It’s not the Stella or the Miles Franklin, the Man Booker or the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I have just won my first prize for writing, and I am very proud.
A friend alerted me to the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve Project a few months ago. Launched in August, as part of National Grief and Loss Month, the centre publishes a book of poems and short stories about grief. Any sort of grief. Writers are invited to send in their pieces, and one hundred and twenty are chosen to be included in the anthology.
My story was chosen. But even better than that, I received an email to say that mine was one of twenty that had been chosen to be read out at the launch. I decided to go and hear it. It’s a rare thing for a writer to hear someone else read their work to an audience, and I was interested to experience it.
The twenty stories and poems that were read couldn’t have been more different, but that is hardly surprising, given the range of feelings grief throws up, and the styles of writing and ‘voices’ developed by the authors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the impact that hearing my own story read out loud would have on me.
It was harrowing writing it. It was about a deeply emotional subject, it was read beautifully by a woman who had obviously read it a number of times and was moved my it. But I found myself listening not for the emotion, but for the way the story was constructed, whether it ‘worked’ as a piece.
Was this because I didn’t want to get emotional in a room full of strangers? Or because I knew the content so well, it was time to focus on structure (although I had, of course, done this before I submitted it, it wasn’t just a stream of consciousness dump)? Or was it that in being aware of all the other people around me, I was viewing it as performance, something separate from me? I don’t know. Possibly it was all of these things. I certainly felt emotional, but not in response to the story. It was more about how I might be judged by the other people in the room. Other writers in the room. Instead of grief, I felt anxiety.
After all the pieces had been read, we were invited to stay for the awards. It turned out that the woman who read my story was from the Hunter Institute for Mental Health, and that she had awarded their prize to me! My legs shook as they carried me to the stage to receive my prize, and I wanted to give her a great bug hug, this woman I’d never met before, for liking my work, for deeming it worthy of mention. But I reined myself in and shook her hand, thanked her for reading the work so beautifully, and tottered back to my seat, the proud recipient of a writing prize.
In the foyer afterwards, over drinks and nibbles, several people came up to me and told me that my story had touched them, and congratulated me. I felt like a rock star, and decided that maybe next time, I would try not to get so anxious.
So, thank you, Hunter Writers Centre and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.