Flashes of Inspiration
With the streetlights scattered sparsely along the streets, as they always are in small towns, and no sun, the darkness surrounded our car like a cocoon. My dad drove me through the snow-covered streets, with only his headlights shining on the white road, and stopped in front of the library. I climbed out, over one of the many snow banks left by a plow, and walked up the few stairs to the library’s entrance. They left the light on in the antechamber so I could see the drop box beyond the glass window. Only about ten children’s books lay in it. I took a deep breath, opened the slot, and slipped in my entries.
My greatest fear at that moment was that the papers bend. That did not happen. So with a chest slowly filling with excitement, I ran back to the warm car.
I can’t say I had always been excited about the writing contest. When my brother, Oliver, first brought home the flier in September, I panicked. No matter what my mom said, I could not do it. Though I had only been writing for six months, I knew I wrote my passion and soul into my book. The last thing I wanted to hear was that my stories were garbage. They were me, and by letting one of them be judged, I would be showing the judges a part of myself that I didn’t think I wanted to reveal yet.
Even if I was good at it, like Oliver said I was, that didn’t mean I was ready for it to be critiqued. After all, only Oliver had read what I wrote. No one else. I could not enter my stories in the library’s writing contest.
I tried to do nothing. If I did nothing, then I would have no plot ideas and thus nothing to enter.
Two days later, I changed my mind. The determination to write came like a sun rising on a northern winter day, incredibly stunning but appearing over a few minutes. I stood in my bedroom doorway and realized that I had at least four ideas for stories. Before Oliver even mentioned the contest, I had none.
I felt the best way to win the contest would be to write something different and unique. With a topic of twentieth-century teen, the obvious setting would be my life currently. I tried to step outside the box, go beyond the twentieth-century that we knew in 2003, and instead view the century as a whole.
After several months of brainstorming and writing, I had four short stories to enter. One I wrote on a whim after playing during a youth event, one involved the dreams of someone in the 2060s, and the last two involved aliens living on Earth, either to study Earth or to colonize it. Luckily, the library allowed multiple submissions so I did not have to decide which story was the best.
I only remember snapshots of those months. That is normal. Most of the time while writing a story, time just passes me by until there’s a click of realization. The clicks I remember clearly, because it’s like I realize two pieces of a puzzle that don’t appear remotely similar can be linked with just one little piece. Those are the moments that make writing exciting. However, the everyday moments of putting words on paper–words that are sometimes cut out completely later on–isn’t usually remembered.
One of those snapshots of realization hit me about two weeks before the end of the contest. The stairs in my house were open enough that I could run up them, jump the last three, roll, and come up in a crouch. I imagined many scenarios when I did that, usually related to some kind of excitement or danger, like the spy TV shows I watched. Yet, when I did it one night in mid December, I saw the scenario more clearly than normal.
I began thinking as her and seeing what happened to her. She was begging him–some ruler–not to fire the missiles. She had lived through the early aftermath of what he wanted to do, and she would do anything to see that it did not happen again. She was begging, crying, pleading, hoping that he would listen to her. The guards aimed guns at her; she shouldn’t have even been there. How did she get in? The man raised one hand, as if he was willing to listen for a moment. For a moment, too, he did. Then he lowered his hand and she died amid the explosion of gunshots.
I wrote her story in about three days. It fit my desires. I wanted something outside of the box and with an ending that no one expected to happen. A teenage girl from around 2067 who is found in a biofrozen state in 2475 fit the former criteria. When she dies in the end because the leaders didn’t mind repeating the past’s mistakes rather than learning from them fit the latter.
I never wrote anything that fast again. Even when I wanted to, it never quite flowed as it did that December. Even the title, The Land He Loved, came easily. Christmas break gave me more time than normal to edit it so it could be ready by New Year’s Eve.
My mistake came in procrastination. I wanted to run my stories through Word’s grammar checker before I submitted them, and that meant sending to another computer. I did not have Word on my mac. Unfortunately, I kept putting off stealing the family computer and doing the grammar check because of the extra effort it would take.
