Tuesday, October 16, 2012

magical lands

1. some stories i’ve told myself

A handful of years ago, after applying for and being rejected by several of those lovely grants that give chunks of money to women artists, I decided maybe I just wasn’t One Of Those Writers. I had a book out, so I suspected I was a good writer, but Those Writers, the ones who got awards and grants and fellowships, had some kind of additional pedigree I couldn’t quite formulate, let alone access.

Maybe my MFA wasn’t from the right school, or my writing was too queer, or not queer enough. People might like my work, but that wasn’t the same as saying, We the well-funded want to put our money on you. We think there should to be more YOU in the world. It was like, if I could get myself to the party, I might be admitted, but no car service was going to send a limo for me.

And then I got a grant—from the Center for Cultural Innovation, to work on the circus novel. I got the letter the same week I learned I was pregnant with twins, and I thought, Well, this is too good to be true, and then it was. Maybe I could be one of Those Writers after all, but the price would be motherhood. It was as if long ago some sort of Rumpelstiltskin character had handed me a contract, and I hadn’t read the fine print, which called for my firstborns in exchange for the spun gold of literary success.*

I wouldn’t have signed it if I’d known!, I told the universe that was not actually listening.

Hello, young lady. Would you like two complimentary copies of a literary journal featuring your short story?
It’s stunning, and wearying, and ridiculous, where magical thinking can get you. My brain is its own enchanted spinning wheel, determined to turn the best news into a harbinger of doom. But I’m working on it.

2. mo’ money, mo’ problems?**

About a year after the CCI grant, I applied for a long-shot residency at the MacDowell Colony, and I was accepted. Was it because of the other grant—because success perversely begets success? Or the great letter of rec my unwavering mentor wrote? Or some California/lesbian/nonprofit worker quota?

Or maybe they really liked my writing sample. I mean, they must have, even if there were other factors. (I realize this whole post could come off as falsely humble or pathetically lacking in self-esteem, but my point is the strange and shifting nature of success.)

So I’m writing this from a plane headed toward an estate in the woods of New Hampshire. I hear the leaves are beautiful. The MacDowell website tells me I’ll get my own studio and three meals a day; it somewhat apologetically explains that residents are asked to clear their own dinner dishes.

Basically, I’m going to a magical-as-my-own-magical-thinking land where artists and the arts are valued. It’s a cliché to say they aren’t, out there in the regular world, but I’m so used to treating my writing like masturbation—something healthy and fun, but certainly to be done on my own time—that the whole concept of a writing residency kind of blows my mind.

I’m also aware of the possibility that my mind might get, well, not literally blown, but some circuits could misfire and I could spend three weeks in my head in the worst way. The summer of 2011 taught me that my imagination can absolutely be used for evil instead of novel-writing. I’ll be going for a lot of head-clearing runs.

I hope I’ll be running a lot. Because while one part of me will be happy just to stay sane, another part is being typically over-ambitious (note: these parts are related). I’m going to draft my YA novel! Rewrite the cats-‘n’-Malaysia book! Get in amazing shape! Blog regularly! And become the enviable self I was always meant to be. That, too, is a fiction, just like the Rumpelstiltskin story. 

My job, when I’m actually putting fiction on the page, is to create stories that counteract the bullshit stories I get from fairy tales, mainstream culture and my own head. I want my work, even the stuff that’s full of ghosts and mermaids, to be realer than reality. There’s a kind of logic in the worlds I create, but when I’m the divine, there’s nothing so tidy as justice. At least, that’s my job as I see it. And for a few weeks, it’s going to be a full-time position.

*If you’re wondering what I mean by “literary success,” I’ll quote my poetry professor Patty Seyburn: “It’s a very, very competitive world, and the stakes are very, very low.”

**I was thinking of titling this section “first world problems,” but that phrase is 1. overused and 2. a little bit stupid in its implication that having a certain amount of material comfort should absolve you from pain. If money cured broken hearts and anxious minds, it would be even more powerful and fought-over than it already is. Then the terrorists really would have won.


Tracy Lynn said...

It is the best time of year in New England. Hope you brought sweaters and if you have any problems, let me know and I will send Fathead to the rescue.

Claire said...

Congratulations! You're headed to my neck of the country. And seriously, hope you brought layers.

Success does perversely seem to beget success.

All too familiar with grants not gotten though I probably didn't cast my net wide enough back in the day. I aged out of an arts fellowship I used to apply for. Don't have a clear enough vision at present.

In any case, I hope there are still some leaves on the trees where you'll be and that they are colorful!

Cheryl said...

TL: I've been told that the bears here are small and shy, but if that's a lie, I may have you dispatch Fathead for some bear wrangling....

C: Luckily there are all sorts of all-ages arts fellowships out there. :-) (Folks here range from 23 to 75, which I love.) Yes, the trees are lovely!