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On Writing, Part II: Contests

July 12, 2011

As a kid, I treasured my subscription to Humpty Dumpty magazine.  (Oops, I meant to call it a “digest”.  It was a digest!)

In the February issue, I devoured a delightful story about a girl who set off to the post office to mail Valentine’s Day cards to her friends.  Only problem was, on her walk over, she kept running into other people who deserved cards too – the crossing guard, the firefighter, etc.  When she got ready to mail her valentines, she discovered she didn’t have any left to send to her friends.  What a predicament!  I’m sure she felt quite sad and, later, very warmed in her heart by the goodness of others.  Okay, I’ll admit I don’t remember how it all shook out.  But I’m certain it taught us young readers a thing or two about the importance of being virtuous.

If only I could write such a clever story, I thought.  So when my teacher charged my second grade class with our next writing assignment, I rewrote the valentines story as my own.   (Outrageous, right?)  Hopefully I was smart enough to change around a detail or two.  Hopefully I wasn’t dumb enough to simply switch out the names or alter the holiday to St. Patrick’s Day.  A kid passing out cards on St. Patrick’s Day.  Yeah, that sounds about right.  Happens all the time. 

Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how your conscience operates, my teacher thought my story was brilliant!  So brilliant that she entered it in a contest.  And I won.  And I was sent to a special writing camp where I got to serve as my school’s official representative.  And I got to meet famous children’s book author, Ivy Ruckman.  Very exciting stuff!

Mom, there's something I need to confess ...

Now if this was an episode of Family Ties, you’d by now expect this had all been one highly elaborate set-up on the part of Mallory’s very wise parents and teacher.  A test to see what she was really made of.  One that allowed her to find for herself the truth that lie in her own heart.

Surely I’ll crack when Mrs. Miles tells me I’d won a writing contest.  If I don’t crack at that point, I’ll confess after attending the writing camp.  When I’m asked to read my award-winning story in front of my writing camp peers, surely I’ll burst into tears.  Or maybe when I meet Ms. Ruckman and she asks me what I want to be when I grow up, I’ll blurt out – I’m a liar!  I stole the whole thing!

But did I break under that 3,000-pound weight of gut-wrenching guilt?  (You remember we’re talking about a second-grader, right?)  Hell no.

What a valuable lesson I learned on plagiarism and how it can pay off in a big way.  What I can’t get my head around is this:  you’d think the selection panel would’ve seen right through a six-year-old writing a story about selflessness.  C’mon, six-year-olds wrote the book on how not to be selfless.


In fifth grade, I entered a contest in a regional TV Guide magazine.  The magazine was named “Happiness”.  Isn’t that adorable?  Television makes us happy.  For God’s sake, happiness might not exist without television.  Let’s name this guide to television-watching, Happiness.  Yes, your guide to happiness!  As in, we’ve got a whole lot of TBS 1960s sitcom reruns of happiness inside here, folks!     

To add to the cuteness, each month featured a contest where you could submit a short essay on what makes you happy.  If they selected your entry, you got to have your essay printed in the magazine!  As if that isn’t happiness right there, you also got ten bucks!  And they mailed it right to your door!  In cold hard cash!  And how could that not make you happy!

I got right to work on my entry.  And Happiness published it under the title of “Animals and Snow”.  So you know right there that it was a phenomenal piece of work.  While the brilliance of my prose was surely undeniable, I’m betting my four-decades-late Shirley Temple coils and gap-toothed smile are what really won over the judges.

Okay, I’m getting a vibe that you don’t believe me about how good this thing was, so I’m going to have to pull it out of The Marcia Archives.  This is taken from the archives file labeled, “Angie, get this damn box out of our basement.”

Thank you, Mom! I take back what I once said about wanting you to bury this thing under a rock.

A long time later after my essay was printed (in what felt like weeks but was likely only days, perhaps minutes), my money had still not arrived.  My impatience festered.  Which soon grew into anger.  Which naturally grew into a fierce sense of injustice!  What, did these jerks think they could rip me off because I’m a kid?  Was I just another flash in the pan writer to them?  Did they even know who they were dealing with?  Just wait until I tell Ivy Ruckman about this.  Yeah, I was not happy.  I would go so far as to say I was the exact opposite of happy.  Ironic, isn’t it?

So I got to work with my paper and pen, just as I did the first time around.  Only this time, I told them what made me unhappy.

Dear Happiness,

Do you want to know what makes me unhappy?  What makes me unhappy is when people are jerks and think they can rip off kids because we’re kids.  What makes me unhappy is when people don’t do what they say they’re going to do, like give someone ten dollars.  What makes me unhappy is I never got my ten dollars.  I will look forward to getting my ten dollars.  I need that money for something important.

Sincerely, Angie Link

Now I’d love to share that letter with you in its printed form, but unfortunately it did not appear in Happiness.  Probably something to do with it not reflecting their signature happiness theme.

About two days after I mailed off my letter (two days in actual time), I received a congratulatory card from the publishers of Happiness.  And ten dollars.  In cash.  (Side note:  Do people other than aging grandparents even mail cash anymore?  What a shame.  As a kid, perhaps nothing felt better than tearing open an envelope of cash.)  A fleeting tinge of darkness lined the pit of my stomach when I realized the card arrived before Happiness could have possibly received my letter.  And the tone of the congratulations note gave no indication that some bratty kid had just taken them to the woodshed.  You can probably guess what happened next.

