Last week, I re-read The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. It’s something I do occasionally when I’m slacking off with writing and need to get back on track. Prize Winner is about Evelyn Ryan whose success with contests helped to keep her family financially afloat. It was during the 1950s and 1960s when companies ran contests to advertise their products. Participants were given challenges such as writing the last line of a jingle or telling why they liked a sponsor’s product in 25 words or less. With her wit and ability to write under any circumstances, Evelyn was very successful in contesting. She won small prizes as well as larger ones including $5,000 and a Triumph TR3 sports car, which she sold using the money to pay bills. She also wrote short humorous poems and essays that she sold to newspapers and magazines.
Prize Winner, written by Evelyn’s daughter Terry Ryan, is a great read for anyone who enjoys stories about people overcoming obstacles. For writers, it is also a guide to success. It’s just a matter of following Evelyn’s example. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from her story.
No Time to Write Is Not an Excuse
I’ve whined about not having time to write more often than I care to admit. But it’s hard to do that after reading about Evelyn. Did I mention she had ten kids? “Sometimes it feels like I live in a circus, and all the animals are loose,” she once said. But in the middle of chaos, she wrote.
Read to Get Better
Humor and brevity were tools of Evelyn’s trade, and she honed her skills by reading works of the masters. Some of her favorites were Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Ogden Nash.
Know the Market
Evelyn made it her business to know what advertising agency was hired by the sponsor to judge a contest. Some judges liked humor; others wanted serious entries. Some appreciated a play on words; others preferred straight forward prose. Evelyn knew what the judges wanted and tailored her entries to meet their preferences.
Don’t Let the Doubters Get You Down
Contesting was competitive. In one Dr. Pepper contest, there were 250,000 entries. With such great odds, some people could not understand why anyone would bother. So they offered their advice. “Wouldn’t taking in laundry be less risky than entering those contests?” a nun said to Evelyn after Sunday Mass. But Evelyn believed the real risk was in not trying.
Perhaps the cruelest comments came from her husband, an alcoholic who could not handle the taunts he got from his co-workers at the garage where he worked. “We know who the real breadwinner in the Ryan family is,” they said. Such criticism was hard to take in the 1950s when men were expected to be the breadwinners. It was Evelyn who suffered the brunt of her husband’s anger with his co-workers, but she did not quit writing.
Keep an Eye on the Prize
It was a competitive business, but Evelyn improved her chances by entering each contest many times. It was simple logistics – having more entries “out there” improved her chances of winning. She said she didn’t win contests because she was lucky. She won because she was determined.
Even so, she did not win every contest, but rejection was also part of the business. She once told her daughter that writing was like working in her garden. She could be proud of what she had done even if others didn’t like it. She had no time to dwell on rejections because she was already moving forward with the next contest.
None of this is new advice. These ideas are covered in almost any book about writing. What’s inspiring about The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is seeing how Evelyn put it all into action and was rewarded with success. Whenever I’m in a writing slump, I know that reading even a few sections of the book will get me back on track.