When I was around 14, I entered a poetry contest. I made sure the entry form was filled out just right and I met all the guidelines. Then, I set my manilla envelope in the mail and waited for the truth. This is the test of my ability as a writer, I thought secretly. I didn't tell anyone, but I hoped that I'd be the lucky one, that one person good enough to make it to the top, or at least make it to an honorable mention.
I didn't win.
I didn't even place, or get even so much as a nod from the powers-that-be. That's it, I thought. I don't have a gift.
So I stopped writing. I told myself I'd never write another poem, or, at least, never enter another poetry contest.
I learned two things from that experience. The first was that writing contests are subjective. As much as you'd like to believe there is a single paragon for the perfect short story, it's not out there. Every story will have its flaws because every writer-- even Lewis or Sayers or Dickens or O. Henry-- has his or her flaws. We live in a fallen world and it's just a reality.
Though I believe there are objective standards to what makes writing good, true, and beautiful, sometimes contest decisions will come down to the judge's personal taste. Perhaps you've written a fairy story, and the judges have just read 16 stories about fairies and miss the unique facets of your piece. Perhaps the judges were sick to their stomachs, and you wrote a story about a delicious banquet that to them sounded purely revolting. Though we try to avoid such subjectivities in our judging as much as possible, you can't write for your audience because you don't know us. You have to take your chances, do your best, and hope your story stands on its own merits.
The second thing I learned was not to let one writing experience define you. At 14, I presumed I had the ability to decide whether I had talent worth pursuing. You may look back someday on the story you submitted and realize that though you thought it was good at the time, it was actually trash. That's what happened to the poem I wrote for that contest. I dug it up in some boxes from my childhood a few months ago, and realized I had attempted to manufacture something for a contest theme rather than letting something from my life inspire me. I was still trying to find my voice and figure out where I belonged. And the poem's images didn't ring true because they weren't. They were simply awkward words on a page, and I, in my attachment to my creation, thought them perfect.
Admitting you still have a lot of growing to do takes humility. A wise person once told me, "There will always be someone out there that can write better than you." Who is the best writer in the world? Who knows? All those writers who've won Newbery Medals might be topped by a single old lady in Nebraska who weaves tales for her grandchildren while she rocks on the back porch. As I learned that summer, reading bitterly through the winners of the poetry contest I'd entered (and thinking bitterly, of course, that my poem had been better), writing is not about being best. It's about telling a true story. It's about portraying the world as it is and should be, the already and the not-yet. It's about creating something of beauty to glorify our Creator.
There is a vast difference between current ability and potential. Even if your writing frustrates you now, or even if you're pretty good for your age group (even if you won this contest!), your growth will be shaped by how much you keep writing. You might have a very bright writing potential, but if you let one person's negative comments or one contest's results keep you from telling the stories in your soul, you'll never get there.
I still write poetry, and probably always will. You see, despite my resolution, poetry bubbled up from my soul. I'd see the wind herding a line of shopping carts like branding cattle into a corral, or a friend would hurt me and I'd feel the pain of not belonging. And I'd have to write about it. I couldn't just live; I am a writer, and writing is an intrinsic part of how I live. And as I've kept writing, I keep growing. Though I still have a long way to go, I've come a long way from my 14-year-old musings. Hopefully by the time I'm 80, I'll have gone a lot further.