Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Lengthy Sentence Contest ~ What This Judge Is Learning from the Courageous Entrants

I have never initiated a contest before now. I have thought, actually, that I don't like contests, pitting entrants against one another, creating losers in the act of creating winners. Yet I turn out to be glad that I initiated a contest, because I am learning so much from the writers who entered it.

The premise of the contest was to write in lengthy sentences--not the short, to-the-point, Hemingwayesque bullets of prose that have come to stand in as the prose standard, but sentences long enough to breathe in, long enough to give evidence of the length of the writer's breath in writing.

There were 12 responses. Not a huge response, but heartfelt in each case. Twelve courageous people took my challenge to heart, and wrote about things close to theirs. I came into the "judging" (oh, what an unusual place to be: a judge who isn't internal and about to pounce) with the idea that I would simply give each entrant a prize (there are prizes), categorizing each entry with its own captioned domain. I liked the egalitarianism of the idea: everybody wins, nobody loses.

But in the actual act of reading the entries, I saw that I could not apply this top-down notion. I was grateful to each and every person who had taken the time to take my suggestion seriously, and had had the courage, perhaps hope, to send it in. Yet I could not simply label each entry and award a prize, for some clearly sang at length, and others could not find their way into that inner singing-place.

As a writer, I've certainly been in both places: the long song, and the knocking on the outside trying to get inside. Perhaps that could be one definition of "deep writing": finding your way into the long song hidden in the breath. So I feel sympathy for the entrants who did not find their way in. Even if I can't award a prize, I want to acknowledge how human it is to have something to say--something heartfelt, sincere, cared about--and not be able to get past the perimeter of the telling. Where you are still telling your own story, but not the reader's.

What is the alchemy that allows you to talk about the perceptions and experiences of the "I" that is the "I" of the writing ("I felt... I knew.... I went.... I saw....") and yet become the reader's own "I"?  That makes a reader grateful, rather than tolerant or bored, that you have made the effort to articulate what is in your "I"? There must be some depth that must be gone to--not necessarily a dark, abyss-like depth (though, sometimes), but a deeper-than-surface contact with what's inside and being written about; and that contact evoked, rather than kept close to the chest of idea-words and -thoughts, so that what lives in your "I" lives in the reader's "I" as well.

I certainly had not expected, in becoming a judge of the contest I devised, to learn so much from the people who sent writing in. I always thought of judges as busy, professional, fast-paced people, making decisions based on some set of arbitrary rules as to who was best, who worst. But you can't really tell what it's like until you're there, can you? I was quite moved by some of the entries--not only the content, but the breath inside, the breadth of feeling, the impressions in memory that rise up to mark and illustrate a longer-breathed moment in writing.

Lengthy sentences seem to work to bring me as reader into the writer's own "I" and make it my own, when the writer stops and quiets down long enough to walk through the writing slowly, rather than skim the surface or prove anything at all. When this happens, the length of their breath triggers a lengthier breath in me, and then I am reading their writing from that deeper, quieter, slower place. Gratitude pervades me: this place was where I was trying to get to, all along.

Deep writing is not always lengthy or slow; but when it is, and when you can feel it inside your own body, your own thoughts quieting down to receive what is there, then you and the writer are one in that moment. You and yourself are one. So writing can help you get to that place under the noise, that place under the separations; and as soon as you are there, whether as writer or as reader, you know where you are, and there is no place else to be.

Stay tuned for the results of the "Lengthy Sentence" contest--here, on my Writing from the Deeper Self newsletter, and on Creativity Portal. May long breaths sustain and bless you.