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Sore Winner

by Published on
photo by Marsha Miller
Paisano Ranch

It’s usually annoying and not true when someone tells you they know exactly how you’re feeling. Most of us are smart enough not to do this when someone suffers any of life’s larger losses. Other events can be trickier. When I was pregnant, I had to guide my husband to the understanding that even though he’d gained 30 pounds and taken to weeping at Kodak commercials, he did not know exactly how I felt.

In one case, I have documented, printed proof that I do understand another’s feelings precisely. I recently won a five-month fellowship at the Dobie-Paisano Ranch. Since this fellowship traditionally goes to a promising young writer rather than a fat-assed old writer, word has reached me that the young ones are disgruntled. Because mine are the Carpal Tunnelites, Tribe of the Writers, this is a dangerous situation. Once they get out the blowguns and start dipping darts into the most poisonous venom on Earth—writer’s envy—I am a goner.

I came to understand the zero-sum fallacy behind writer’s envy after I published my first novel. I had a friend back then who wanted nothing more in life than to do the same. Several times—invariably after a cocktail, or six—she would get all boozy-weepy about the beauty of our friendship and how it was so strong that she could tell me that every time she saw my book on the shelves, she wanted to, quote, “get a knife and stab and stab and stab.” Then she would mime the shower scene from “Psycho.” Apparently, this friend believed that if I were gone, the job would instantly open up for her.

Still, I understand exactly how both my friend from the Bates Motel and those disgruntled young writers feel. Here now is where the printed proof comes in. Nearly three decades ago I wrote a column for the late, lamented Third Coast Magazine. It started like this: “This is not going to be pretty … but who ever said that writing was all sunshine and rhyming couplets? No, it’s a writer’s job to look at the dark underbelly of human nature. And to count the teats while she’s down there. This is about being a sore loser.”

I then went on to explain to my readers about Texas literary legend J. Frank Dobie bequeathing his 250-acre ranch to his spiritual heirs by leaving it as a retreat for writers, and how I tried to claw my way into that sweet deal. I described studying the brochure that came with the fellowship application and noting that 24 of the past 31 winners had been men—men who either had names like Eldon or Oattis or who simply went by down-home initials drawn from the grittier half of the alphabet. Their last names sat tall in the saddle and shot from the hip: Matlock, Armstrong, Marshall, Bones. Even the female winners showed a hearty nomenclature: Harryette. Paulina.

When I got down to filling out—OK, gaming—that long-ago application, I strove to portray my earthy, frontier side in all its loamy glory. I wanted those six anonymous judges to know that I would be out there biting the heads off rattlers and restructuring every pantywaist narrative convention known to Freshman Composition.

But the judges pulled a fast one on me. They doubled back and chose two women. One of them was a friend of mine, a founder of Esther’s Follies, Terry Galloway. I bleated out my plaintive, “Why you and not me?” She tried to cheer me up: “Oh, because I’m deaf. Who could refuse a poor little deaf girl?”

I even considered trying again with a re-engineered product, a certain “Edna St. Duane Sorghum, renowned for the ineffable tenderness of her haiku based on the life of Quanah Parker and written entirely in possum entrails.” But I’d been crushed too thoroughly. The Dobie-Paisano was the first and last literary fellowship I applied for until a quarter of a century later, when I was told that the program now has a category for fat-assed old writers.

As I recall how the walls above my steam-powered computing machine were covered, literally papered from floor to ceiling, with rejection slips, I know that Young Sarah would want what any struggling writer would want: to travel through time and find Old Sarah with her effing shelves of published work and stab and stab and stab again.

Sarah Bird’s next novel, The Gap Year, will be released in Spring 2011.