HOW I WON AN NEA FELLOWSHIP AND STOPPED HAVING FUN
Applying for a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship was as onerous and infuriating as you’d expect for a process executed on a website with a “.gov” domain name. It took hours to complete on my work laptop, an aged Lenovo that audibly whirred and loaded webpages and documents at a paint-drying pace. All this for naught, I thought—a futile attempt at literary recognition. Like the title of Jack Black’s crime-filled, safe-cracking, and system-dismantling autobiography, You can’t win echoed in my head. I was a born loser, the “opposite of a winner,” like Biggie had rapped on “Juicy.”
Months earlier, I had even written a poem expressing such sentiments. I wrote it in a fit of indignation after reading an article about how literary contests are essentially rigged—moneymaking scams that choose winners based on nepotism, favoritism, and quid pro quo, all the while charging dreamy suckers like me exorbitant entry fees. (You know, like the college application process.) The poem was dedicated to Etheridge Knight and modeled on his “Feeling Fucked Up,” because I longed for my poem to be considered as iconoclastic and blasphemous as his.
So when I finally clicked “submit” on my NEA application, I added it to the Excel spreadsheet where I list my outstanding submissions (outstanding as in “remaining to be dealt with,” not “masterful”) and forgot about it. It was like purchasing a lottery ticket when the jackpot climbs to a newsworthy amount—just doing it because it’s the thing to do, because everyone’s doing it, as ritual.
Months later, standing at my desk waiting for fall parent conferences to begin, my phone buzzed and displayed a number from Washington D.C. My mind went to the NEA and then to the realization I had won. Phone calls are reserved for winners and acceptances not losers and rejections. These thoughts unraveled as the conversation took place. Congratulations. Here are the odds of you winning. These were the panelists. This is the dollar amount. Please don’t tell anyone until it’s officially announced. We’ll be in touch. The conversation bordered on conspiratorial. I felt like I was in on something.
I said the things people say. Is this a joke? Thank you so much. I can’t believe it. I called my partner and told her I had won. She asked how much the grant was for. We both responded ecstatically, having never—either individually or combined—experienced such a windfall. (Pardon these details—NEA success stories are a subgenre of sorts, often written in a euphoric state by the fellows and posted in the since-renamed “Writers Corner” on the NEA website to provoke envy, I’m surmising, in the un-winning masses.)
That night, I researched the award (NB: this is where the psychofuckery begins). I scoured the NEA website—reading its history, its criteria, its funding. Most interesting was a PDF brochure of previous recipients—a list of impressive names—authors I’ve read in school, authors I’ve taught, whose books I own. I learned how some incalculable percentage of Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award winners had received NEAs early in their careers. I found it difficult to believe I was in such company. Could I be destined for similar literary eminence?
When the fellowship recipients were formerly announced, I googled each name on the list. They were mostly established writers—bestsellers, MFAs, residencies, full Wikipedia pages. I was, by my estimate, the misfit.
This habit of researching authors and comparing stats is something I’ve developed over time. I pay particular attention to age, my thinking being, “If I’m younger than you, I’ve still got time to catch up.” Whenever I receive the complimentary copy of some lit mag in which my work appears, I read the contributors’ notes before any of the actual work. This competitive spirit has haunted me for much of my life. I used to blame it on the cutthroat ideology of Michael Jordan, my childhood hero. I explored this very idea in a hybrid work called MJ. Somewhere in the course of writing the book, though, I realized the competitive drive had more to do with my upbringing than Michael Jordan (shout out to my therapist!).
The incessant comparing is debilitating—it eats time. I can’t tell you the hours I’ve wasted learning about other writers’ accomplishments when I could be working on my own writing. And I was appalled by my behavior as well. I felt like I was failing to live up to my own ethics and beliefs. I know this prioritizing of competition over cooperation is encouraged by a profit-driven culture where success usually means your privileges have lined up in a constellation of inclusivity, opportunity, and acceptance. I spend my personal, professional, and writing life fighting against this ideology, yet competition sadly still stunts me in this arena that’s supposed to be free of the trappings of capitalism. The habit leaves me feeling ashamed, which is in addition to the feeling of inadequacy at not having as many publishing credentials as my peers.
My neuroses know no limit. I’m often incapable of feeling pride in the publications in which my work has appeared. There’s the tier system to lit mags, of course. And, like many, I’m hyperaware of it. There’s the quality of the readers and the editorial staff to consider. There’s the frequency with which poems or stories appear in the Pushcart anthology or the Best American Series. There are so many ways to justify feeling inadequate about an acceptance. The bias I hold against online journals, for example, is nothing short of embarrassing.
