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JUDGING WRITING CONTEST IS A RIVETING, ROLLICKING, DISTURBING STORY IN ITSELF

Last week I took a chunk of time to help judge the 1992 Utah Arts Festival Writing Competition. There were more than 100 entries from every corner of the state, and every corner of human experience.

When a writing contest gets so many entries, you can be pretty sure you'll get a look at humanity in microcosm. You might not find a thousand homeless people, but you'll get a story about one. You won't run across 50 murders, but you can bet one will surface.You get examples of everything and everyone; from doting grandmothers to dating teenagers.

"When I meet a person who doesn't remind me of someone who was present in my first-grade class," author Donald Barthelme once said, "I know I've met a very odd duck indeed."

The same can be said for the stories in writing competitions.

Every type of person puts in an appearance.

Among the Arts Festival entries, for instance, I came across a woman giving birth and trying to deal with the sight of her own blood, I saw rowdy kids, teens out of control and worried parents.

I met an old man with clouded eyes and an old woman held hostage in a nursing home.

I attended a funeral.

I watched two people buy a marriage license, saw two more make love and then stood by as a man and his wife divided their worldly goods after an ugly divorce.

I read about men going to war, families going on vacation, actors going on stage and people going nuts.

I came across a dog with its head stuck in a mayonnaise jar and a man with his head stuck in a motorcycle helmet.

I spent some time with a unicorn.

My guess is a very wise and perceptive person could read all those stories with enough insight and clarity to form a viable vision of the world.

Unfortunately, I'm not that wise and perceptive.

What I came away with was blurred vision, a stiff neck and the feeling that examining life, art and language can be terribly confusing. You begin to second-guess yourself. Did I rate that story high because it's good, or because it's different? Did I like this one for itself, or because it reminds me of Aunt Loretta and Uncle Keith?

Does this one sound too much like Hemingway?

Does that one sound too much like a law paper?

Fortunately, we judges did manage to find three winners. And fortunately - for the contest and for our own sanity - we all tended to agree which stories were the strongest.

In the end, I'm left thinking of an anecdote I heard about John Berryman, one of the finest American poets of our era. Berryman had just been released from a mental institution, so he and Mark Van Doren took a trip down the Mississippi River on a river boat. They stood at the bow, staring into the deep water. Van Doren waited for Berryman to speak.

Several minutes passed.

Finally Berryman turned to his friend. "You know, Mark," he said, "the world is a damned strange place."

After judging the Arts Festival Writing Competition, I agree with him.