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Michael Perry: Award-worthy writing requires both inspiration and perspiration

Michael Perry: Award-worthy writing requires both inspiration and perspiration


Today at sunrise I received a text from a friend: “Congratulations on your recent award!”

This was news to me, and as does news in general, it made me nervous. Awards news even more so.

Awards invite scrutiny, and scrutiny makes me sweaty. Ironically, I once won an award for a magazine article I wrote about being sweaty. The trophy is propped atop a pole barn girt overlooking my workbench. It is covered in sawdust and needs a polish. Mostly it serves to remind me that I probably shouldn’t be playing amateur hour with saws and grinders, as I type for a living and need my fingers.

My editor submitted the sweat essay without my knowledge. This is an important distinction, as the awards of which I shall write today were not awards I sought. They sometimes arrived with prior warning, but I had not placed myself in the pool. (At least not intentionally: It could be said I put myself in the running for the “Biggest Primper” ribbon I received in high school as I had a habit of incessantly feathering my hair. Ultimately graduation and nature rendered me ineligible.)

The poignancy of some awards is based on their inadvertent (and occasionally delayed) power to humble the recipient. I return again to high school where I received the football team’s “Most Improved Offensive Lineman” award.

I hung that one on the wall and felt pretty good about it until a few years later when I put some distance between me and the glory, and did the math required to distill the number of people eligible (three positions out of 11, drawn from an overall roster numbering 20-something counting backups and some of them missing practice to help with haying).

If one receives an award without lobbying for it, and it is given purely, it is ungracious to make jokes or self-deprecate to the point of denigrating the folks who took the time to arrange the kindness. Someone had to take me aside and give me a little talk about that once. I think the difficulty is based in knowing myself, my imperfections, how unpolished I am in the day-to-day, how so much of what I do is rooted in uncertainty ... there is this awkward feeling that by accepting the award we accept the accolades as the gospel of us.

I once received an award from a much-maligned governmental institution and was even sweatier than usual about the whole deal, but the upshot was I was given the opportunity to invite two of the public school teachers who redirected my life for a lifetime to the ceremony and have them stand beside me, and that felt solid and good. As usual, the answer to most self-imposed worry is to seek the path of gratitude. That one’s a full-time job.

Any time you get an award from librarians you should be very happy and send a handwritten thank you note. And although I’ve never been long-listed for any grand literary award, someone once did turn one of my books into a float for the Green County Cheese Days parade, and as I have always said, stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Pulitzer committee.

In the course of wrapping up this column I have received a follow-up text from my friend. Turns out it’s not so much an award as a piece selected for a 10-year anniversary project. No plaque or a first-class flight to Norway, and no sweating.

And so it is back to work in humility, even if I was once the Most Valuable Player on my high school track team, specifically the year no one else went out for track.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” ( Read more from Michael Perry at

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