Not Winning Isn't Losing

I don't agree with competition in the arts. It is there, I know, it's a crucial part of our human interactions. I agree that the more talented or skilled person should be chosen when someone needs to make a choice among artists for a specific project. Similarly, it's important to discern among paintings or dress designs or songs as a way to understand what is skill and what is "art," the thing that speaks to each of us individually. But it's all out of hand. I don't like the way so many Americans are used to sitting in front of their TVs to join in the critiquing of singers, particularly. People have become far too concerned about which singer is "better," and we forget to enjoy and admire that any of us can sing at all.

It gets more complicated for me and the rest of the working artists in the world. We may not be competing on a TV show, but we are competing. As a songwriter I must compete for attention from the "industry," and at the same time I know I have to maintain my respect and appreciation for other artists and their unique gifts. If I don't, I will find myself in a bubble: hemmed in by my own arrogance and insecurities so that I can't understand what isn't perfect about my own work, and can't see the good in anyone else's.

I made a conscious decision about a year ago that I would, for the first time, attempt some "marketable" songwriting. This is complicated because I need to figure out how to please the people who produce music, and not just write what I think is good. So far I have written about five songs that could roughly be described as "country" and I have played a few for respectful listeners at songwriters' association meetings. I thought the songs would seem false to me if I wrote them to be marketable, but it turns out I like country music and I like writing in that style. It suits me.

But if I am to follow through with trying to market these songs, I have to submit myself to more competition and more judgment from all kinds of people. There is so much about this to be afraid of, and I have been very afraid. It has gone well, though. One thing I feared was that feedback from others would come out of left field - that if someone didn't like or understand something I wrote, I would not understand why, or I would disagree with them. But that didn't happen. Many times I have agreed that something in the song felt wrong, and when others pointed out problems with a line or an idea, I found myself agreeing and feeling relieved that I could get more clarity about what needs fixing.

So... I sent some songs to the Smoky Mountains Songwriters' Festival competition. It was hard. Recording them was hard, letting the recordings be finished because there was a deadline was hard, worrying about how I would feel when the results came out was hard. I agonized all weekend while waiting for the results to come out, and I think it was good for me. I forced myself to remember that a "marketable" song is not the same as a "good" song, and that I can always decide if I want to write one without the other. I also had to work to remember that my projects do not define me, and if my projects are not received with high praise from this world, I am still loved and acceptable.

I knew that "winning" a contest would make networking easier. I'd have the nerve to talk to people who can advise me, and my projects might be heard by people who might want to use them or work with me somehow. But I also knew that "winning" would be a dangerous thing for me. I could so easily start believing that I am better, more talented, more deserving, whatever, because a small group of self-appointed judges decided my song was a "winner." My song, and therefore, me.

It is so easy to believe that, because five of my songs did not receive any recognition, that those songs are bad. That they are not just unchosen, but "losers," and that I am a loser too. I prayed and thought and tried hard not to go there. Unfortunately I have had too much practice thinking derogatory thoughts about my own work, and this shows up in how often I think derogatory thoughts about others' work. That old thing about pointing a finger at someone else means you have four fingers pointing back to yourself is so true for me.

Anyway, five of my songs weren't recognized (that's my alternate phrasing so that I can avoid saying "won" or "lost.") But, much to my surprise, the sixth one was. I was writing a brand new lyric when the contest deadline rolled around, and I thought it was looking good, but it wasn't going to be done in time. Then they extended the deadline, so I noticed there was a "lyrics only" category, so I worked hard on the lyric, and turned it in.

Obviously I am delighted and overjoyed and humbled and grateful. But I am also wary. It's easy to avoid "winning/losing" ideas from the outside, but now the temptation of accepting them is here. I hope to get a lot out of the festival. I have the nerve to go to workshops and share my work more than I would have, and I have tons of learning to do. But I am hoping my nametag will say "Finalist" and I know I will have some undeserved swagger if it does. As a "finalist," I will end up either a "winner" or a "runner-up," and God help me if not "winning" the whole category ends up being a disappointment. This is my first contest. I deserve nothing.

I have learned, and I love to say, that I can't ignore my bad reviews unless I also ignore my good ones. Success is more complicated, and can be more destructive, than failure. I love to say this stuff. Now I get to live it, and try not to become a total hypocrite in the process.


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