I experienced similar feelings of inadequacy with my first book, a collection of short stories. I submitted the manuscript to a number of small presses—some rejected it, some named the manuscript a finalist, and some have let the submission flounder in Submittable purgatory for five years. A now-defunct small press eventually accepted the book. I was highly suspicious of the editor’s quick turnaround time on my submission to an open call. It made me think it wasn’t a legitimate place to publish.
I’ve been dogged by my nebulous criteria of legitimacy. I tried to exert as much control as I could over the production of my story collection so as to make it appear legitimate (since I had concluded it was decidedly not—I was, as Main Source said back in ’92, fakin’ the funk). This means I was concerned with the quality and professionalism of the cover design, the paper stock, the formatting of the words on the page, the Library of Congress CIP data, the ISBN number, the distribution, the barcode. I had standards in my mind—standards I couldn’t always concretely define.
For example, I didn’t want the cover art to look like it was thrown together on Photoshop by an amateur (as many other releases from this publisher did). So I found a legitimate graphic designer to do the work. The book wouldn’t end up with CIP data, but it did have an ISBN and an LCCN, which, after checking on other books for comparison, passed my worthiness test. The barcode sums up the issue best. Barcodes are symbols of consumerism—linking art to profit—which I’d like to believe I’m opposed to. Yet I needed to see one to feel credible. This, all because I was worried about what other people would think of my book and, by extension, me. They wouldn’t judge me on the quality of writing, I believed, but on these corporate signifiers. And some people might have. Certainly, this confession reflects badly on me, proving I’ve foolishly bought into these empty signs of artistic legitimacy. For that, daily self-flagellation.
This isn’t the way I live my life. I don’t need these superficial signifiers in other aspects. I prefer my music—to take one such example—lo-fi, bedroom recordings, hand-cut and created cover art. I prefer a DIY ethos. I’ve been wearing the same clothes—Salvation Army-purchased—for fifteen years. The same hat, boots, mechanic pants. I don’t buy things. I never enter malls or shopping centers. I don’t purchase anything extraneous. I’m a dedicated minimalist until the ushering in of fully automated luxury communism. All this, yet when it comes to literature, I succumb to cultural signifiers and status symbols. It’s pathetic.
Reading Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front last year helped remind me of my priorities, showcasing what it means to do something on your own terms, in your own way. Her history of the Riot Grrrl movement documents how young women shrugged off the existing channels and established a scene built on their principles. (It also reminded me that Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records “refused for years even to print barcodes on their albums’ packaging.”)
I didn’t know what to expect when the NEA fellowships were announced. My creative writing professor emailed me his congratulations and let me know how stiff the competition is, inequitably crowded with famous writers (recall the farce of millionaire Jonathan Franzen winning one in 2002). The NEA folks provided me a template press release with official letterhead for sending to local newspapers. I did so and heard nothing back. Soon after, I discovered a message was left for me on my Tumblr page (which functions as my author website). It was from an agent:
Congratulations on winning an NEA Fellowship. We’re very proud that our clients, __________, __________, __________, and __________ are also recipients this year. If you don’t already have an agent, I wanted to see if I might be able to read the project that you’re working on for possible representation. I’d love to tell you more about us. Many thanks!
Things were getting real. I continued to examine the NEA winners from recent years—almost all of them had published with highly-regarded indie presses or the Big Five—those same corporate behemoths I had invoked in my “fuck the industry” poem. Now I had a literary agent reaching out to me. I began to think about the possibility of publishing with a major. One credential had seemingly ushered me into a rarefied world of literary prestige and publishing, or so it seemed. These were notions that said more about my psyche than anything else, but they connected with larger ideas within the “literary world.”
Another agent reached out via email to inquire about my “current project” and whether I had representation. I had neither. I felt like a fool for not having anything to show these soliciting agents. This would become a new concern—the fear of squandering the opportunity to advance my writing “career.” The NEA, it seemed, carried with it a degree of clout that earned me the attention of the industry. I needed to capitalize.
I developed a plan. I’d quit my high school teaching job, balance part-time adjunct work with childcare responsibilities, and write. I would spend the year using my time and energy, for the most part, in a manner befitting the purpose of the fellowship. I set the goal of typing a thousand words a day, a quota that frequently kept me awake until the early hours of the morning.
It wasn’t unusual for me to become lost in reverie while writing, pipe-dreaming about where my novel would end up. I paid an inordinate amount of attention to the publishing industry and its workings, something to which I’ve never given much heed. These pie-in-the-sky imaginings would inevitably be followed by discouragement.