$10 + $10 = a lot of good crap.

Two weeks later, I received a second letter.  This time, an apology.  And ten dollars in cash.  And you can bet that made me feel good.  I’d even go so far as to say it made me happy.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 5:56 pm

    Oh boy….I never realized what a colorful childhood you had….I do understand about the
    “are you ever going to get your crap out of her”.
    Keep writing…Aunt doris

  2. July 12, 2011 8:32 pm

    And I believe I was living in a vacuum this entire time. Oblivious to the devious con-girl who was my little sis. At least I busted up you and Katie’s secret club under the stairs before that became your hub of organized crime. The ‘I Can’t Stand Pigs’ club, I believe. ;)

    • July 12, 2011 8:59 pm

      What are you talking about??? And how is it that I don’t remember this secret club under the stairs? Seems vaguely familiar. Are you making up the name of it? I better check with Katie on that.

  3. July 13, 2011 4:00 am

    Hmmm…sounds like Tony has a great blog topic!

  4. John permalink
    July 14, 2011 8:42 am

    I must boast that Ivy Ruckman is my Great (or great, great, – not sure) Aunt and I used to have a signed copy of her book. (no idea where that is anymore) However, I never had the pleasure of meeting her. I remember gathering at my grandparent’s house when the book was released for a made for TV movie – that was hugely disappointing. (even for a 5th grader)

  5. July 14, 2011 9:20 am

    Wow, John. So jealous am I.

  6. July 22, 2011 12:26 am

    My Grandma DeBusk will still get about 3 copies of Happiness every time she goes to the grocery store in Bow or Sargent :) Lol!

  7. January 20, 2012 9:56 am

    When I was in college, sometime around the turn of the century, we used to write letters to companies like Campbell’s soup. We would be enraged that we bought a can of soup that had not one piece of chicken in it or something. Campbell’s sent us a case of Chicken Soup…and an apology letter. Your “double-dip not being paid” story made me think of it.

    • January 20, 2012 8:56 pm

      This is hilarious! I hadn’t ever heard of such a thing. I mean, sure, I’ve once called a yogurt company to complain that I kept slicing my finger open on their stupid foil lids…but, wow, “not enough chicken”? Brilliant! Since you said you went to school “around the turn of the century,” perhaps Upton Sinclair helped later bring about more chicken (and less rats) in your Campbell’s soup.

      • January 23, 2012 10:56 am

        Okay, just so you know, I was kidding about the “turn of the century.” It was the seventies. But “The Jungle” was one of the best books I was forced to read in high school. I didn’t eat meat for a long time without thinking about it.

      • January 23, 2012 11:20 am

        Hee-hee, — of course I knew that. Yes, I read that The Jungle caused a lot of people to become vegetarians.

  8. February 4, 2012 10:24 pm

    were we separated at birth? or, wait… maybe you were supposed to go to my folks and me yours? if so–does that make us sort of karmically entwined?

    • February 5, 2012 6:03 pm

      Since you attached this comment to my post about plagiarizing a story and entering a magazine’s short-essay contest, I have to assume you must’ve also plagiarized a story and also won a magazine’s short essay contest. Was yours called Animals and Snow, too? Wow, this is all too weird :)

  9. April 25, 2012 7:00 am

    I remember being really impressed with my brother when he wrote a story in grade 10, about a guy who dies and kinda drifts out of his body and walks around town trying to get people to see him without his body. It was really deep, for a kid who normally limited his reading to the backs of cereal boxes and the occassioal comic. There was a lot of philospohical musings in the story that made me look at him differently. I kept trying to figure out where he kept it all in his head, and how did he manage to keep all this super intelligence from me for so many years. That his normal sized head could contain it all really sent me for a loop. That he could be so nonchalant about his newly uncovered genius impressed me beyond endurance. Naturally,he won the contest too. His teacher really went on and on about what a wonderful surprise it was. My brother was an example of how if you just never give up on kid and they will eventually shine.It was as if he had discovered the cure for cancer. Not very long after he won the contest, my brother confessed to me that he had read the back of a novel in the library and taken it from there. His confession came just before he signed up for the army. Coincedence? I don’t know if he ever told anyone else. He had to have my parents sign consent forms for the army because he was underage. My parents drove him to the city with a duffel bag and that was that. No more afternoons expanding our horizons watching Hercules cartoons together. I can only imagine what a juxtaposition the army was for him. You were much better off delaying the whole guilty conscience thing. Just think where you might have ended up?

    • April 25, 2012 8:39 pm

      Wow! What a story! I’m so lucky that I dealt with all the cheating guilt in a healthy manner. You’re right that I could’ve really punished myself by doing something impulsive or reckless — like join the Army or skydive or drink myself into rehab. The reason I probably avoided this is that I simply avoided guilt altogether by convincing myself I did nothing wrong. In fact, it’s a wonder Humpty Dumpty magazine didn’t pay me for helping pass along the story. Now that I think of it, I’m kinda pissed that they didn’t.

      Thanks for reading, Lori.


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