Free Money for Writers

Cheryl Strayed has won 17 grants totaling more than $33,000 over the course of her career to support her work as a writer. The grants have bought her time to write, but have also funded a research trip, child care, travel expenses to attend a writing retreat and even the development of her website. Along with many essays, she’s published a novel, Torch (released by Houghton Mifflin in 2006), and a memoir, Wild (forthcoming from Knopf in 2012), both with partial support from grants and residencies.

Without grants, she would still be a writer—and most writers can’t live solely on grant money—but grants have helped her write more, market more, earn prestige and hone her craft. In short, grants can propel a writing career. And even just the act of applying for a grant, regardless of the outcome, can help you better define both your work and your goals—an exercise that benefits every writer.

So, what’s the catch? Where is all this “free money,” and how do you get some?

First of all, grants are not exactly free. Applying for one takes work, including researching where to apply and then writing a detailed proposal. Grants are also not for every writer. To be a competitive applicant for most of these opportunities, you’ll need to be at a stage in your career where you have some body of work—even a small one—to show your talent. So, though you will find grants for “emerging” writers, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’ve been working at your craft for at least a few years and have some publishing credits to your name—even modest ones. (The idea is to demonstrate that you’re seriously pursuing your writing. The good news is that the actual work sample you submit is more important than past accolades.)

The grant-writing process is similar to the query/submission process: You study each organization offering a grant to ensure your project is the right match, and then you follow the directions for applying. If you’ve had success submitting your work, you already have the skills you need to win grants to support your writing.

Exploring the Opportunities
You can find grants to pay for taking a class, attending a conference, traveling to do research, producing a project, hiring a consultant, or to support you while you write. The types of grants available fall into these main categories:

Fellowships and Awards: Many writers find these to be the most attractive kinds of grants because they’re usually “no strings attached,” which means you can use the funds to support your writing in any way you want—it’s up to you what you work on.

Professional Development Grants: These funds pay for you to advance your career. Frequently, they’ll pay your tuition to attend a workshop or writing conference. For example, I used a professional development grant to take a voice workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts when I was performing dramatic monologues and needed help translating the written word to the spoken voice. These grants might also pay for marketing materials, the cost of hiring a consultant, or anything else that develops you professionally.

Project Grants: These grants pay for a specific project that usually culminates in a public event. In your applications for these grants, you’ll need to consider and define your audience. Examples of projects would be a performance of a stage play, a reading series or any literary event that engages an audience.

Residencies: Technically, residencies are not grants because they offer time and space, not money (though some residencies do offer stipends). However, time and space can be as useful as money, and the application process is similar to that of grants. You can find residencies across the country and around the globe. Most offer a place to live and write in community with writers and/or artists from other disciplines. Some residencies require you to teach a workshop or give a reading during your time there.

Focusing Your Efforts
Grant money comes from either public sources (like the federal, state or local government) or private sources (namely individuals or foundations). But before you surf the Web or wander the library, begin your research with your own career plans and dreams.

What project are you most excited about right now? Make a list of what it would take to get that project completed. For example, when Debra Gwartney was writing her memoir, Live Through This, she needed time more than money. So she put her efforts into applying for residencies. She ultimately won two—a month at Hedgebrook in Washington State and three months at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico—and the resulting book was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2009.

Residencies also made an enormous difference to Ellen Sussman, who wrote the bulk of her novel French Lessons, soon to be published by Ballantine, at Ragdale, Ucross Foundation and the Ledig House International Writers’ Residency. “I can write at home,” Sussman says, “but I can find a focus, sustained and intense, over two or three weeks at a residency that allows me to lose myself in the kind of first-draft-writing dream state that I love.”

Deciding what you want can sometimes be the biggest hurdle. If you’re like me, your project list is long. How do you decide which is the right project to pursue next?

An exercise I recently discovered in Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor is one way to start. Long advises writers to make a chronological “List of Works,” starting with the very first poem, essay, novel or other piece you ever wrote. You need only to have completed a first draft of the work for it to qualify for the list.

To compile my list, I sorted through boxes stashed at the back of my closet, where I discovered abandoned screenplays, poems, dramatic monologues, personal essays and book-length manuscripts. The first item on my list—from 1972—is a letter of complaint I wrote and mailed to the director of a summer camp I attended when I was 14. I have almost 150 entries, many published, most not.

My “List of Works” helped me see that the 14-year-old writer, the 21-year-old writer and the 35-year-old writer have been exploring the same themes and concerns at different stages of experience and writing skill. This powerful exercise showed me in concrete terms where I was coming from.

