One such story with commendable impact is called ‘Something Important.’ It deservedly won its author a prize in the library’s competition in 2015. In the story, a would-be writer, the mother of two young girls, seeks respite from domestic duties during the summer holidays so she can write undisturbed. She hires an unprepossessingly taciturn babysitter to take full-time care of the girls while she tries in vain to write, but is forced to realize that by doing so, she has neglected ‘something important’ in the lives of her daughters in the process, and has frittered away the time she might have used to bond with them. When I met the author in person some months later, I praised her story for its understated subtlety in depicting devastating loss, its understanding of human nature, and its clever use of the contrast between the mother’s pride in and obsession with words on the one hand, and the babysitter’s scorned wordlessness on the other, yet it is the babysitter who is the girls’ confidante that summer and not their mother. As was often the case with these submissions, this particular story was inspired by the author’s real-life experience in a small northern town where she had met the babysitter’s prototype, and had been haunted by the memory of that encounter ever since. She said she simply had to put her into a story.
Contestants were encouraged to reach into their pasts for an incident or person whose influence in their lives had been considerable. There was endless variety in the submissions: pathos, humour, love, fear, courage, resignation, triumph and loss. Many were interesting; the best were outstanding. I found a troubling consistency one year in a number of vivid accounts about the harshness of life on the Ontario farms of a generation or more ago. These stories poignantly described lives of isolation, alcoholism, and privation, and all appeared to have been written by long-suffering farmers’ wives. Writing a story about an important incident is often therapeutic, even if the writing of it does not win a prize. Most entries in competitions don’t.
Sometimes, regrettably, the impact of some stories was compromised by a lack of fluency, implying that the writer’s native language was not English. As a former ESL teacher, I could sometimes detect idiosyncratic quirks of expression that would not have appeared in the work of a native speaker. One story, set in Jamaica, concerned a grandmother’s attempt to find a cure for a grandson’s ailment from a quack ‘magician’ in the remote interior of the island. The originality of the story and the exotic nature of the quest were fascinating and undoubtedly authentic, but its virtues were unfortunately insufficient to compensate for the numerous writing errors that made parts of the story at times incomprehensible. It was disappointingly frustrating to read, and so the story lost the audience it might have had. What the writer needed was tutorial assistance, but no remedial action could be suggested because the anonymity of all submissions except those of the winning entries was guaranteed by the rules of the competition.