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Prizes Keep the Creative Juices Flowing

Art: Whether a Pulitzer, an Oscar or an Edgar, affirmation sustains artists.

April 16, 1998|GAR ANTHONY HAYWOOD | Gar Anthony Haywood is a novelist and screenwriter whose latest novel is "When Last Seen Alive" (Putnam, 1998)

They announced this year's Pulitzer Prizes on Tuesday, and again, much to my chagrin, I didn't win one. Granted, my selection in the fiction category would have been an unprecedented travesty, but it still would have been nice to be recognized. Such prizes are what keeps many creative professionals like me from doing what our families have been begging us to do for years: Stop playing games and get a real job.

Awards of merit, especially those voted on by one's peers, can go a long way toward compensating an author or artist for the long hours and relative poverty that artistic endeavor generally entails. Our work is lonely and sometimes grueling, and it's almost always performed in a vacuum. Insecurity over its quality and relative value hangs over our heads daily. If someone didn't come along once in a while to present us with a bronze bust or statuette sporting the word "best" on it, life would hardly seem worth living.

As children, our mothers told us when we were doing well, to stave off the doubts we had about ourselves and our import in the world. For some, Mother is still around, but for others, this kind of support and reassurance now must be found elsewhere. Major prizes and awards can fill the gap.

Not that the physical awards themselves tend to be pleasing to the eye. Occasionally, they're rather handsome, but in most cases, they're either cheap-looking wall plaques or life-threatening doodads (such as an oversized crystal spearhead mounted to a razor-sharp graphite pyramid). But the physical object isn't what's important. What is important are the various sentiments behind the object: acceptance, accomplishment, national or even international pride.

Ever hear of a Grammy winner who kept his or her little gold gramophone in the attic? Or an Emmy recipient who stuck the award in a box somewhere? Never. Awards go in places of honor, out in the open, at eye level, to serve as a constant reminder of the good work we once were able to do and may yet do again.

Of course, not every award or prize is perfect. Depending on the selection process involved, many come with controversy attached. They don't always go to the right people, and some are presented by folks who wouldn't know excellence if it came with a neon sign. But one bad or unpopular choice does not a worthless prize make.

In the otherwise silent world of the professional author or artist, a miniature bust of, say, Edgar Allan Poe (the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar award ) beats a slap on the back and a hearty "Attaboy!" by a country mile.

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