What happens if Jason Olsen gets together a town filled with retired wrestlers, a linguist who judges women based on their dialects and a child who dreams of a robot action pinball that could save humanity? A book-length collection of short stories that wins the first place award in the 2013 Original Writing Competition sponsored by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.
“One of the things with fiction, is you take in what’s around you and just be inspired by all the things that are around you,” Olsen said. His 170-page manuscript, titled Robot Action Pinball, contains 11 fiction stories that were mostly written while he was in Utah. “I realized I had a lot of stories that were kind of connected based on the themes and the style of writing I had.” he mentioned. He decided to try and fit the stories into a manuscript.
Though his poetry manuscript didn’t place in last year’s contest, Olsen didn’t let it discourage him. “When you submit your work creatively, you have to go with the ups and downs,” he said. The poetry manuscript has been a finalist or semi-finalist in seven contests over the past two years. It hasn’t been published yet, but Olsen feels it is almost there. “It feels like I’m right on the edge. I’m knocking on a door and I’m waiting for someone to open it fully.”
“You should write about things you don’t know as well because you get to learn more from that as well,” he advised. Most of the stories in Olsen’s short story manuscript were based on things he was familiar with but he also challenged himself to write about things outside of his comfort zone.
The writing competition was established in 1958 and annually awards Utah writers for works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The deadline is typically in June, and Olsen worked to get the manuscript ready. “As soon as the semester ended this spring, I locked myself in my office and really worked on (the manuscript),” Olsen remarked. “I had stories I thought were good, but once I got them ironed out I felt I had something working pretty effectively.”
Just as scoring in sports motivates the players to work harder, so winning first place encourages Olsen to write more.
Though his master’s and doctorate degrees are in poetry, he feels it is worthwhile to continue writing short stories. “It was exciting for me because it gave me some justification for writing fiction,” he said. Robot Action Pinball will not be published by this contest.
Even with classes to teach and a family to care for, Olsen never finds himself in writer’s block. “I don’t know if I suffer from writer’s block,” he explained. “I think there are times when I go through a really long phase where I don’t write but I won’t admit that’s writer’s block. Because I think that I’m always writing…Even when you’re not physically writing, if you coming up with ideas, if you’re storing them away somewhere, then you’re writing.”
When in need of inspiration, Olsen tries whatever comes to mind. “Just try something when it comes into your mind and just go with it. And if it doesn’t work, you don’t need to show it to anybody and you can move on and try something else,” he recommends.
It’s hard to schedule time to write with busy schedule. But when inspiration strikes Olsen, there’s is no stopping it. “There might be days when I don’t get quite as much sleep as I like because I just want to stay up and write,” he said. “It happens and it’s great when it does. You just can’t turn away from that.”
One of the judges, Becky Bradway, expressed her opinion why she chose his manuscript. “The stories are sweet in a good way, brushing on human foibles, isolation and conflicts without bitterness. They acknowledge the difficulty of finding connection, so the connections are often made in strange, oblique ways that still count as meaningful.” Not only is the book consistent, she continued, but she enjoyed the dialogue and order that is sometimes lacking in other literary writers.
The Original Writing Competition is open to writers of all ages, and Olsen plans on entering the contest next year as well and urging his students to enter as well. “Be willing to try anything,” he said. “For me and my writing, whatever comes to mind I want to give it a shot.”