Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan


A writer gets encouraging news

It took six months for the results of the writing contest to arrive in the mail. With trembling hands — as we say in bad fiction — I opened the envelope from the organizers of the San Francisco Writers Conference. There it was! Seven of us had been named as finalists in the memoir category, and my name was at the top of the list! I was the First Place nonfiction winner. An excerpt from my memoir had won.

Drawing by Leslie Quenichet

I’d been working on that book about my life in Arizona for three years, typing away in  my little office and yearning for recognition. This prize would mean I’d present my work to an audience, reading my words in a public setting. I loved the idea! I liked to be in the spotlight. As a kid, I longed to be a movie star like Katharine Hepburn. How hard could it be to do a public reading? Put pretty clothes on me and let me strut my stuff! Here was an opportunity to stand before a sophisticated assemblage and read from my own writing.

I’d written this Arizona memoir about my rocky marriage and my choice to lead a small congregation as a Protestant minister in the tiny area known as Dewey. The memoir had originality, funny people, and a unique western setting. Entering that book into a prominent contest at a prestigious conference seemed a way to let me know whether readers would be interested in my Arizona world. It would let me know if I was a real writer who might one day be published. It would be the inspiration I’d need to keep writing. And then, who knows?

Asking friends, and my sister, to read portions of my book was the only way I’d had any feedback on my memoir so far. Who knew whether a retired English teacher could write anything? Maybe I was fooling  myself. I’d hoped this contest would tell me if my book was worthy. I needed to know.

At last I had a supportive announcement from outside my community — from San Francisco, the cosmopolitan City by the Bay. I could imagine that evening. After we winners were presented in front of the entire conference of several hundred, including my sister, I’d stand at the podium and read from my memoir. Writers from around the country would be there, as would literary agents. This win would launch my memoir into publication! I couldn’t keep the news to myself.

I wrote an email to our local writers club and they notified the entire association that my memoir excerpt had won a prize at the San Francisco Writers Conference. The members’ kindly responses to the announcement came in at once. I contacted my sister, who also gave generous remarks of support. I’m not shy about sharing. I told everyone.

“You’ve made it!” said a gray-haired woman in my singing group.

“I can’t wait to read your memoir,” said my chiropractor.

“You’re the first writer I ever knew in person,” said my hairdresser.

“All that work has paid off,” said my husband.

I was informed the next day in an email that the San Francisco Conference Anthology would include my submission to the contest. That was even more encouragement. The photo of the Golden Gate Bridge to be used on the cover of the collection looked so inspiring; surely the book was an authentic volume of good writing. However, I did notice that the anthology was to be compiled of all the contest entries in 17 days. The publisher would be selling the anthology to us at the conference. Never mind the self-interest there, I decided; I was actually published in a book.

“You’ve made it!” said a gray-haired woman in my singing group.

I spent some time rehearsing my reading. I polished the first page so it read like “silk off a spool,” as Emily said in Our Town. Reading in front of an audience — in San Francisco! — could be daunting, and my memoir selection had to be perfect. I had fun imagining the experience — the audience, the stage, the distinguished judges.

Then I planned my wardrobe for rainy San Francisco. We’d be at a fine old hotel, the Mark Hopkins, and I’d need to wear the sophisticated black of a Nob Hill honoree. This was the perfect opportunity to wear the Ralph Lauren jacket I’d found on sale. Everything seemed to fall into place. I was set for the trip.

Rain did indeed fall, right on my head, bigtime. The day before I left for the conference I had an email telling me that if I’d not been notified of a prize, I was not a winner in the contest. I’d had no notification that I’d won a prize. My name on the top of the list of finalists didn’t indicate the first place winner; it wasn’t second or third place either.

Why hadn’t they said in the letter that “from this list of finalists the winners will be chosen?” Maybe they said that and I missed it. Why hadn’t I read the letter more carefully? Why wasn’t I skeptical of their questionable book promotion? I wish I’d done a lot of things. Among the first that comes to mind is the practice of restraint, a sign of the mature person. In the heat of triumph I’d set aside reason, rearranged reality, and made myself a prizewinner.

I went to the conference with my sister and sat primly when prizes were awarded. Everyone envied my Ralph Lauren jacket.

Elaine’s memoir, Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, was eventually published and won first place in the Great Southwest Literary Contest. Contact her at egjordan34@gmail.com.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.