Utter Devastation, Will Write For Food

Another illusion shattered today: I don’t think I’ll ever be a literary grant recipient. I thought maybe I could be. I’ve also thought, at various times in my life, that I could be a MFA kind of person but I keep changing my mind. In theory, when toying with the idea is like watching a cloud move across the sky, it sounds interesting and exciting. But when I think about the actual process of work shopping my writing with the same people for two or three years, of reading or listening to their writing for two or three years and probably hoping that my writing would not begin to sound like their writing or that my writing would not begin to be “MFA-y,” I get cold feet. Not to mention that sometimes I feel like MFA’s turn people into whiny bitches. But that’s just me.

Today I read a bunch of winning literary grant applications at a local arts organization, just to see. I went with high hopes. My intent was to see how  a winning grant proposal was put together but, halfway through the binder, I realized that these people were not really my people. It’s like finding an incredible vintage dress that I love, trying it on and discovering that it almost fits. Not really fits. Almost. And I spend many minutes thinking, “Well, but, how could I make this work?” before realizing that I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not.

I don’t like poets. I like poetry sometimes, but I don’t enjoy poets. I feel as if I just revealed a dirty secret. Poets, as a group, seem incredibly naive to me but also incredibly sure that their poems are needed in the world. Self-assurance isn’t a bad attribute if you’re a writer – you definitely need it. Except maybe when one is requesting thousands of dollars to go up to Grand Marais to research the lives of pioneer women in order to write a long poem, which the poet believes is vital in order to preserve and respect women’s voices. I’m a woman and if a pioneer woman from Grand Marais doesn’t get her long-form poem, more than a hundred years after her death… oh, well.

I also read an application that stated that a poet realized that he or she could really write poetry while sitting in a coffee shop. Could he or she successfully write poems while sitting in dozens of coffee shops throughout the year?

To be fair, the fiction proposals I read weren’t much better. There was a lot of magical realism. There was a lot about honoring cultures. There was a lot about needing childcare. One application said, “Before I had my daughter, my schedule was to write five days a week, with mornings set aside as  reading time for  journals, chapbooks, magazines, etc. and the afternoons for 2-3 hours of writing. Fridays were my submission days and I generally submitted two pieces of work per week.” Well, who supported that? Who worked so that she could eat and clothe herself while enjoying entire days of time to read and write?

This is the “song as old as time,” of course. For centuries, artists have struggled to find the time to practice their craft, the time to become good and then great, while not living in an abandoned badger hole. That’s why the idea of patrons was so great. Hey, rich person, give me money and I’ll turn out great works of art and portraits of your ugly daughters. Support me and I’ll write a long form poem about your ancestors who killed Vikings. Whatever you need.

At least the whoring aspect of the situation is up front in a patron situation. In the grant applications I read (and remember, these were winners), writers were reduced to saying that their culture, gender, careers, even the literary world in general, will be “devastated” if they don’t get their grants. I saw the word “devastated” no less than seven times in flipping through the applications. And this is where I draw the line.

If I don’t ever publish, I will be personally devastated. White women across America will not be devastated. And then I’d even probably get over it.

Devastation is caused by things like death. Famine. Earthquakes. Floods. Devastation is finding out your spouse has been cheating on you. Devastation for the world, poets and magical realists, is not you not finishing your book this year. That’s devastation for you and, if I were on the grant committee, I’d hand the money to the first person who said that.

“I will open my wrists and let the blood flow before I will let another year go by working at TCF Bank and trying to write at night while my roommate watches reruns of Seinfeld.”

“The check is yours, my friend. Thank you for your honest.”

Maybe this belief is what ultimately separates me from literary grant recipients. While I believe my work is good and while I strive to write stories that have meaning and depth, I don’t believe my work being out there is vital to the continuation of society as we know it. Clearly I need to work on that.

The other question is: Can we be devastated by something we don’t know exists? Can I be devastated that someone never got their memoir of growing up on a farm in Wisconsin during the 1980s published if I didn’t know it was ever written because it didn’t get its grant?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?

Now, on to investigate those oh-so-beguiling travel grants…