Two sides to every story
Participating as an entrant then as a judge in the Ada Cambridge Biographical Prose Prize, demands different perspectives on each story
As their names are called and the Ada Cambridge Biographical Prose Prize shortlisted writers take to the stage, there’s a mixture of hope and anxiety across their faces. I’m quickly cast back to the times I was among them. I remember the pounding heart, the sweaty hands and the legs that threatened to buckle as we waited for the winner to be announced. When I first entered the competition, a number of friends and family read my story. They thought it was wonderful. Of course they would. I wasn’t so sure. At that stage, I had only started a writing course and was more aware of what I wasn’t doing well than what I was doing well so I was surprised to be shortlisted the first time I entered. Those who thought the story wonderful were convinced that I would run off with the first prize. I didn’t. I think they were more disappointed that I was. It took me years of entering repeatedly, reading the judges’ reports, honing my writing (and a bit of luck) to finally win. But in recent years, I’ve attended the announcement of the prize in my capacity as one of the judges.
As the names of the commended, highly commended, runner-up and winning writers are called, you can fleetingly see disappointment cross the faces of those who don’t make it into those categories. That wave washed over me on many occasions. In that moment, it’s easy for these writers to forget that their stories have already made the first cut from a much broader and wider group of stories, in itself an impressive achievement. The added dimension for writers in a biographical competition, is that our stories are profoundly personal. We are writing about ourselves, our traumas, our life highlights. We are writing about people we love (sometimes, hate). We reveal family secrets, we risk being embarrassed. These writers are deeply courageous. Yet, that makes it more painful when we are left wondering why our story wasn’t considered ‘the best’.
It’s challenging to enter your work in a story competition. Obviously we are invested in our own work and we enter believing that we’ve put in the best work we can. That is generally true. However, when I look back at my commended, highly commended, runner up and winning stories, I can see where they could have been better. And, what you never know as an entrant, is the competition you are up against that particular year nor do you know the tastes of the judges. I once had someone tell me that she never enters competitions because the outcome is too subjective. That’s an odd reason not to enter because let’s face it, any work we produce is always subject to assessment. That’s why in a bookstore someone will buy your book and ignore someone else’s; in the library it might be the reverse. That’s the beauty of having different voices and styles of work available to us.
However, judges of competitions need to look for certain things within that subjectivity. We must look at the quality of the writing, the structure of the piece, the impact of the work as a biographical story, a sense of engagement and the authenticity of the writer’s voice, among other things. By the time the final panel of judges—usually three—get together, we are up for a lively debate. I have not sat in one judges’ meeting where there has been clear agreement from the outset. I’m sure anyone who has been a judge wishes it could be that easy. It’s sometimes a negotiated outcome—some stories may be strong in certain elements and weaker in others. We have to come to our conclusion on the balance of all these considerations. And, frankly it is hard. As judges, we respect and honour that the writers have worked diligently to bring their best work to the competition and that they are sharing deeply personal stories. We are committed to taking the time to come up with the right group of winners for that year. Ultimately, it is a collective but subjective decision.
Once I crossed from winner to judge, I was confronted with the difference in the approaches to the stories on the shortlist. To be honest, I’m not sure which is harder—feeling deflated when your story doesn’t win or knowing that the choices we are making as judges is going to engender that sense of disappointment in so many.
To anyone who has entered the Ada Cambridge Biographical Prose Prize, I would say this: thank you! Regardless of whether your story made the shortlist, was placed or won, you are contributing to the rich body of work that makes up the prize’s anthology collection. You are doing what writers do—putting your work out there. You are giving voice to the important stories in your life. While you stand on that stage, listening nervously and wondering if your name will be called as ‘the’ winner, celebrate your achievements so far. You are a writer. You have a voice and people are listening.
You can visit Lucia Nardo’s site here.