Photo: Chris Smith

Fellowship and the Emerging Writer

Sitting in my half-packed office at Colgate, I gazed outside at the spring rain dampening the old stone buildings of that beautiful campus. In that way that gray skies do, the overcast made the new green of the trees and grass more intense and me more pensive. My yearlong fellowship was ending. It was time to move on.

To say that this fellowship had been a gift—of time, of validation, of collegial and institutional support—would be a massive understatement (or “litotes,” to use a word I learned from my students). In that office, that real-life room of my own, I felt almost as though I were lying in that green grass being soaked by slow rain, but what washed over me, amidst boxes of new pages—my own and my students’, was gratitude.

For one year, I had been what I have always wanted to be: unequivocally, unabashedly, a writer. Yes, I had published a book and some pretty good essays before this. I’d won a few prizes and almost-won more. But we live in a country that values not work itself so much (ask any laborer or field-hand or teacher), but remuneration for that work. For one year, I had been paid a living wage for a job with “writer” in its title. And on leaving it I had to face the very real possibility that it might never happen again.

There is very little “earning” for art-making. Research shows what we all already know: artists working in their chosen fields cannot sustain themselves financially in this country. Furthermore, although 96% of Americans claim to value art in their communities and lives, only 27% value artists. Every lobby needs a painting, but who lobbies to feed the painter?

As a writer, I am never “paid,” not even for work run in major national publications. When I do receive any money it is because I am being awarded a prize, or an honorarium, or—as if it requires the wave of a fairy godmother’s wand—a grant. I may be an “emerging writer,” but I’ve been at it long enough to find any validation of what I do a little magical—an improbable outcome.

And now this fellowship.

The Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship is essentially a post-doc in creative writing and it funds writers with new MFAs or PhDs who are completing a book. There are only a few other such programs in the country, and of these it is one of only two that seeks out writers of creative nonfiction. The most widely known fellowship is Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowships, but there are also creative writing fellowships at the University of Wisconsin, Bucknell University, Williams College (for underrepresented groups), and Emory University, and Kenyon College has just stepped up too, resuscitating the Kenyon Review Fellowships that helped launch Flannery O’Connor and W. S. Merwin.

That’s right; I haven’t published a major book. I haven’t even found an agent willing to read the one I’ve written. I haven’t launched or even “done lunch” yet, yet I just had the audacity to lump myself with Flannery O’Connor and W. S. Merwin.

This audacity is new for me. What I didn’t realize when I applied for the O’Connor Fellowship, or during the long winter that I longed for it, or even after I had been awarded the fellowship, was how and how much it would change me.

I mean, I hoped that it would change the trajectory of my career, that it would give me time to produce a piece of work that would surpass what I could otherwise have accomplished, but I didn’t imagine that it would transform me into someone more like the figures I’ve always idolized. But I didn’t really believe it.

Then Eduardo Corral came to visit. Corral is an alumnus of the O’Connor Fellowship who has subsequently won a Whiting Award and this year’s Yale Younger Poets’ Prize. He had come to read from Slow Lightning, a volume of poems that had taken him nine years to write.

One of those years, Corral had written in the very same office I had only just emerged from, rubbing the lingering blue of screen burn from my eyes to see him better. As he read, I tried to picture him holed up like I was with my work, gazing periodically out the window at the old stone buildings, but the man at that podium couldn’t possibly have been like me only a few years earlier. He was eloquent, his poems velvet and electric, his Q&A downright wise.

I sat in the audience rapt and enamored, thinking I will never be like that.

But afterwards I introduced myself to Corral and we spent an evening leaning towards each other, as if we were already friends, as if we were already colleagues.

This is how Colgate treated me too, as if I were already Corral, as if it were only a matter of time before others inevitably know it too. I was brought out at dinner parties, introduced to writers (Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan) as if I were a sneak preview of something soon to come.

To be sure, it was the sort of experience that can go to a girl’s head.

Two weeks after Corral, I gave my own O’Connor reading at the same podium. I expected it to be the sort of thing I’d live through, like all the readings I’d given before that one, my hands and my voice quivering, my stomach threatening to upturn the event. But in that lecture hall lined with windows overlooking Colgate’s library, and beyond that the lake with its belligerent swans and the inlet that had flooded earlier in the year, standing at that podium before colleagues and students, I felt as solid as one of those old oak trees out the window.

When an artist starves, literally or otherwise, so does her confidence. But I was full up at that podium, full of words, my words, full of a sense of validation and the conviction that what I did was worthy, not in the sense that my work was good—that is hardly the point, but that the whole pursuit, the very act of making art, were worth something to the community to which I belonged. This is, after all, the real meaning of the word “fellowship.”

I may well never live up to the promise Colgate seemed to see in me, and even if I do, I may never top that idyll year. The future gapes before me, uncertain days and weeks and years of pages strung with blurring words. But those words will be better for the time, for having had my own place within those old stone walls, for having a place at the table with writers and at the podium.

I was a writer before I went to Colgate, but the writer I will become is a product of the fellowship.




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