In the summer of 2010, I gave up what were the defining elements of my life for over a decade—my New York City apartment, my arts-related job in Soho and my role as host of a popular Lower East Side reading series—all to pursue my dream of writing the biography of 19th century collector of medical oddities.
More than a few people in my life thought I was crazy. Sometimes the person staring back at me from the mirror thought I was crazy too. But I knew that the idea couldn’t be completely insane because of one reason: I had earned a yearlong residency at an Ivy League university to do it.
To confirm, I was not the likeliest candidate to receive such a residency. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a MFA, nor did I study nonfiction writing as an undergrad. The vast majority of my arts career had been developed within the New York City poetry slam community, about as far from academia as you can get. My earliest poetry collections were self-published, and had titles like Dear Future Boyfriend: This is What I Sound Like and Hot Teen Slut, a “memoir-in-verse” about the year I spent writing and editing erotica.
But even from the earliest parts of my career, I understood that the biggest obstacle between me and the writing grants, fellowships, or residencies I coveted was myself. After all, the only true way to guarantee you won’t get a grant is by not applying for it.
And so, it is in that spirit that I present to you a brief guide to submitting for grants (which typically provide writers with financial support), residencies (which offer writers a work and/or living space to create for little or no cost) or fellowship (often times a hybrid of grant and residency, where a writer receives ongoing support in someway) with the hope that it will inspire you to put yourself out—no matter how new or established you are—and challenge yourself and your art for the better.
1. Believe In Yourself.
That might sound silly to state, but it’s important. You need to realize that you are talent worth rewarding, and that your ideas deserve attention and support. Believe in yourself, and go to Step Two.
2. Evaluate Yourself.
Note I did not say “Cast Judgment on Yourself.” No, evaluate yourself means looking at everything you bring to your art. Be specific and catalogue it all. Please know that every perceived minus you feel you have, can be a plus. There are just as many grants and fellowships for new/emerging artists (for which artists already knee-deep in their career cannot apply) as there are for more established artists. Where ever you are in your career, there are grants and funding opportunities for you!
3. Figure Out What You Want To Do.
What do you need to help you take your art to the next level? Would it be funding, to help buy supplies? If so, how much (or really, how little) money would it take to make a real difference? Would you prefer a residency, to give you time and focus? If so, how long could you leave your life to participate in a residency: two weeks? two months? a year? Be honest and specific, but don’t be afraid to be ambitious too!
4. Research Opportunities.
Too often, artists will get overwhelmed at this stage, but that’s because they put too much pressure on themselves to get started on grants immediately. Instead, I would suggest making it a two week long game for yourself, where you collect as much information on grants, residencies and fellowships as you can which fit you and your vision of where you can go with your art (now, or in the future). It’s as easy as creating a Word doc, and copy & pasting information. The name of the grant or fellowship, a sentence-long descriptor, a URL and the deadline date is really all you need. Put the information in chronological order, closest deadline date to farthest, and pretty soon you’ve created a pretty spectacular to-do list.
“But how do we find about grants, residencies and fellowships?” you are probably asking.
The easiest answer is the most obvious one: search. Just plug in your chosen art form (“writing,” “fiction,” “playwriting,” etc…) and the word “grants” (or “residencies” or “fellowships”) and see what comes up. However, please take into consideration that the smaller the pool of applicants, the greater your chance at a success. So instead of just searching “writing grants,” try searching “poetry grants.” Another tip: searching grants that are just within your state or your city (the name of your city or state with the phrase “arts council” can yield great results).
Another way to discover grants, fellowships and residencies is to look up the bios of writers you admire to see what funding they’ve received when they were at your stage in their career.
And lastly, another incredible resource is NYFA National Artists Grants. It’s the largest of its kind in the county, and it’s absolutely free to use:
And now the big one, Step 5.
5. Just Do It.
Don’t overthink the applications. As long as you qualify at the basest level, submit. The first application you do will be the hardest, as you will likely creating everything you need from scratch: bios, artistic resumes, samples, project summaries, etc. But once these have been created once, you’ll be able to repurpose them for every future application. So don’t let the first one scare you.
