About 20 years ago, I heard a motivational speaker talk about how to achieve one’s dream. “You have to write it down,” he said, “and not hidden away in a diary or a journal. No, you have to write it in a place where you will see it often and, more important, where others will see it too, so they can acknowledge it and encourage you.”
“No way” was my initial reaction. If I tell others my goal is to win the Pulitzer Prize, they will all think I am crazy for sure. Completely out of my mind. And completely delusional. I’d rather take my chances in secret and surprise everyone if my dream comes true.
Gradually, though, my hard line began to soften. What real harm could come from it? Most people think writers are crazy and delusional anyway. At the time, too, I was teaching writing to college students and trying to motivate them to pursue their passions, so shouldn’t I commit to doing the same? Of course.
So at the beginning of each semester, I began to assign a one-page autobiographical essay, and I asked my students to introduce themselves to me and to their classmates by writing three paragraphs: one about the past, one about the present, and one about ten years into the future. Since I always wrote along with my students, and since we all shared our writing in one big group, I concluded my essay with this line: “Within the next decade, I hope to win the Pulitzer Prize.”
When we sat in our circle and read one another’s essays, I watched intently as my essay moved around, and I waited for one of my students to burst out in laughter. Didn’t happen. I was pleasantly surprised. And even more surprised by their comments later.
“That’s impressive — and ambitious,” one of them said.
“Good for you,” another added.
“And I hope it happens,” a third responded.
“Wow!” I thought to myself. If they take my dream that seriously, I need to get serious as well. And so I did. I became more disciplined in my writing routine, and I continued to share that special sentence each semester as I introduced myself in writing to my students.
Fast forward to the late summer of 2018. I had finally finished a collection of over 100 essays on writing, essays that I used with my students and in the writing center where I work. I had also queried numerous literary agents about publishing my collection to no avail. Thus, I self- published my collection and began to consider my dream once more. “How does the Pulitzer committee decide what books to evaluate?”
With a bit of research, I discovered that I could actually nominate my own book. All I had to do was fill out a form, choose the appropriate category, submit six copies, and pay the application fee.
“You’re not going to win,” the realistic part of my brain said.
“But you might — if you’re willing to take a chance,” the dreamer in me responded.
So apply I did. And then I waited. And dreamed. The only people I told about my submission were my wife and my daughter, and though they supported me, I think they, too, were more realistic than dreamlike.
Fortunately, I still believed, and I gradually prepared myself for the big day. I knew the winners would be announced on Monday April 15th, so I made sure I looked good as I dressed for work. Somebody, no doubt, will want to take my picture.
Then, as I walked from my car to The Writing and Research Center, I imagined that return walk later in the day and all my co-workers congratulating me on my success.
“Way to go, Jim!”
“Congratulations, Big Guy!”
“I’m so happy for you.”
I was smiling like an idiot just thinking about it.
I also imagined the buzz around campus when everyone shared the news with one another.
“Did you hear Jim LaBate won the Pulitzer?”
“Really? That’s amazing!”
“Oh my God. That is so exciting.”
During the morning hours between my conversations with students, I fantasized even more excitement when the local reporters gathered on campus to see the award-winning author in action, sharing his wisdom with eager young minds.
I also imagined the congratulatory calls and text messages “blowing up” my phone. Normally, I don’t like to talk much on the phone, but I figured I could make an exception on this special day.
During my lunch hour, I checked the Pulitzer website because, quite honestly, I didn’t know at that point how the notification process actually worked. I had always just assumed I’d get a phone call from New York City prior to the official announcement. I was wrong. The winners would be announced at 3:00 p.m., and if I wanted to watch the live feed, all I had to do was click on the appropriate link. Fortunately, my work day on Mondays ends at 3:00, so I hustled over to an isolated computer, plugged in my headphones, and waited for my world to change. From that moment on, I would be known not just as Jim LaBate but as Jim LaBate, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
“I’ll call Barbara first, and then Katrina,” I decided, “and after that, if I can break away from the adoring crowds, I’ll call my four sisters.” The entire experience was so cool, so much fun.
As the Pulitzer spokesperson began reading the names of all of the winners, I tried to plan my spontaneous reaction. Should I jump up and scream and go crazy, which is totally out of character for me and totally prohibited in our academic environment, or should I just be my normal, low-key self and silently mouth “Yes” with an assertive, but not over-the-top, fist pump?
I still hadn’t made my final decision when the news arrived: “The winner for general nonfiction is Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold.”
“Ooooooooohhhhhhhh,” I said silently as I clenched my teeth and also wrinkled my nose and forehead when I realized I had not won. Wow! I came so close too.
Actually, I hadn’t come close at all.
For a short time, I held out hope that my name and my book might be mentioned later as one of the finalists, but, unfortunately, that didn’t happen either.
Oh well, I had given it the old college try. I fought the good fight. I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of — except for all the clichés that were banging around in my head at that moment.
By the time I settled in for dinner with Barbara, my Pulitzer Prize-winning day was officially over, and guess what? I actually felt pretty good about the whole experience. In many ways, I felt like a little boy again, pretending to be Mickey Mantle hitting a home run in game seven to win the World Series for the Yankees. And it was all fun. I had thoroughly enjoyed the day, even if it didn’t end the way I thought it might.
As I look back on it now, I remember a line from the 1922 poem “Washington Monument by Night” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and historian Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.”