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The Writing Life
Every rejection letter starts something like this: ”Dear Ms. Jones, I am sorry to tell you that we are unable to offer you a fellowship/residency/admissions/whatever.” Then there is a statement like this, “We received a GAZILLION submissions from qualified applicants but we were only able to award one-point-five fellowships/residencies/admissions/whatever.” I sometimes read that as– Dear Ms. Jones, we don’t like you and or your work.
But after serving on a number of committees that award fellowships/residencies/admissions/whatever, I can tell you from the inside that this is actually true. I have never sat on a grant panel where there haven’t been very good applications that had to be turned down. This is mostly because of money. Arts funding is at an all time low, and the economy is bad. So what does this mean? It means that artists who used to make enough money from doing art– because they are accomplished and well known– are now applying for more grants and contests to get by, to get published. It’s really shocking, how I see pretty big names on press releases for grants, etc that used to be unofficially earmarked for emerging writers.
You are not the only one feeling discouraged right about now. So I just wanted to urge you not to be so sad, or at least not to be so sad that you give up. Your application was good. I read it, helped you proof it. So I know it was good. And trust me, I wrote you a hell of a letter of recommendation You deserved the opportunity and there was probably someone at the table that wanted to give it to you. It’s just that times are hard. There is less to go around right now. But you are still growing and learning and creating. Keep at it. Try again next year. It’s just a matter of time. I promise.
“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.
I have done the other thing. I have written bitter and cruel things and even published some them and I regret every one.”
It’s that time of year. If you’re like me, you’re setting goals and resolutions for 2013. And for me, this includes applying for various grants, awards, fellowships, and other opportunities. No matter where you are on the publishing totem pole, and no matter what you’re applying to, you are going to need letters of recommendation. I can’t overstate how important these letters are. So, to that end, the purpose of this post is to provide you with some tips on how to get the strong letters you are going to need to boost your applications.
Why do I even need letters? Shouldn’t my writing be enough?
Well, not really. The purpose of the letters is to create a narrative to supplement what you have turned in on your application. For example, if you are applying to graduate school, there is the question of can you write—which is what your writing sample is for. But there is are other questions like—does this applicant get along with other people? Does she have the follow through to complete what she starts? Is she crazy? The letters are there to fill in the gaps of what the committee can’t see from the resume.
Who should write the letters?
I know that some people believe that the writing biz is “all about who you know.” And, while, yes, it would probably be a plus to have a letter from a really famous person proclaiming you to the best writer ever, in the world, I don’t recommend that you go get a rec from the most prominent person you have access to. These are the things you should take into account when soliciting a letter:
How well does this person know you? You want to someone that can write a strong letter with lots of details with you and your writing. As a person who has participated on selection committees, I have seen letters from Very Famous People that are only three or four lines long: “I do not know XYZ candidate very well, but when I taught him at Bread Loaf he was a good writer.” A letter like that is not going to do anything for you. It would be much better to have a letter from a lesser known writer who can talk about you with more enthusiasm in more detail.
Do my letters have to be from writers? If you don’t know any writers, then obviously, you can’t get letters from writers. But it will be harder to get attention for the letters, but you have to work with what you have. If you haven’t yet worked with writers, try and get your letters from people who can speak to your dedication to writing and your character.
If the application calls for three references, how do I pick the three people? Keep in mind that different people can write about different aspects of your life. One person may testify to your writing skills, and someone else may know more about your gifts of organizations. Also consider that some writers are known for certain subject matters, or a certain writing style. If your work dovetails with that person’s specialty, then that’s a perfect fit. Your goal is to put together a letter writing team that can showcase all the things you’re good at.
What can I do to get good letters?
The main thing you can do is to be a good writer and a good citizen. The letters will focus on the quality of your writing and the kind of person you are. Your letter writer will likely be someone who has observed you in a number of situations, so keep in mind that you are always making an impression. If you are in school, conduct yourself in class in such a way that the professor will be happy to endorse you for a fellowship or grant. This is particularly true for MFA students—the letters in your file are as important as your GPA. There are some professors who write letters for all their students, but they don’t write strong letters for everyone. Trust me, committees can tell when a letter is written out of obligation. You have to work hard to earn strong letters.
The other thing you must do is to request the letters in a professional fashion. Think of each letter of recommendation as a gift. It takes me about an hour and an hour and a half to write a good one, and this time of year, I have many requests on my desk. You want to make sure that you get the best letter your recommender will write. So here are some tips:
Send supplementary materials. Don’t assume your recommend knows you well enough to write you a strong letter. Send your resume, a description of what you’re applying for, and a writing sample. It’s also good to include a copy of your statement of purpose that you’re including in the application so the recommender can know what you’re aiming for.
