I’m more comfortable as a loser. I’ve done it so often, it’s second nature.
I know how to handle disappointment very well. If you want a model for how to manage failure, that’s me. I’m the poster girl for getting rejected, having my sulky moment, and getting back up. I am tenacious. I learn from my mistakes. I can sort out constructive criticism from the other kind. I know when something is personal and when it's not. It has taken me years of “no”, but I have finally developed the thick skin I’ve always coveted. Truth be told, I don’t want to lose it; it was hard won, my acres of scar tissue.
There seems to be a small wound in my armor now, though. That wound is hope. There is a part of every writer that wants not just to combine words in meaningful ways, but to share that meaning and those words with other people. It’s why people publish. It’s why people enter contests. It’s why people blog. Otherwise, we’d all be writing in our diaries and hiding them in our dresser drawers. We writers are communicators by nature --we want to be understood. Winning a contest means that I’m understood, right? And everything I write from here on will be understood by more and more people?
And this is where my battle-scarred loser and hopeful yet reluctant winner meet: Maybe. Maybe not.
In the end, I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I have been doing what I can to improve my writing. I know that I write on a regular basis --in the evenings after work. I know that I have excellent support network of friends and fellow writers who support me whether I win or lose. I know that competitions provide a structure that motivates me to write, regardless of what the outcome is, so I look to them for inspiration. I know that I do not fear failure because, after all, they’re just words, so why not play with them? I know that I can lose very well; I now know that I can also win, although I find it a bit embarrassing.
And I know, beyond all certainty, that I write because I love it. Whether I win or lose competitions doesn’t matter; I have no control over that, other than writing and entering. If I’m doing something I love, surrounded by people I respect, I’ve won in the true sense of what it means to win. And everybody wants to win.
Agnes Bookbinder is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.