I don't think we are all that afraid of losing. But competition seems aside of the joy of activity to us. Three of the four of my parents' children have had careers in the arts. The fourth is in law, which my mother always said was just another form of performance.
So I have not been happy with what I perceive as extracurricular arts in Ohio lately, especially in my chosen field of creative writing. As nearly as I can tell, most of the creative writing activities for school kids revolve around contests. My library has a yearly poetry contest. The Ohio Poetry Association has a yearly poetry contest. The Ohio Arts Council, which once sponsored writers in the schools to the tune of 20 or more residencies a year, now sponsors "Poetry Out Loud," a performance competition. I have found a few free high school writing workshops (yeah, Shelly Rayborn at the Canal Fulton Library!) and a few paid ones (good but onerous guidelines for scholarships). But by and large, it is just one contest after another, if you are a young person who wants to write.
I agreed to sponsor one contest for the Ohio Poetry Association this year because I was moved by hearing last year's winner read. But now that I wonder about the many losers, I have reservations about it. So when I was asked recently to lead workshops in Poetry Out Loud, I turned it down, writing,
I can't thank [your organization] enough for this offer. Working with kids and poetry and working with your organization are two of my favorite workings. And I am familiar with Poetry Out Loud. I have found some poems I never knew in their yearly list of poems, and I love the memorization and recitation of poetry, which was a part of all my college creative writing classes.
What I don't like is the competitive element.
So, I am going to have to decline. I have all my career argued that competition is not the best way to encourage the arts for young people, and today, I find there is more and not less competition in student creative writing. For example, at one point, your organization was active in promoting the writing, workshopping, performance, and publication of creative writing among school children, none to little of which involved winning and losing. And yet now, Poetry Out Loud, is the main creative writing activity for kids, and while it encourages and teaches many things, the end of it all is winning.
The problem then is that for the final winner, there are many many...losers. You can call it other things, but in fact, it is losing. I have never seen creating competitors as a very good goal for the arts, and especially not for student artists.
I wish you all the best for this endeavor, and if you have any activities in creative writing that do not end in winning and losing but end in the written or spoken word, its performance or publication, without a winner, I'd be more than willing to serve.
In return, I got a response on how much students today want competition-- it's generational, like social media and the internet, they said. (Huh? No one is on the internet more than I am) and then came some good outcomes for this emphasis: the people who work hardest, win. Except when they don't, and then students learn that judging is subjective and they accept the results.
I know my deceased sister, a college performance professor, was utterly opposed to performance competition and convinced her college to let her take her students not to competitions but to events where they received feedback on their performances. But that's been awhile, so I asked my former University of Findlay colleague Carole Elchert, professor of performance and performer extraordinaire, what she thought and she replied:
As for the Poetry "contest," I have railed about such nonsense for years at two universities and in conversations with other artists, especially those pseudo-artists running art events, where they have a RIDICULOUS set of criteria for winning, thereby creating losers in an event that is about expression, not competition. Competition is for males fighting for females. Anyway, I recently refused to judge a national forensic contest with seven contestants without a break between and then a 15-minute discussion between judges, using a template that makes no sense (not a darn thing I teach in speech class, so who knows what the ??>?!!@ criteria are).
But really, these are old farts like me. Maybe this generation wants so much competition, as my respondent said. So I decided to ask the real expert on the subject of this generation of student writers and I went to my niece, Bessana Kendig, a current second year student in creative writing at Columbia School of the Arts. She reported that she was fortunate to have a good creative writing course at her high school and that she had taken a summer workshop, and most meaningfully, she had then led workshops for grade school kids in a drop-in or regular attendance, no-fee program. Her answer to my question about the value of competition of the arts was the most eloquent of all:
I think formal competition for creative writing isn't healthy for the younger developing minds and their self esteem. There is already enough competition between students in schools and it's only another way for students to struggle to meet more expectations. That's not to say there aren't benefits to formal competitions at the high school, college entry, or graduate student level. I know many competitions revolve around winning scholarships which are worth the stress and determination to win. Personally, I support the idea of cultivating creativity without the clouding pressure to be a winner. Everyone should be encouraged to express themselves and competition only limits the potential of many talented people who are not the winners but are still craftsmen never the less.
And really, I can't even. Say it better, that is. Maybe this is just the matter of the apple falling close to the tree, maybe Kendigs are just nuts, but I think not. I think Bessana speaks for a whole lot of kids today who want to create, not compete.