Make it as painless as possible for the recommender. I once had a former student who was applying to MFA programs. He sent me a shiny folder containing all the supplementary materials mentioned above, but also stamps and labels to make it easy for me to send off the applications. Not only was I pleased by the convenience factor, but I was also impressed by all the time he spent getting his act together. My letter was influenced by this, since it was clear that he was serious. His packet reflected the way he conducts himself as a writer—dedicated and committed. I wrote him a super-strong detailed letter and he got in everywhere he applied.
Finally, my last bit of advice is that you use a dossier service. Most universities offer this in the career placement department, but AWP also offers a dossier service. With this, your recommenders send a letter to the service who keep it on file. When you need a letter, you tell the service to send it, that way, you don’t have to keep asking people to send additional copies every time you apply for something. Update your letters every couple years or so to reflect your current level of fabulousness.
“It’s not Worth The Grief“ by J. Victoria Sanders on Feminist Wire really struck a chord with me. For a long time, I thought working extremely hard was a way of showing self love. After all, the only way I was going to reach my goals was to work for it, right? Were these books going to write themselves? Who was going to update my mailing list? Apply for these grants? Have you seen the VIDA numbers? And besides, when I was working– writing, teaching, improving my apartment, whatever– it was something that I was doing just for me. It was the rare time that I wasn’t laboring for the benefit of someone else, to meet someone else’s goals of what I should be doing with my life. But guess what– too much work is just that, too much work.
Here is what J. Victoria Sanders wrote:
I basically subsisted on a few hours of sleep during the four semesters when I was teaching and publishing. I answered every e-mail and graded meticulously every single paper and PowerPoint presentation, all while producing a minimum of three stories and five blogs weekly at the paper—on top of freelance work. At work and after hours at home, I kept my inbox at zero, calling readers back, moderating comments and responding to sources. At ACC, I usually skipped dinner and had a bag of chips during my fifteen minute break so that I could mindfully and professionally attend to the needs of students there on Monday nights.
There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.
I, too, am a hard worker and my mother before me has always worked hard. I don’t think I have had any model of a woman who didn’t work and work and work. My childhood memories of my father are of him in his basement office working and writing. There was no room in our world for princesses. By and large, these lessons have served me well. When Silver Sparrow was in the final editing stage, I was also teaching full time and it was the end of the semester AND I was preparing my tenure packet. I had my daily schedule calibrated down to every fifteen minutes. One item on the list: “Call parents. Assure them that I’m fine.” The hard work has paid off, but I have also paid for it.
For women it’s a double edged sword. “You work too hard,” is often thrown out as an insult by people who may resent your success. I have always taken it to mean– be a lady; stop trying to be somebody. I always want to say, “If you think think I am working too hard, why don’t you help me?”
The challenge for me is learning not to work even though there is no help on the way. When I take time off, I come home to zillions of emails, interview requests, deadlines ticking like bombs. When I don’t work, there are consequences. There are opportunities that I may not be able to be able to take advantage of because I didn’t hope right on it. Deadlines will be missed and people will be disappointed. (And of course there is the fear that I will ruin it for the black woman that comes behind me because I wasn’t perfect.)
For single women who don’t have children, it’s even harder to say no to work. When a colleagues says she is not taking papers home because she wants to spend time with her kids, everyone says “awww…” But if a single person says she is taking weekends off to chill, then it seems selfish. So I always take time off to write. It’s my passion. I love it. But it’s not time off. And for the women with children, taking your kids to soccer isn’t time off either. And a week off work because of Hurricane Sandy– that’s not time off either.
I am not saying that we should all walk off our jobs tomorrow at noon, ringing phones be damned, or that we should drop the kids off at the pool and never come back. But let’s try small. Find two consecutive hours this week where you just chill. If you have to leave the house to do it, then do that. Go have a coffee or take a walk– a leisurely walk. No phone. No iPad. A book, but no reading for work or for school. I imagine it will take a couple of tries to keep your mind in the moment. You will visualize the emails, hallucinate the little tone that says more messages are coming in. But let’s try to learn to shut the door to all that. Baby steps are still steps.
This summer, I am joining the faculty Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal – July 1-13, 2012. Two weeks of writing in a beautiful historic city by the sea. Dreamy, right? There will be workshops, readings, lectures, fellowshipping… Can’t wait. Apply. Make it a summer writing work-cation. More details here: http://disquietinternational.org/
Hi, Eveyone. We are halfway through August, and I am noticing folks dropping out of #writelikecrazy. Activity on the hashtag is slowing down. I am not recieving as many cool photos of your workspaces. The purpose of this post is to help you get back on board because we still have a lot of month left.