When the list was complete, I saw the trajectory of my passions as a writer and I knew exactly what I wanted to work on next.

Begin your grant research with your own desire and passion for your work. This will ground you and focus your efforts throughout the process.

Preparing the Application
What makes grant writing daunting is that no two applications are exactly alike. However, the more applications you write, the more you realize that they all require similar elements. At a minimum, you’ll need to submit at least three items:

Artist Statement: Think of the artist statement as your manifesto. It speaks for your work and answers the question of why you write what you write. It tells the story of where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re taking your writing next. It might divulge your process, your research techniques, your themes, obsessions and influences.

Work Sample: This is the most crucial piece of any application. Because even if you write the most stunning artist statement and compelling project description, if your work sample doesn’t live up to the promise, you won’t get funded, no matter what.

“Make sure the work sample is your best work,” advises Jim Tomlinson, author of Things Kept, Things Left Behind. Tomlinson has won grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA grant paid his living expenses for a year while he finished his second book of stories, Nothing Like an Ocean, which was later published by the University Press of Kentucky.

“[Work] that you are just finishing and polishing might seem absolutely magnificent at that moment,” Tomlinson says, “but a few weeks down the road, you might wish you’d gone with something tried and true.”

Ensure the sample is a good match for the grant you’re applying for. For example, if I were applying for a grant for Jewish writers, I’d make sure my writing sample was a strong piece with a Jewish theme.

Project Description: You’ll need to describe in concrete terms what the project is, why it’s needed, what the goals are, who the intended audience is and how the project will serve that audience. If you’re applying for a project grant, the application will require a detailed budget and a plan for how you will evaluate the success of your venture.

Being a Model Applicant
To stand out from the hordes, ensure you and your project are a good match for the funder and follow the directions to the letter.

Ask yourself: Is your project exactly the kind of undertaking this funder likes supporting? If not, can you tweak your idea so it lines up? If you can’t, find a better match.

Even if the directions sound like a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder wrote them, they are ridiculously specific for several reasons: to ease the strain of an already overworked staff, to make the applications easy to review, and to make the process fair. If all the applications follow the same format, it makes the system more equitable and it’s easier to compare applicants. By following directions, you’re showing respect for the organization.

You may need to review the directions several times to discern nuances. For instance, the instructions may say, “Submit up to five poems.” If so, then submitting four poems would be fine. If they say, “Submit six poems,” you can submit only six, not five or seven.

Those reviewing the applications are looking for reasons to reduce the pile. If two applications are equally strong, but one applicant didn’t follow directions and one did, the applicant who did is going to make the cut.

Discovering Hidden Advantages
Grants and fellowships are very competitive. There are more worthy and eligible applicants than funds and opportunities to go around. You do your best and it still feels like a crapshoot—because it is.

But applying for a grant helps you articulate and organize your next project—a benefit even when you don’t win.

“Every time I write one of those damn artist statements, I learn something new,” Sussman says. “In my most recent statement, I talk about how I seem to reinvent the novel every time I write one … [and] while writing that, I realized that I needed to think way outside the box for my next novel. … In a matter of moments, I came up with a new framework for this complicated new work.”

David Shields recalls his application for a Guggenheim fellowship to support his writing of The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (which was later published by Knopf): “I had to encounter that the book as such wasn’t hanging together well yet. Writing the proposal, I actually discovered what the core of The Thing About Life was.”

Writing a grant will bring you clarity, focus and momentum. As you hone the description for your next project, you make discoveries. You’ll notice that you talk about your project in a more concise way. Back at the writing desk, you’ll find that now you know what to emphasize, what to cut, what to push to the background. The grant-writing process helps you edit, expand and bring the project into its fullness.

“Everyone else complains about writing grant proposals,” Shields says. “I must admit I sort of love the process because it forces one to confront what the work is trying to do.” And when he actually wins the grants, he notices another benefit besides the money: “The thing I like most about grants is the guilt: One feels duty-bound to deliver on the grant’s implicit promise.”

The truth is, it’s humbling to ask for something—especially money. But the process of asking will toughen you up in good ways—the more you clarify, the stronger your conviction becomes. You’ll also realize that “no” won’t kill you.

In fact, a rejection can help you discern how much you want to complete your project. If one “no” is enough to make you quit, then perhaps you didn’t have the passion the idea required. If you’re still determined, this is your chance to persevere and pursue the next funding opportunity. Being a writer requires the sensitivity of a poet and the toughness of a rhino—and grant writing helps you practice both. This process is not for the weak-willed. It takes courage to be a writer. Now use that courage to push your writing further into the world.

This article was written by Gigi Rosenberg.

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