December 4, 2012

My Experience Evaluating the Writing of Others

I was recently asked to evaluate public submissions to CBC Canada Writes’ Special Series: Close Encounters With Science competition. Public submissions came in chronicling significant encounters that people had with science or technology and I was charged with creating a shortlist of the best.

There were many stories about children remembering their first TV set, Neil Armstrong’s step on the moon, and the night sky. There were wonderful tales of medical miracles, of heart surgeries that saved a life or an in utero surgery that saved a baby’s life. There were too many stories of people surviving cancer or suffering the treatment. There were stories of children discovering small miracles of the natural world because a grownup took the time to guide them, such as the big brother teaching his little sister about the solar system with a flashlight and Tupperware containers way past her bedtime. And, if this is a good sample of Canadian childhood experience, there were a lot pyromaniacs and budding explosive experts out there. Potassium chlorate and sugar were two ingredients that kept recurring.

It was the stories of human interactions, of people being kind or discovering something about each other, that captivated me. There was the woman who was told she was in the midst of a miscarriage who is then shown the beating heart of her baby, a child that would have died before the time of ultrasounds. There was the young man who watches his father fall to a heart attack, recover, and years later hug his grandson. There was the lab tech exhilarated to diagnose his first leukemia, then realize it’s a death sentence to a little girl. The mother who finally gets to hear what her son wants to tell her, after eight years of silence. What does he ask for with the computer technology that allows him to speak? For his Mom to give him a big hug. The child whose uncle, who cannot hear or speak, communicates to her through a handheld calculator that she bought with her savings. And, of course, the mother living through chemo hell, describing the red devil chemo cocktail that burns her insides, and admitting she is only doing this for her daughters.

Somehow I had to create a shortlist from all this, which I found challenging for three reasons. First, there were hundreds of submissions, each up to 500 words in length. That’s a lot of reading. Second, there were so many good ones, making my initial shortlist ridiculously long. Culling that wasn’t easy. It was the third reason, however, that I found the most difficult. Judging someone’s writing is a large responsibility and I had to do this hundreds of times. It is the responsibility of knowing that, if I were to choose not to read an entry, it might not be read at all and would die on the page. I’m not sure this kind of evaluation is something that writers should do.

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