Eight years ago — wow, I can't believe it's been that long — I stood onstage alongside eight other contenders in the Upper Midwest Natural Bodybuilding Championship (NANBF) pose off. I stood there trying to fight back nervous quivers, wearing nothing but my oil-stained posing shorts. My muscles ached after having spent almost an hour onstage running through the line-up of required poses, a posing routine to music, and the final pose-off between competitors. During this exhibit of stone-like muscle, fragile egos, and congealed testosterone, one must wear their brightest smile, although parched and practically dehydrated (absolutely no water on the day of competition, sweating onstage will count against you). As my mind drank in the electric-charged cheers from an audience of well over a thousand — and, yes, a few cat-calls, too — I came to realize that my presence there represented the hard work of, not only myself, but, many people. Brian, Jennifer, Malea, Greg, Scott, Tracy, Rock, and so on, were my comrades in this battleground where muscle, grace, symmetry and physique win out. These people understood the sometime misunderstood quirks and rituals of the bodybuilding subculture. We worked-out together, practiced our mandatory poses together, critiqued each other's 3-minute-to-music routines together.
For six months, I did what bodybuilders do (sans the drugs): I worked out daily; ate the prescribed meals; drank three gallons of water a day; laid out in a tanning booth for three weeks till my skin was so dry and taut I could have sworn it had shrank three sizes smaller. I even did "the walk," as they call it, that strut-walk that bodybuilders do with lat muscles spread wide as though mimicking a cobra snake, butt muscles so tight they eventually grew numb, and a swagger so heavy everyone in the newsroom where I worked at the time must have felt the tremor from each one of my steps. I did it all. And on the night of the competition, I still lost.
Now, I can't exactly parallel this experience to my writing competition experience because, in the case of Lee & Low's New Voices competition, I actually won (yea!). I just didn't win to the extent I had hoped (read: published manuscript). And the reason why, I think, has to do with attitude. Again, I did all the right things: Everyday, I read several picture book biographies, I wrote, revised, cut, and even enlisted the help of a few published writer friends (comrades on the writing battlefield). But my goal for the New Voices competition was the same as it was for that bodybuilding competition: I wanted to simply qualify as a competitor. I wanted to be good. I didn’t push to a level of greatness.
So, what am I going to do now? The same thing I did after losing that first bodybuilding competition. Then, the very next day, I entered the gym as usual, however, I lifted harder, posed more often, increased my caloric intake to the size I wanted to attain, then, for the next year I lived and breathed bodybuilding like a vampire breathes for blood. I resolved to return to the Upper Midwest Natural Bodybuilding Championship the following year with a new goal: This time, I'd take the show.
I did return, and although I didn't take the show, I did walk away with an almost waist-high trophy, first place in my novice age/height category, and I took second place in the "men's open" category for my weight/height.
So I'm changing my writing goals: Next year, I'm taking the show.