As I more than half expected, the winner of the flash fiction contest that I entered with such hope four weeks ago was not actually a flash fiction, coming in at over 3000 words.

Last week at work, one of my co-workers called me a rule-follower. I laughed at it in my head, because there are so many things that I do not show of myself at work, but in many ways, I really am. The problem with that is that most people aren’t, and it somehow seems to me that the rule-breakers are always rewarded. For example, when I was in high school, I once had a semester in which I did not make straight A’s. I got a few B’s. For that, I was grounded from attending a youth group for a whole semester. My brother never got straight A’s in his entire scholastic career – was lucky to bring home a C average – and was never punished for his grades.

I feel that there’s something more gut punching about not winning against someone who didn’t follow the rules as opposed to not winning against someone who did. It’s like the winner took steroids, and I didn’t, because of the big “No Roids” rider in the rules. Then someone asks me why didn’t I take steroids, didn’t I read the fine print that if I take them really well, then they’re allowed?

Not that the winning story isn’t good- it’s a really good short story, which I would have known sooner if I had read any of the non-flash fiction entries that were over 1000 words. I, personally, when reading the other entries, ignored those that went over, thinking that they would, naturally, not be considered. It was in the rules, wasn’t it?

“Up to 1000 words”

Maybe that didn’t count as a rule because it was in parentheses? Does that denote a guideline? How could I have missed such formatting niceties? I’ll have to look more closely in the future.

I think my story was one of the better ones under 1000 words, but I don’t know how much better it could have been if I had broken from the strict limits of flash fiction and delved deeper. I don’t know how the winning story would have been if it had been under 1000 words either, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as good without all the words the author gave it.

I feel like complaining about this makes me sound bitter, and I do feel somewhat bitter. This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt penalized for following the rules, and I doubt it will be the last. That challenge is mine to overcome. I need to learn when it’s worth it to break the rules, to allow myself the freedom to break the rules if the story warrants it or if my heart demands.

Too often, I’ve allowed myself to be constrained by rules – not only those in print, but also those that I write for myself, that have no bearing in reality. I told myself I wasn’t athletic, I couldn’t run, I sucked at social situations and I’d never get a job. Breaking those rules has allowed me to be more happy than I had ever thought myself capable of being. I guess it’s a good kick in the pants to feel this way, and to experience this kind of disappointment now, when I’m a different person than I used to be, with different rules that are just ripe for breaking.

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