It's not every library that features a dressed-up mannequin to promote a writing contest. For that matter, few libraries solicit writing that doesn't come in books. But St. Johnsbury's Athenaeum is no ordinary library - the classic 19th-century building with a stunning art collection is a national treasure. And "Life Is Short" is no ordinary writing contest.
"The idea is not that 'life is short, so make the best of it,'" explains Library Director Lisa von Kann, "but that in 100 words or less, you write something that gives a little bit of insight into who you are." She readily credits the Washington Post for inspiration - that newspaper's Sunday Styles section features two winning entries every week in its contest called "Life Is Short: Autobiography as Haiku."
The Athenaeum's annual contest, through the month of April, is in its third year and is open to anyone who discovers it. "I'm getting [entries] from all over the place now, some from out of state," says von Kann. She forwards the entries anonymously to a panel of three Vermont writers (one of them, she reveals, is author Reeve Lindbergh) who ultimately select three winners. The lucky trio gets gift certificates to Boxcar and Caboose, a St. J. bookstore, and their mini essays are published in the Caledonian-Record.
One of last year's winners was Lené Gary of Montpelier, whose entry, entitled "Beyond the Pavement," von Kann still finds memorable. She offers it as an example for anyone thinking about entering this year:
I don't know what I want to be when I grow up, but I'll know when I've gotten there. Sand will be stuck in my shoelaces. Wrinkles will remind me of redwood tree rings. Books will line every wall and there will still be some I haven't read because the canoe, hanging from the loft, will be calling me out for another adventure. I will know I have made it in life when I've learned how to live with life and have written a piece so moving that one more person moves beyond the pavement.
What are the criteria for judging essays? "From what I can see, it's really the writing - whether the challenge of the writing contest has been met," von Kann says. "You get an insight into their life in the beautifully written piece."
Writing short is very difficult, she concedes; distilling one's essence into 100 words, even more so. That's why von Kann's department-store mannequin visually conveys writerly frustration, even in the computer age: "He's seated at a table with an old typewriter," she describes, "and there's a trash can with all this crumpled-up paper, a coffee cup . . . and information about the contest."
To enter "Life Is Short," visit the Athenaeum website and fill out the entry form by April 30.