by Vanessa Shields
I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think about winning a major Canadian writing award. I’d still be lying if I told you I didn’t wish on almost every eyelash that falls onto my cheek that I receive a big-money writing grant too. But mostly, these awards and grants live in my ‘dream’ realm as far as my writing career is concerned. And sometimes, I worry that’s not enough – just dreaming, I mean.
The truth is, I’ve often felt out of the loop as a ‘Canadian writer’ (what does that even mean, anyway? Golly. That’s a whole other article.). My poetry doesn’t win big awards. I know you’ve more than likely never heard of me. It’s totally fine. I know I’m here and writing my heart out. I know I matter and I’m putting my energy into this wildly unique thing we call the ‘Canadian writer’s landscape’ by infiltrating the system in ways that aren’t overt. But how am I doing this? How am I making the impact I feel I need to make?
I believe that a very excellent way for me to learn about, to appreciate, to be a ‘part of’ the Canadian writing landscape is to be on juries for awards and grants. Is that little voice in your head saying: that sounds like a lot of work – and for free to boot? Well…let me tell you how and why I’m a jury junkie. Also, know that it pays to be on some juries. So there’s that.
There are countless ways to get involved as a juror, reader, or judge, and every situation will have its own process for choosing who will be involved. Every organization will have a different selection process – the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) and the Canada Council for the Arts, for example, have a form you can fill out if you’re interested in being on a jury or being an advisor for any of their grants; Giller Prize five-member jury panel is selected by Executive Director Elana Rabinovich in consultation with founder Jack Rabinovitch and the prize advisory board; jurors for the Writers’ Trust prizes and awards are nominated by an advisory group. Some roles pay, others don’t. But I assert that whether you’re getting paid or not doesn’t change what it means once you’ve committed to being a jury member or an editor.
The heart of the matter comes in the work. It can be a cuss-load of work to be on a jury especially if there are a lot of submissions. I know that going in. I know that I’m going to have to read hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of poetry or prose if I’m on a certain jury. I have to look realistically at my life schedule and see if I can commit to it. If I can, and that includes shifting some things around or even stopping certain things (readings/guest speaking engagements/etc.) to make it possible, then I’m going all in.
Here’s the why and what concerning living a juror’s life.
Subjectivity matters. Look, what we bring to the proverbial table as ‘reader’ matters. What we’ve read in the past, what we’ve written, and how we feel about it all – matters. When I’m on a jury, I’m trusting my gut, my heart, and my brain instincts equally. I’m paying attention to my intuition and reading each line like it’s a gem and I’m a jewel specialist. I break book spines. I caress cover images. I smell paper and ink. I highlight lines, words, and make notes as I read. I must go all in for the writer. That’s what I’d want her to do for me.
Pay attention and get organized. I pay attention to eligibility rules and the ‘why’ (criteria) of the award or grant. If the award is given to a writer whose work must meet certain criteria, then I write that criteria down and memorize it. These grants and awards were created for specific reasons – and I have to be cognizant of that throughout the process. It’s imperative that I make a chart, and at the top write out what I need to remember (criteria/eligibility key words) and think about as I’m reading. Things like: style, innovation, risk, accessibility, concept and organization – I ask myself: does the writer’s work follow the criteria? How and why? Typically, I’ll have to give a short write-up about the book/writing, so making a chart and filling in my initial responses plus responses to whether it met the criteria will help for later when I have to make a coherent response. Whether I use a chart or write everything in a notebook, it’s essential that I’m organized with my responses.
Make a schedule. Most of the time, the body responsible for the grant or award will send a schedule that indicates when certain things have to happen (for example, books will arrive on this date) and when certain things are due (short-list is due on this date). I print this out and staple it to my forehead. Well, I build my reading schedule around this schedule, and go from there.
Yes, No, Maybe-So. I’m a pile-maker. This extends into my jury experience. As I move through the books/writing, I make a note or actually make physical piles that are Yes (I’m totally in love with this writing!), Maybe (there’s something about it that gets me. I need to read it again.) and No (I just can’t connect – here’s why). Every pile is essential, and as I read through, make notes, get 100% emotionally and cognitively involved, the piles shift until I’m left with my Yeses. My Yes pile is always too big. But that’s okay.
Stop. Repeat. Re-pile. An important part of the jury process, especially if there are a lot of things to read, is giving your brain and heart a break. This ‘down-time’ is something I build into the schedule. I have to give myself time to be away from the work, after I’ve made my piles and I’m left with the Yeses (and Maybe-to-Yes if I need to make this pile) especially, so that it can seep in. Then when I go back to it, if my body remembers, if my heart reconnects, then I know that that book needs to be kept in the Yes pile. This is a wild part of the process because sometimes, I’ll go back and re-read a book, and it’ll feel different, yet feel like a grand-for-sure Yes. Or a no.
Teamwork makes a heart grow fonder. Often times, I’m not the only one on the jury. And thank the writing gods for this. It’s such a wonderful experience to talk to other people reading the same writing, and have heart-to-heart discussions about it. We all bring our gifts to the jury table and we all have strong beliefs about our Yes pile. Through honest communication, referring to our notes, and good, old-fashioned fight-for-your-favourite persuasion skills, it is possible to get a short-list that you all believe in. And a winner too. Also, sometimes it happens that you really connect with the other jurors and start lasting relationships that extend far beyond your jury duty.
Here’s what’s hard: When you know that there are more than the shortlist amount of writers who deserve to be on the shortlist. When you know there is more than one winner. This is the hardest part of being on a jury. It is truly heartbreaking having to choose when I love, believe in, and want to share with the country (!) more writers than one. Or six. Or twelve. Whatever the ‘list’ demands. On the last jury I was on, there were tears shed. There were heads bowed in heavy silence. There was holding-of-books-to-my-chest-and-apologizing because they didn’t make the cut.
I know what this feels like to be on the other side. On the side that gets that letter saying: thanks for submitting but you didn’t win. Or the chest-tighten you get when you see the shortlist and you’re not on it. Trust me. I know this very well, but being on the giving-end of this experience is really difficult too. Painful even. I wish I could hug each writer. Have tea with her. Tell him why I loved his words. I’m making it a point to try and do this! For this reason, I’ve become a jury junkie. For you dear writers.
Because with each jury I’m on, with each submission pile I go through, I am learning about you, I’m falling in love with you, I’m being inspired by you – I’m becoming a better writer and human because of you. That’s magical. And guess what? I’ve read your words. I’m telling my friends about you. I’m writing reviews for you and getting them published. I’m looking for you at conferences, at readings, on social media, because I want to meet you and thank you. Have that tea with you.
Vanessa Shields is a poet living and writing in Windsor, ON with her family. She is the Poetry Editor for the Windsor Review, and has been on juries for the Ontario Arts Council, the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and BookFest Windsor. Visit her website www.vanessashields.com to find out more about her writing life.