One question to ask yourself is whether you have set reasonable goals for yourself. Remember, this is not NaNoWriMo. We are not trying to cough up a whole book in a month. We are just here to try and figure out some sustainable habits and jump start ourselves. If you started this month like a crash diet, it’s no wonder that you have burned out. But here is a great way that #WLC is better than a crash diet. When you fall off the diet wagon, you just gain the weight back. With #WLC, the progress you made in the early days is yours forever. You can start again anything and move forward.
So rethink your goals. Has school started for you, or your kids? Are you going on vacation? Factor that in and set a goal that you can read. Can you do a page a day? Maybe thirty minutes on the timer. Give up watching Law & Order on Netflix and five that 42 minutes to your manuscript. As they say– A year from now, you will wish you had started today.
Are you second guessing yourself in general? Are you worried that what you’re writing isn’t good enough? May I offer this tweet from Anne Lamott whose wonderful book “Bird By Bird” really gets my engine running:
To be fair, sure a famous writer like Anne Lamott is coming from a different place than most of us– afterall, she is, apparently in bed while you might be at work. But there is still wisdom in what she says. Write. Even if it’s bad. If it’s bad, you can fix it. But you can’t fix it until you’re written it. Write that shitty first draft. Don’t be mean to yourself. Don’t tell yourself that it’s not good enough, or that you’re not good enough.
You can do this. Really, you can. Try again.
“What are publishers looking for?” This is a question that I am often asked by emerging writers. My question back to them is– “What would you do with that information if I told you?” Would you write a book to match what you think “they” want? Would you just feel terrible because what you’re writing doesn’t match what “they” are looking for? In truth, I have no idea what publishers are looking for and I don’t really care becauase it has nothing to do with me, or with you.
You see, I have to say what I have to say, whether it gets published or not. I got myself completely blocked when I was writing Silver Sparrow because I feared that publishers didn’t want it. I almost let it wither on the vine because I was all tangled up in industry this, and industry that. I don’t feel like going into it, but you can read about it here.) Short version: what you know is your own heart and mind. And as they say: write what you know.
For August, let’s agree to take a little vacation from industry news. You don’t need to know what kind of deals other people are getting. Don’t look to see who gets reviewed in the New York Times. Doing a demographic round up of whatever award is recently announced is just going to spin you out. And being spun out is not going to help you finish your project.
When we started this month, the plan was to be eager and enthusiastic about our work. I must tell you that I have never heard one morsel of industry news that has made me feel excited about sitting down to write. Furthermore, all the industry news in the world is irrelevant if your manuscript is still a half finished stack of papers on your desk.
Truth: The journey is hard. For everybody. I know that some people make it seem easy, but that’s a performance. It’s intense. For everybody.
And here’s another truth: All of us who write– no matter where we are in our career have something in common– we must write the next book. Yes, you can spend a lot of time thinking about how it’s easier for some people. And it is. And it’s hard. And you still have to do it.
I’ve seen the VIDA numbers and I know that it’s rough out here if you’re not an straight, white, male. (And I know it’s rough out here for many of them, too.) But that roughness is not limited to publishing. It’s true for life, yet you manage to get out of bed this morning. You find joy in your life. You experience passion. And you will do the same with your writing. Do it anyway. And do with enthusiasm and do it well.
You got this. And we got you.
I am so happy that so many folks are doing #WRITELIKECRAZY for the month of August. If you have pictures to share or testimony, you can leave a comment here or you can bop over to my fb page and leave your message there. (I love the pictures of your writing spaces!)
We’re just a couple days in, but I have been gettin questions from folks who want to participate. Many people tell me what they’re doing and they want to know if it “counts” toward #WLC. My basic rule of thumb is that if it helps you finish what you’re doing, it’s legit. But here’s an incomplete list of what you can spend the month of August doing and consider yourself Writing Like Crazy:
- Reasearch (but be sure to make specific and concrete goals)
- Generating new pages
- Revising existing work
- Poetry (of course!)
- Reading to “fill the well”
- Morning Pages
- Random Writing Exercises
- Letter Writing
- 30 in 30
- Academic Writing
What did I miss?
I recently took a trip to Brazil. It was meant to be a work-cation– sightseeing, beaches, but also writing time. It also involved about twelves hours on a an airplane. I llike to think of myself as a with-it person, so I decided that I would read e-books while I was away. Afterall, I am a superfast reader and I wouldn’t want to be carrying two weeks worth of books. No, not hip super-techie me! iPad baby. Nook app.