And if you freeze up in the middle of your application, try thinking about what the granting organization NEEDS to hear from you, instead of what you WANT to say. It’s basic enough advice, but you’ll be surprised how often artists get caught up polishing the bells & whistles of their application, and ignore its heart: who are you, and how will awarding you this opportunity ultimately benefit you (the artist) and the organization (whose mission is to help artists just like you).
6. Be Proud of Yourself.
The moment you submit an application, you’ll immediately be obsessed with knowing if you’ve won or not. That’s natural, so be forgiving. But also be proud. The moment you submit your application is the moment that you prove to yourself that your work is worthy and deserving. Regardless if you win or if you lose, that new sense of self is something you should honor and celebrate.
7. Spread the Word.
This is the final step, but in many ways, it’s one of the most important. As writers, we need to empower each other to take these steps forward, and the best way I’ve found is to match artist friends we believe in with grants that would make good fits for them. It’s natural to feel territorial about grants you yourself are applying to, but if you stumble across a good grant that you can’t (or aren’t) applying for, try to find to match it with another writer you know. Even artists who seem more established and in the know may be extremely grateful at your thoughtfulness, and poets who are peers (or are even less established than you) will surely be heartened and inspired by your attention.
And that's it. The first few times you submit can be rocky, but as you get more comfortable with the process, you might even find yourself looking forward to it. Grant applications can be interesting new ways for you to examine your art and your process. They can ask you questions about your projects that you’ve never thought of, and force you to create things (budgets, time lines, etc…) that will only help you and your project in the long run, regardless if you get the funding or not.
Before I wrap this up, I want to tell you two short personal stories about me and grants.
I was 23-years-old when I received my first book contract to write a history of the poetry slam movement. I immediately set about applying for funding to help me with what I knew would be the enormous costs of tackling such a project. Over the course of three years, I applied for several dozen different funding opportunities. I got exactly zero of them.
However, I can also say—with absolute honesty—that I would never have finished the book without that relentless parade of (unsuccessful) applications. Each one helped me better understand my project, and the steps that it would take to cross the finish line with it. The applications asked me questions about timelines, budgets, whom I imagined the audience would be. It asked me if it could be taught in the classroom, if it would appeal to people outside of my community, if it helped shine a positive spotlight on any under-represented communities. It asked me about me: where I had as a writer to actually finish the project I was pitching.
With each application, I grew a deeper understanding of the book I was writing, and grew more and more determined to do it regardless if I received the funding I once thought was so necessary. And soon—with zero funding and a lot of hard work—my book, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, came out in the Fall of 2007.
When it was time to write my second nonfiction book, I knew exactly what to do. I searched for appropriate grants, residencies and fellowships, lined-up my recommendation writers, and prepared my CV, artist statements and summaries of the project. And then I began applying. I applied to everything I could, and shortly after submitting my first batch of applications, I received my first rejection. And then another. And then another. Soon I had wracked up an entire year’s worth of rejection. I had reached the point where the very next application I was slated to start was the very first one I applied for the previous year.
But then I opened my email’s spam folder and found an email from the University of Pennsylvania. Certain that it was rejection, I opened it up to read without even removing from the spam folder. You can imagine my surprise when the first sentence congratulated me for being named the 2010-2011 ArtEdge Writer-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and I knew in an instant that leaving my comfortable life in New York City was the choice I had to make. A year’s worth of applications had forged in me a deep need to write this book, and the greenlight that UPenn had given me was the last piece of the puzzle. I knew I could do it, and know—with UPenn’s residency—I knew how I would do it as well.The UPenn residency turned out to be the first of several fellowships and residencies I would receive, each one absolutely instrumental to the creation of my resulting book, Dr Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, which was published in Fall 2014 by Gotham Books / Penguin.
When young writers ask me for my advice about how they can secure funding for their own projects, I tell them the stories of both my books. Because to me the value of these applications isn’t just the financial support they can provide if you win one. No, there is a lot to be gleaned from those first steps too: to find yourself and your project worthy enough to put in an application. That, my friends, can be the real game-changer.
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