Thursday, June 08, 2006

Games of Chance

Today, I won the lottery, sort of. According to an email I received, likely from Nigeria, and most definitely a new twist on the 419 scam, I won the online version of the UK National Lottery.

So far, I've won that particular lottery four times. A few weeks ago, I even won it twice in one day. What are the odds….?


Near the end of my senior year in college, the English Department had a reading for creative writing students at the university's Woman's Center. Of course, at the time, I was more than eager to read my poems publicly and took the opportunity to sell a copy or two of the chapbook I'd put together with the help of a friend and the staff at Kinko's. For a few weeks, that chapbook was vital to my existence. Each 5-dollar bill I could finagle for one of the gray-covered, typo-heavy collection of 16 poems meant lunch at the Chinese food cart on campus. Sadly, at that event, I think I only sold one—to the Department Head.

Later, after everyone had read and begun to mill about over beverages and potato chips, I ended up in a conversation with the English Department's secretary. I remember her as being a wonderful woman—always helpful, always kind, and almost always smiling. Yet, that evening, she leaned in to speak to me, almost whispering, and told me that one of the Creative Writing Professors had told her that I was "the best they had."


I have no doubt that, at the time, at least some of my professors believed that to be true. After all, their letters were good enough to get me into grad school with a fellowship. I must have been doing something right. For a while, I think I held onto that notion, almost cradling it like the memory of my first kiss, rather than a bit of hearsay that made me feel good about myself. More, I think that comment—likely nothing more than an offhand remark based on my performance at the reading—affected my perception of myself. Suddenly, there were expectations.

That summer, I used to joke (I think) with anyone who dared call me a genius (I swear it did happen once or twice—though perhaps that was sarcasm). I felt deeply uncomfortable with the notion. I still do. Yet, at that point, I also felt that there was some merit to such a label, and it frightened me.

This, I suspect, is largely because it never occurred to me to do the math.


Clearly, the professor meant that year—not ever in the storied history of the university. So, if you figure that about 10 years of students make up a generation, that’s 9 students right there who could be far superior talents to me. More, consider how many universities in the United States offer creative writing programs. According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, 310 colleges offered minors or majors in Creative Writing in 1996—the year I graduated. If we assume that half of those students focused on poetry and we multiply that by the 10 years it takes to make a generation, then approximately 1,550 students between 1991 and 2001 were the best poets in their year in their English Department. And remember the numbers are growing.

So, as you can see, the comment—even if it is more than mere hearsay—carries far less weight than I attributed to it. Such praise or encouragement from a professor does not automatically open doors. It is not an edict from the crested peak of Mount Olympus that cannot be ignored. It was, after all, just an opinion—an opinion which leaves open the possibility that nearly 1,500 people of my generation received similar training and had similar talent.

Plus, I’m fairly certain that I wasn't even the most talented poet in my class. I think that might have been my wife.

More and more, success in literature seems to me a bit like hitting the lottery. What are the odds….?


Nowadays, if someone told me that I was a genius, I'd probably just blush and say thank you. In fact, I’d much rather have someone say to me: I loved that poem or That was a damn good story.

Luckily, I've had experiences like that, and I see no reason—other than a flight into the Covington Airport errantly colliding with my office—why I won't hear similar things in the future. And hopefully, someday, you'll have the opportunity to agree or disagree vehemently with such assessments.

Of course, I'd still like to win the lottery, but not the UK National Lottery, the Ohio Lottery, or even the Power Ball. No, I'd like to win the publishing lottery. I'd like to find myself an agent that could start a bidding war over a novel by an unknown author. I’d like to say hello to Oprah on that fateful day when she introduces me (and my book) to her audience. Then, and only then, I could retire this notion of being a writer and spend my time playing Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments. I think I'd need a nice pair of sunglasses for that.

Now then, what are the odds…?


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