When a small journal nominated one of my stories in 2013, it was the first nod of anything besides publication. It felt good. It was a story I liked, one I still love, one a lot of people since have told me they loved. It’s the story I’ve tinkered on the least post-publication. One I felt I executed with every ounce of skill and heart I had, harmoniously, and to the max. The editor that nominated it treated it like a teacher would a student they really believed in.
One time, I was looking back on some childhood school photos with someone and they pointed out my penchant for colored socks. Like visible-under-the-hem, bright-ass socks. And it was a moment when you realize that something you did and thought little about or did and loved was incredibly dorky.
It’s like that in writing-as-career too. And I mean career in the blandest sense possible. You get your first piece accepted in some little journal and you’re ecstatic. Until something makes you aware of the hierarchy of journals. Then that little journal doesn’t seem worth mentioning anymore, even though it sure made you feel like a real fucking writer two seconds ago. The harder it is to get picked, the better it must be, right? If other people can have this too, it must be crap.
Somewhere between other writers’ snark (usually white, usually over-educated, and fond of hierarchies) making me aware that thousands of writers get nominated for Pushcarts, I came to the conclusion leaving it on my bio was incredibly dorky. Less than a month ago, I was at a writing conference/workshop where it was a joke in someone’s opening remarks. If you google Pushcart Prize, there are dozens of blog posts pointing out how much of a dork you are for believing your small accolade. I should’ve been embarrassed at leaving such a clear trail of newb-ness.
A fruit vendor’s push cart, Cartagena, Colombia by Joe Ross
One day, the Pushcart nominee thing came up in conversation with a respected and lauded poet and teacher friend who keeps it on his bio along with “bigger” awards. “Everyone and their moms gets one of those,” was what I said. And in that way he has of putting your your shit in perspective with an economy of words (fucking poets!) he said, “My moms didn’t.”
What that did to me was two things. One, it snapped me out of a touch of the comemierdas I contracted from these writers. So because these writers who I deemed more knowledgeable about writing-as-career deemed it meh, I had to deem it meh too? Automatically? Without measuring for myself, against myself?
And Two, who was this “everyone” because he was right. Our moms were not getting Pushcart nominations. They were busy getting visa nominations (or not), work nominations, nominating what bills they could pay, and nominating what was for dinner. To put a finer point on it, as another teacher would later put it, “Herman Melville was not thinking about you when he was writing Moby Dick.” Perhaps thousands of American white writers have been nominated, but how many that look like me and come from where I come from? Your small potatoes can be someone’s whole meal.
That conversation, no longer than a minute or two, was a call to stop measuring myself against rulers not made for me. There’s no such thing as everyone or universal experience. And hey if your moms was getting Pushcart nominations and the like, that’s great, my daughter will be able to say that kind of thing, but I was wrong to hold you up as “everyone” when I knew different.
Now, this is not to say, we shouldn’t aim for larger, higher, more. This is also not to say that as you get more that some things won’t drop off to make room for other things, but dammit you be the one to decide what betterment means to you. You be the one to decide what is important on your bio and reflects your trajectory the best at that moment. I just submitted a piece to a prize and left it in. It’s followed by other things that say something about how I’ve been becoming a writer since that nomination, but it’s in there. And look, tomorrow, six months from now, years from now I could totally decide to drop it, but today it still has significance for me.
I loved those socks. My grandma bought them for me with retirement checks. She matched them to my scrunchies. And even though all my socks are black, white, and gray (like my soul!), I look back at the cheerful ankles of my youth with kindness and affection.
You like the socks? Wear the fucking socks.