Writing from the Heart: MVP

Can there truly be a most valuable poet?


Some years ago, I was one of three judges at the Chilmark library for a children’s poetry contest. There were 40 entries, and after the three of us completed our reading and had made our individual decisions, we met to choose the first ($100), second ($60), and third ($40) winners.

I felt that every poem had something of value. Even if it were one fabulous line, every poem was a winner, as far as I was concerned.

So I proposed we announce, “All of your work was so brilliant, we couldn’t decide, so every one of you is a winner, and you will all receive $5.”

The two other judges, who were both men, were appalled and adamant. “There have to be winners and losers,” they said.

“Why?” I countered.

Because there simply are people more talented than others, and they should be rewarded. And the other ones shouldn’t be lied to.

I almost yelled, You’re willing to tell all these other kids that they’re losers, so they’ll never pick up a pen again?

I fought bitterly, but to no avail. I left, angry at men, all men. When I got home, I complained to my husband. “Testosterone,” I bellowed. “Look what it has done to our creative process, to women, to kids, to the world. That’s why we have war. Right there. Winners and losers!”

I can’t remember his response, but the man is good about letting me rant till my diatribe dissipates into a little gray cloud that floats over my house, while my neighbors just think, Hmm, looks like the possibility of rain.

My son Dan was a terrible athlete, and when he was 8, he got the same trophy in soccer as the best player on the team. I was so happy he got something I never gave a thought to the kid who was really good.

However, over the years I’ve thought about that poetry contest, and my take on competition and prizes and fairness. Was I wrong? Should kids not think they’re great if they aren’t great? Dan probably knew he wasn’t as good as the other kids, certainly not good enough to have gotten a trophy.

My friend Rich told me about how his two teenage kids reacted when they had both lost their tennis matches. Driving home, his son said, “I’m going to beat that kid next time,” and his daughter said, “What am I even doing here?”

Then I wondered, Is it a gender thing? Then again, sports and creativity are horses of totally different colors. In sports, there have to be clear winners. In poetry, not so much.

Decades ago I ended up on a softball team on the Vineyard, and while I was “running” (that’s in quotes because I don’t run; I wobble, I shuffle, I clump, I drag, I schlep) to first base, the coach would yell, “Come on, molasses legs!” And the minute I heard those words, my legs got heavier, and I almost couldn’t move at all. One time when I was on deck, with two guys waiting for our ups, I asked them how they felt when they were insulted by the coach. Almost in unison they said the same thing; “I’ll show the f_____.” I didn’t have the “I’ll show the f_____” gene. If he had encouraged me and said, “I’m watching you get better, and I know how hard this is for you,” I would have killed trying to please him and prove him right.

In my writing workshop, my whole goal is to nurture the voices of EVERYONE. There are no losers in that sacred circle. I have one rule, and that is when someone finishes reading, we tell them what we loved.

That would be the weirdest thing to do on a team: “I love when you ran so beautifully, Nancy. Too bad you were out before you got to first base.”

Thinking about all this now, I suddenly remembered that in ninth grade I won a gold key for journalism. And I turned out to be a writer. What if they had given all the other kids gold keys? I might still be looking for my passion.

Only one person gets the MVP award, but it doesn’t mean all the other players aren’t great, too.

So when it comes to painting, gardening, or woodcarving — a winner? Really?

I still have trouble with giving out awards. Maybe it’s because I’m a mother first and an artist next, and an athlete last; I still have my problems.

But then again, remember those glass bottles of milk where the cream was on top?

Maybe I could get my win-win if people could just let the rest of the milk know it could still be deliciously creamy.