I don’t think of myself as someone qualified to judge anything, so it was a surprise when I was asked to judge the nonfiction entries for a writing contest.
I said “yes” and then completely forgot about it. A pile of submissions was moldering in my office mailbox when I received a note from the professor heading up the contest, asking if my “judge’s statement” was ready to submit. (Oops.)
I immediately fetched the submissions and began reading. One submission sort of bled into the next and I realized, with mild panic, that deciding which entry was best could prove to be challenging. But then I started reading a story that was different.
The story was about a young man who was depressed and despondent after getting out of the army. He was living with a friend and slowly spiraling downward. He considered suicide then decided against it. He decided, instead, to rob a bank.
Wait a minute…
This was supposed to be a nonfiction story. But I couldn’t stop reading. The story was well-written and hypnotic. The writer captured the state-of-mind of this young veteran perfectly. He described how he left his friend’s apartment, a dress shirt pulled over his grubby t-shirt. He took a gun with no bullets and a note to the bank. He showed the teller the gun and demanded cash. He took the cash and left the note which read, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He stripped off the dress shirt and walked down the street in his grubby t-shirt as police cars raced by. He left $3000 with his friend, took the remaining $8000, and hopped a bus to Tijuana. He checked into a motel and swam out into the ocean. There were fireworks on shore and the story ends there— watching fireworks reflected in the water.
I gave him first prize. I didn’t suppose the story was true, but it was so well-written I had no choice. I wrote a few words about the piece and forgot all about it until I received an e-mail saying the contest winners would be reading at a local coffee shop. I figured I better go.
The poet read first. Poetry keeps me humble. I never understand poetry, which is how I know that I am not really very smart. Then the fiction winner read and everyone applauded politely. Finally, it was time for the nonfiction winner to read. A middle-aged man walked up to the podium.
“Sadly,” he said, “the story is true.”
He read his story and you could have heard a pin drop. His hands shaking slightly, he shared his beautifully-written story, read with the quiet conviction that comes from having lived it. He was not excusing his actions of years ago. But as he read his story, we all understood. We were in that grubby t-shirt, we understood hopelessness and despair. We felt, in that moment, how taking a unloaded gun to the bank might have seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
After the reading, he thanked me a for choosing his story. He told me how he had just started college and had never won anything before in his life. I felt tears come to my eyes and I felt very foolish. This man had given me an enormous gift and was thanking me. His story made me wiser and more compassionate. His story reminded me how tenuous my hold is onto things I assume are solid.
His story reminded me of why it is we tell stories.
Till next time,