You can’t win it if you’re not in it.
When I worked in the UC humanities institute world, this is the advice I routinely gave the scholars I coached on proposals for research funding. Two years ago, almost by accident, I began taking my own advice — and I learned some valuable lessons along the way.
The biggest is that sometimes the prize itself is less important than the process…. But wait, I’m getting ahead of my story.
December 2018: I was at the Fountain of Youth for the winter. I’d just made my decision to put Margot Black in a drawer. Fiona and I had spent the summer on our “Heart of America” tour, and I had two new projects rattling around in my head. One was the memoir of our travels but I was also mulching a new novel. It was a story that had come to me on the road, as I was driving through Nebraska, listening to Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder and visiting Homestead National Historical Park. These two projects — the memoir and the novel — were intertwined in my head, very deeply and even more messily. I was spinning my wheels and getting zero traction. Which one to prioritize? Where to start? What exactly was I doing, thinking, writing about?
Then, sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, I saw the call for the Steinbeck fellowship: a nine-month writing residency and $10,000 through San Jose State University. I had some qualms, from cost of living in the San Jose area to the tight application deadline. The proposal was due in less than a week, and I didn’t really have a viable writing sample for either of those projects. Still, a little voice in my head told me that I needed to write the proposal — and send it in. So I hunkered down and started writing.
A couple of things happened. First, by the time I’d finished, I had SO much more clarity about what I thought I was doing with each of those projects, together and separately. I ended up pitching both projects, which I would never recommend as a strategy, btw. And if I were on that funding committee, I would be very leery about supporting a project at such an early stage, from a writer working in a new-to-her field and genre.
That said, I knew even as I was writing the proposal that the money wasn’t really the end game, not this time. Sending in that proposal, written on the fly as it was, represented something more powerful, more important than money or external affirmation. Instead, it was all about me facing down all the voices that kept trying to tell me, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, that I wasn’t quite good enough, smart enough, committed enough. This proposal was me throwing out into the world my intention to write that story. It was me, giving myself permission to believe in myself, to take myself seriously as a writer outside my academic expertise. And wow, it was so freaking liberating!
Looking back, I also see how critical it was for me to get all those ideas out of my head and onto the page — and not just in my daily journaling (though that is a major part of my creative process). No, I needed a framework and a critical reading audience. I needed to intellectualize my projects and my process, to understand the meta-level themes I was grappling with and to externalize my deeply interior process — to put my left brain to work on ordering and synthesizing all the wild, multifarious stuff my right brain was playing with.
Though I didn’t get the fellowship, here’s what I did get: a complete, if still choppy, draft of the novel I’d proposed, As the Crow Flies. It is now sitting in a drawer, waiting for me to take a second road trip to Nebraska to fill in the gaps and to more fully experience the place, the prairie, that plays such an important role in the story.
Oh, and guess what? I just sent in a proposal for a writers residency in Nebraska later this year. Once again, I’ve pitched a double project. But this time, I have a kick ass writing sample and two draft manuscripts to bring to the table. And a very specific and doable goal: I imagine myself spending weekdays on the revisions to The File on Margot Black, and the weekends exploring Nebraska, absorbing the landscape and the local history, so that I can complete As the Crow Flies. Maybe this time pitching a double project will pay off. Fingers crossed!
I’ve also applied for other things over the past few months, including the Stegner Fellowship — probably too far a reach, given the Hunger Games-worthy odds , but hey, they’ve gotta fund somebody. Could be me, right? But if I don’t apply, it definitely won’t be me.
Other applications require a two-page novel synopsis, which just about sent me over the edge. The picture above is a screen shot, taken on a day I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it out. There were several days that made me cry. More than once. Nevertheless, I persisted (thank you, Elizabeth Warren, I channeled you like crazy) and I did it.
And by the end, I had learned several things about my characters and the plot that I didn’t know before I wrote the synopsis. A major character’s name changed. The ending changed. The order of several key scenes changed. I’m fairly certain these things would have revealed themselves even had I not written this synopsis. But OMG, I have saved myself a boatload of blood, sweat and tears trying to get there writing scene by scene.
I’ve also had to write an artist statement of intent, and a statement of work. I had to pare my c.v down to a single page. This was super challenging for someone who’s spent most of her life freelancing and hopscotching between higher ed and the nonprofit world. But it also pushed me to think very strategically about how to frame my unusual career trajectory for this latest incarnation, and to see with new eyes and fully appreciate my personal history of versatility and risk taking.
I’ve had to send writing samples of wildly different lengths — 1,500 words to 5,000 words to 50,000 words. I have found this last to be a surprisingly productive process. In order to hit specific words counts, I’ve had to pare back my prose (a very good thing for someone with a tendency to overwrite!). But it also gave me an opportunity to mix and match scenes; one of the upsides of writing a non-linear novel with multiple p.o.v. characters is that I can change up the order of scenes and play with different ways of unveiling the narrative. And so, in prepping the first 50 pages for the James Jones First Novel Prize, I ended up reinserting an old scene I’d decided to cut, and OMG, it totally works. In fact, it makes the opening few pages so much stronger.
I’m about to send my last proposal out into the world. And then it’s out of my hands and all I can do is wait. Well, that’s not quite true. Now I can turn my attention back to writing the novel itself. With zero regrets for the time I spent working on those proposals, because even as it took time away from “real” writing, the process itself ended up furthering my creative work.
So, yeah. The power of a proposal. Totally worth the time and effort. Get on it!