It’s not uncommon to be debilitated by self-doubt as a writer. Sylvia Plath called the unborn novel a Medusa-head, from which I can only deduce she means venomous snakes and brain proximity result in paralysis of thought. Flaubert describes the agony of “trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.” Thomas Mann seems to simultaneously brag and lower expectations when he reminds, “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I’d often reflect on my NEA grant while struggling to write. I’d convince myself it was undeserving, that it was a fluke, a stroke of luck that got me the recognition. A fortunate panel that happened to have a predisposition for my writing style. My NEA author statement for the aforementioned “Writers Corner” enumerated these doubts. I obsessed over the statement, and I subsequently obsessed over my awkward use of the word “invoke.” My psychotherapist told me the statement and this thinking were textbook “minimizing.” Even when I received external validation, you see, I questioned it and assumed it must be unearned, the result of some coincidence or twist of fate. It couldn’t be that I was actually a good writer. Nah.
Eventually, I had a novel. Or a novel draft. I had approximately 80,000 words in a Microsoft Word document whose scroll bar would shrink in size as the file opened. That didn’t happen often, though, as the document was typically minimized in my task bar. This was so I could randomly check on it—like a newborn in the night—reading a paragraph here or a passage of dialogue there to confirm it was either trash or treasure, living or dead. If I were to run with the “birthing a novel” metaphor, I would describe everything subsequent to the first draft completion as the afterbirth. You hold the baby to your breast for skin-to-skin intimacy, because separation is inevitable. And then the doctor tells you it’s time to push again.
Like a placenta, I wish I could’ve eaten what came after finishing the novel draft and been done with it. Or at least I would’ve liked to bury it in the backyard, corpselike. What came after, I soon discovered, was yet more anxiety, notions of illegitimacy, and fears of rejection.
First of all—let it be known: Nobody wants to read your shit. As someone who hadn’t forged bonds in an MFA writing program or a Greenwich Village salon, I had no peers equipped or willing to put eyes on my draft. Furthermore, I was soon reminded other writers are tied up in their own work, busy schedules, and deadlines. I naively contacted the authors from the NEA panel, half of which politely declined, while the other half ignored my emails. Emails I crafted as carefully as the prose of my novel, striving to balance earnestness and desperation. I wrote to authors I admire, authors who—like me—are from New Jersey, and authors whose work shares the same subject matter or aesthetic values as mine. Then I came across a comment by an agent who said, in so many words, she’d be pissed if her authors took the time to read someone’s manuscript. How presumptuous of me to even ask.
Folks tend to besmirch literary agents as out-of-touch, coastal elite types—gatekeepers who feed off their status as such. Soiree attendees. Hillary voters. They are. At least the majority seem to be. I realize I might be jeopardizing my chances of ever getting an agent by saying so, but fuck it. Literary agents exhibit classism at its nastiest. The experience of looking for one taught me everything I needed to know about them.
Pursuing an agent required an exhaustive amount of research, acquainting myself with seemingly arbitrary protocols and matters of decorum. There’s an overwhelming amount of information out there. Agency websites ooze with prestige and pomp and class prejudice. Anonymous agent blogs skewer the desperate attempts of writers to earn attention, acceptance, and a contract. QueryTracker, meanwhile, is a database that “helps authors find agents.” You can search an agent and see how active they’ve been in responding to queries. Users employ an arcane set of acronyms to indicate whether their EQ (“electronic query”) has received an ER (“electronic rejection”) or, if lucky, a PR (“partial request”), all with dates attached so you know how rapidly or insouciantly the agent operates. The death knell, though, is a CNR (“closed, no response”), which means your query was consigned to the slush, unworthy of any boilerplate words at all.
I made it a point to mention my NEA fellowship in the first few sentences of my query letter, thinking it would give me an edge. And it did. Compared to the average QueryTracker user, I received more PRs and FRs (“full requests,” not to be mistaken with its ugly twin “form rejection”). I’ve no doubt this can be attributed to the NEA credential.
Maybe half the rejections I received were personalized, which was much appreciated. The consensus seemed to be the work was “strong,” “important,” and “compelling,” but the agent didn’t “fall in love.” It’s fascinating how frequently the rejections rely on the diction and tone of advice columnists to the lovelorn. Clearly, this agent-seeking business involves a lot of romance. “I don’t think I’m the best advocate for your work” is sort of like “I don’t love you the way you deserve to be loved.” Agents are fond of the phrase “I’m going to step aside,” which is the equivalent of your crush granting you a pity dance at prom and then gently handing you back to your cousin for the remainder of the evening. The rejections included a lot of “It’s not you, it’s me” apologias.
There is another surefire method to gaining an agent’s attention: connections. A referral from an agent’s existing client will get you a read—no question. In a Poets & Writers roundtable, agents were asked for advice on behalf of writers who may live in small towns and not know anybody. An agent responded:
Well, know somebody. [Laughter.] I’m serious. We’re in the age of e-mail and the Internet. If you e-mail twenty of your friends and say, “Do you know anyone in publishing?” someone has to know somebody. Or somebody who knows somebody. You know what I mean? Find how you know somebody.