I didn’t start the checks until the last day of the contest. The library called me to inform me that they decided instead of closing at nine, like they normally did, they closed at five because of the holiday. This news came at three in the afternoon. By that time I knew I couldn’t finish in two hours. I made some kind of comment that I might not be ready in two hours. They said it was fine and I should put it in the drop box if I didn’t finish by closing.
By the time I ran all five stories through Word and printed them, it neared six or seven in the evening. My dad drove me to the library that winter day and I slipped them into the box, all five stories in as near perfection as I could make them.
The excitement began to build up on the short drive home. I couldn’t wait to find out if, perhaps, I might have won. I thought I did well in spite of my lack of experience. When I got home, I grabbed the contest rules, plopped in my dining room chair and read them in hopes of finding the date when the contest winners would be announced, only to be doused with cold water.
I met the first two requirements. They had to be stapled with the entry form on the front cover and they needed to be spaced at one and a half spacing. But somehow amid the chaos of finishing, I had missed the line that said that my name and hometown needed to be in the top, right-hand corner of each page. Also, there was a requirement saying the entries had to be returned by closing of the last day of the contest.
I cried the whole night, though I tried to hide it as best as I could. Even while at a New Year’s Eve church service and several hundred people stood singing around me, I silently cried for over an hour before escaping to the crowded bathroom. I couldn’t help myself. After working so hard for the past four months, I had lost. I never even had a chance to win.
I tried to forget the entries after that, though I never told anyone I lost. Even when my sister mentioned the contest in March, I just brushed her aside saying that they probably already finished and I probably didn’t win. It had been over three months after all.
Early May I received a letter from the library. I skimmed it, only to find an invitation to an awards dinner at Pizza Ranch. I tossed it aside and turned back to my computer. I did not want to go to a dinner just to see a bunch of other people receive prizes because I had been stupid enough not to put the name and hometown on my stories.
My dad stood near the door, going through the rest of the mail. “What did your letter say, Abigail?”
I shrugged. “It’s for the award dinner for the writing contest.”
“Did it say anything else important?”
“Oh. Because mine does.”
I flew to him and skimmed the letter. It said something about me placing in the contest.
I was stunned and excited. We drove back to church where my mom was finishing up to tell her, and told the pastor on the way inside. The letter didn’t say what position I had come in, only that I had placed. As it turned out, my dad wasn’t even suppose to tell me that much but since he did, I could not wait to go.
My brain always goes wild with imagination. I should have lost, yet I didn’t. I daydreamed that I did either so wonderful that they decided to overlook my omission and I won first place or I did wonderful but they couldn’t give me first place, because I didn’t follow the rules, so they gave me third. I never considered second for some reason.
The day of the contest I was too nervous to eat much of any dinner. Thankfully, we were a little on the late side for arriving, so we did not have to wait long for the speaker to start. Still, they had to let the speaker speak first, then announce the winners so as to increase the suspense. Worse yet, when they finally announced the winners, they started in the essay category, moved to poetry and then finally to short story, all the while oblivious to the fact that I neared explosion point.
When they finally announced my name as third place winner in short story, I was just happy. After struggling with myself for almost a month about what position I came in, I wasn’t surprised. I expected it.
While they announced the honorable mentions, I looked inside my book to see what story made it in and found it was The Land He Loved. That wasn’t the only story that managed to win however. Three other stories of mine also made it in as honorable mentions, with the only one being the one that I wrote without being outside of the box.
So when I went up to the front for pictures, I was grinning from ear to ear.
As it turned out, I won in part because the contest wasn’t that strict then. Many people forgot their name and hometown. I know because all who forgot had it stamped right where it belonged.
At the very end of the dinner, the library director announced the category for the next contest: summer. Before we left Pizza Ranch, my mind already began thinking of plots to write, anything from summer time in space to a girl named Summer. I could enter this time since I knew I had already won once.
I went on to place in all five of the annual contests during the four years I qualified, winning all positions from honorable mention to first place. It seemed that as I improved in my writing, the contest became harder, putting a page limit on the entries by the last year I could enter. But there’s no saying how I would have looked at writing stories if Oliver didn’t bring home that flier in September and I didn’t have a flash of imagination.