It was such a thrill! And yet, I feel like there is more to the story that I should share.
I had been sitting on this story for years. I knew in my mind how it was supposed to feel, how it was supposed to end, but the several times I'd tried to put the structure together with the actual story were flat failures. So I'd set it aside again until it niggled at me and I picked it up.
I still had to edit and polish the words now, but I had them on the screen. It was such a relief. I worked furiously and eventually had it where I wanted it to be (or at least as much as I could bring it to--I've already discovered things I would rewrite if I could, but such is life).
As I sat and stared at it on my screen, I realized I could not bring myself to let even my husband read it. I always let him read my stuff, even the horrible junk, but I just couldn't. It terrified me. It was somehow far more personal than a lot of the actually autobiographical pieces I had written.
To address a question that arose when I accidentally called it "loosely autobiographical," here are some of the actual facts:
It's more like "inspired by true events." Which is to say that a couple of the specific moments discussed in the story did actually happen to me, I did have a complicated relationship with my mom (who died four months before I married, not a year), and I have felt many of the sentiments involved. I did once overhear someone say that Mom had too many kids and it threw her hormones out of whack (as the seventh child of seven, I took that to mean it was my fault that she was a little broken). I do have fond, sweet, cherished memories of Mom helping me study for a spelling bee, as well as memories of her teaching me every craft under the sun and being a woman who loved to create beauty. I called my brother, whom she was living with at that point, the morning that she died--but I didn't think to talk to her.
And I do have moments where I worry that I am somehow irreparably broken, that I will pass on too much of my mother's soul's DNA.
On the other hand, my oldest child is only nine. There is time for us both to grow up, and I hope that when the day comes, I have a snappier, peppier sort of a pep talk. Also, Mom didn't miss my graduation or other important events. She was there. She was both, in some ways, a better mom and a worse mom than the one I imagined in "Forty Years."
That's fiction--it takes the real and bends it. The mother in my story is not at all my mother, even though in some ways she is. So for some inexplicable reason, the blend of fiction and autobiography was too tender--like prodding at a wound--for me to show my husband, Brice.
And yet I submitted it to the contest. Because life is weird that way, and sometimes it's easier to share with complete strangers than with those closest to you. Plus, I didn't really think it would make it.
Then when it became a finalist, I was so excited! Until I realized that people I knew would be reading it. Worst of all, my siblings and my husband would read it! (It didn't occur to me until much later that actually the very worst of all would be that my nine-year-old would want to read it, as she wants to read everything.)
Still, I overcame that fear, and I advertised it among family and friends, and I tried not to think about how it would feel to have them read it, and I tried to pretend it was totally fine. I even encouraged them to vote--virtuously (and honestly!) asking them to vote how they really felt, even if it wasn't for me.
Which brings us to the moment that I discovered I took first place. Hooray! Callooh callay even! And then, with a sinking feeling, what if I didn't really deserve to win? What if I just got so many people to vote for me that I tipped the scales? I spent the rest of the morning feeling sick, wanting to celebrate but thinking I shouldn't. Because I probably didn't really earn it fair and square.
And the thing is, I'll never know. No matter how many of my friends and family come out of the woodwork and tell me it was great, yada yada, I'll just never know. And even if I did know for sure, it wouldn't change that feeling. That's part of the story. It can't be changed by external adulation (which is still fun and nice, of course). It can only be changed on the inside.
And there, I think, I will fall back to "Forty Years." I do think that sometimes we are just wandering in the wilderness, trying to figure things out, but I hope that idea is not bleak. The wilderness can be pretty gorgeous and amazing and full of wonder. But it's not the destination.
In the meantime, I'll keep writing and hopefully getting better and hopefully even occasionally feeling like I wrote something pretty wonderful.
Plus, I'll spend my prize money on books. Which always helps.