That bracketed laughter says it all—it’s detestable. The agent is a caricature of a literary agent, intoxicated off his own elitism, lost in privileged oblivion. He’s deserving of a punch in the name of class warfare. Or at least let me shove his face into a silver serving-tray of hors d’oeuvres.
I fumbled through several attempts at networking. These occasions typically took place at readings. I had the NEA, previously published work, and thus invitations to local venues to read. Again, I was one of the lucky ones. I used these opportunities to awkwardly ask more successful writers for referrals to their agents. It was mortifying. Why subject myself to these uncharacteristic exploits in self-interest? Because, at some point, I bought into the pipe-dream, the farcical pursuit of literary “success.” I was deep into it. Too deep.
I emerged with two referrals. One got me an agent’s attention and a personalized email exchange, sadly ending with another rejection. The other was the closest I came to securing an agent. The latter was an experience that soured me to the entire conceit and is likely responsible for the opprobrium expressed in some of the preceding paragraphs. (Sorrynotsorry.)
The agent (who shall remain nameless, I guess) was in the employ of a hallowed and distinguished agency, an agency revered for its hugely successful author list. The initial response to my query was this:
I wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed reading Mixedbloods. You’re an incredible writer.
Right now, I am having some trouble with the pacing. I can’t get into the rhythm of the work on a sentence level. But I can see what you’re doing, and I really love it. Before I keep reading, I wanted to check in with you to see if you were open to talking about some edits, for pace and narrative clarity. If so, I’d be happy to finish reading and maybe we can talk about it?
I wrote back that same day to inform the agent I was certainly open to edits. The agent didn’t respond for three weeks, but when she did, complimented my writing some more and suggested we have a call about the first fifty pages. Two more months passed before she responded again, this time to schedule the call: Friday, September 28, at 4:30 in the afternoon.
I was hyped. I spent the days leading up to the conversation making notes about “pace and narrative clarity.” I was open-minded. I was ready to listen. I was anxious to build. The rapport from our digital communications seemed to be going well, and I imagined our call would only improve our budding relationship.
And then nothing.
I rushed home from work that day, my partner preoccupied our young children, and I set myself up in the bedroom. I was organized: notes printed out, our email exchange open on my laptop, and a comfortable seating position. Four-thirty came and went. I waited two hours before I sent an email asking about the call—as a reminder, we’ll say, in case she had forgotten. No answer. I waited another three weeks before I sent yet another email—still professional and polite in tone and content—inquiring about the drop-off, the un-call, the ghosting. Looking back, the pipe-dream withered on that inexplicable September afternoon.
(Still, I entertain the thought of said agent reading this—which, of course, I hope she will—and taking such offense that I ruin the chances of a future manuscript of mine coming across her desk. How devastating that seems. I recoil at the thought of burning a bridge. What I should be doing is planting explosives under it, though.)
Overall, I queried approximately thirty agents. Approaching independent and small presses would prove no less agonizing. Underfunded and understaffed, the small press response times often stretch to upwards of a year. And small presses get pricey, too: entry fees for contests and submission fees for open calls will deplete the funds you’ve set aside for other luxuries like—oh, I don’t know—groceries.
Fomite Press, an independent press based out of Burlington, Vermont, would accept my novel roughly two years after winning the NEA. The press, run by a husband-and-wife team, seemed the perfect fit. They fashion themselves as a “post-capitalist operation,” and so our ethos lined up exceptionally well. My novel is nearly full-term now, ready to be birthed to a world of judgment, or worse (and more likely), indifference.
If Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism suggests the belief that there is no viable alternative to the present state of affairs—to the way our society is structured—then this NEA saga is subsumed in those structures and the mania I’ve experienced should come as no surprise. But there are alternatives.
We stigmatize self-publishing, instead seeking the approval of individuals who are no more deserving of our attention than the worst self-published authors. We forget that scenes are created by those who have none. Countless underground and independent music labels and literary presses begin with an individual or collective desire to share the work that nobody of import deems worthy, and to share it through direct means. There exist too many to enumerate, but some stand out to me. Be it K Records, Constellation Records, or Anticon. Be it Hogarth Press, Brooklyn Arts Press, Calamari Press, or Solar Luxuriance. These indie labels and presses have defined success as they see fit, without the imprimatur of industry figures. Coming together with your comrades and kindred spirits to publish and promote each other’s work is an appropriate and, I believe, more ethical response to the exclusivity and gatekeepers of the industry. Do you, I say, while simultaneously declaring, fuck them.