I ordered the books from but forgot to actually send them to my device. No worries, I thought. I’ll just zip them from the cloud when I get on the place. Didn’t the promo material say the jet was WiFi enabled? Well, there was no WiFi on board, but that was okay. I entertained myself with the movies offered by my friends at American Airlines. (Young Adult wasn’t bad.) When I got to the villa in Brazil, there was no WiFi there, either. (Moral of this story– don’t believe anything you read in promo materials.) So there was was, stranded for two weeks with nothing to read. Keep in mind that this was a communal living situation– think The Real World. And everyone that was ever a nerdy child knows that a good book can give you privacy in your head, even when you have no privacy in real life. And I had NOTHING. Before you can suggest it— there was no sense looking for a bookstore since everything would be in Portugeuse.
Yes, I know that this falls under #firstworldproblems, but it was a little bit of a wake up call to me. The ebook requires a certain amount of infrastructure and privilege. Not everybody in America– let alone the rest of the world– is plugged in 24-7. And let’s say that I been able to download my ebooks, I wouldh’t have been able to share them with my new friends in Brazil.
The ride back was a nightmare. For one, No movies because I lost my upgrade. (That’s a long story which I will only tell over cocktails.) And second, I had nothing to read, having exhausted the SkyMiles catalog on the outbound trip. All around me people were flipping through paper books with what looked to me like joy. Glee, even. On my lap, my iPad mocked. I know this sounds dramatic, but I was in flight twelve hours! There is only so much solitaire and Texas Hold ‘Em a person can take.
Next time, it’s real books all the way.
Yesterday, I posted about artist residencies, and several folks have asked for more info. I am happy to share. I was surprised myself when I first discovered artists colonies– at first I couldn’t believe that such an oasis existed, and then I couldn’t figure out how any struggling artist could afford to go. So, here is a little FAQ list I whipped up a couple years ago:
Q: What is a residency?
A: A residency is basically an artists’ retreat. Sometimes it will be called a colony. As opposed to a conference, you don’t have to do anything while you’re there. You’re supposed to write, but nobody checks up on you. If you want to you can spend the whole time napping and reading comic books. Sometimes writers need the time to just decompress. I write like mad when I am on a retreat, but I can understand those who just need to lie down and drink more water.
Q: Is it expensive? A: Most residencies receive outside funding. Some, like Yaddo and MacDowell, require no contribution from the artists. Others, like VCCA, ask that the writers chip in about $30 a day. This is a fraction of the cost of the residency; outside sources provide the rest. Usually, you can explain your financial situation and the residency will work with you. Often there are scholarships and grants. Please, do not let money keep you from applying. Get in, then figure out the money situation.
Q: Do I have to be published to get in?
A: Nope. Most residencies try to have a mix of artists at different stages of their careers. You have to apply to be accepted and your work is looked at in terms of where you are in your career. One of my most favoritest undergraduates went to Yaddo the year he finished college.. in the SUMMER.
Q: Who is going to be there?
A: Most of the residencies I have attended have been open to all artists, not just writers. Composers, poets, sculptors, dancers, painters, you name it. But other than that, you can also expect to meet a lot of sort of middle- to upper-middle class artists. Even if the residency is free, you have to be able to take time off from work, which suggests a certain leisure. However, some residencies offer a little grant to help you with your expenses at home while you are away.
Q: Ummm.. I am not white. Will I be The Only One?
A: Probably. But it’s okay. The environment is usually pretty welcoming. I’ve only had one or two bad experiences and they have been pretty mild. A few hair questions, but whatevs.
Q: How long do you have to stay?
A: Most last from two weeks to two months. I suggest applying for the whole two months, but then you see what you are offered and see how much time you are available to take. No one gets mad if you have to reduce, as long as you do it in advance so another writer can take advantage of the opening.
Q: Are the accommodations nice?
A: Some residencies are swanker than others. Yaddo and MacDowell are the dreamiest. But they are clean and you basically have what you need. Here are my photos from MacDowell from a couple years ago.
Q: What about the food? A: In my experience, yummy. And even more yummy because I didn’t have to cook or pay for it. Some places give you three squares, but almost all give you a sit down dinner. The ones that don’t provide lunch usually have lunch fixings in the kitchen, but you have to assemble it yourself.
Q: Why should I go? I write at home. A: If you can write well at home, stay there. I choose the go to colonies because I find it very helpful to be away from the demands of my life. I find that people who can’t respect the fact that I am busy writing, so don’t call me, can somehow understand that I am away at a colony. Also, it’s just lovely to be in the company of other creative folks.