The standing room–only crowd for Friday morning’s panel “Finding Funding for Your Writing” reflected the interest and curiosity of artists eager to learn more about the process (and the reality) of accessing support for their writing. Moderated by Fulbright recipient Julia Phillips, panelists included authors at various stages of their creative careers that have received and/or judged on panels, including John Domini, Darley Stewart, Brittany K. Allen, and Thaddeus Rutkowski. Takeaways from this panel included the reality versus the perception. What tips and tricks did panelists have for getting their applications done? How did they hear about them? And when should artists pursue any kind of aid?
“Think of what a paycheck rewards normally: a paycheck rewards labor.” Quoting Karl Marx, panelist John Domini started things off mentioning the give-take relationship of the receiver to the giver and what it may mean to ask for aid as well as what it means to receive it.
For the panelists, “funding” didn’t necessarily translate solely to money. It could mean being afforded the time and/or amenities to help artists produce, this includes residencies, travel and/or food stipends, as well as support to do research. Domini, Stewart, and Rutkowski received residencies, fellowships, and travel grants to help them on specific projects. These came from applications and word of mouth. For Domini getting a chance to do research in Italy as a writer/translator also meant he gave back by teaching courses where he spoke Italian in exchange for a travel stipend, housing, and food. “Really, really good food,” he emphasized.
The key to gain any grant is to apply for them steadily.
Thaddeus Rutkowski and all the panelists agreed that persistence is key. Like many things in life, receiving aid for artistic pursuits is a numbers game. Rutkowski said that he applied to the NYFA grant several times before he received it. Sixty applications and three acceptances may seem like low odds, but it actually means you’re on the winning end to have seen a yes at all.
Funding should be tied to a purpose.
Darley Stewart mentioned having clear objectives for what you want from any committee can actually strengthen your application and be less of a stressor. She also encouraged submitting to them strategically, not necessarily systematically. One could apply to everything under the sun, but would this benefit you and your work? How? Knowing what you want from the start means better targeting your proposal to spaces that may actually award you.
Domini agreed with this, saying, “Every grant agency characterizes their greater mission and its narrower objectives. No winning proposal can ignore those crucial definitions. How does your project fit the agency protocol especially if the organization is one for the arts versus humanities.”
Julia Phillips noted that the artist statement (a presentation of self) as well as the project statement are crucial parts of any and all applications. These must be the strongest element of your submission. Offering a side note: Phillips mentioned forgoing the “optional” parts of applications because these can be more of hindrance than a benefit, especially if it’s tacked on last minute. An audience member who has also been on panels echoed this and added that the optional pieces (which can be more detailed work descriptions or a side project for a regional community) can help those in later stages of their career to distinguish them a bit more, whereas emerging artists may want to bypass this part and have their work speak for itself.
Decisions are subjective.
Having recently served on the NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship judging panel Rutkowski had some more focused tips:
- Submit one piece of writing rather than several pieces of unrelated writing.
- Describe your work in a straightforward and clear manner. “Don’t make your work statement a creative work in itself,” said Rutkowski because then it gets muddled in terms of knowing how to read it.
- “Decisions are subjective, but I think the process is as fair as it can be,” Rutkowski added when asked about how marginalized writers may wonder how their work is received if a panel committee is also not representative.
- A majority vote is needed to award a fellowship until a majority is reached. And this can be several rounds before a decision is formally reached.
By following protocol and giving committees exactly what they asked for leaves no room for error in how to decipher your work. Double, even triple, check applications to ensure that they won’t be disqualified for the smallest of errors.
Most of the panelists have full-time or several part-time jobs that keep them above water. Domini, Stewart, and Rutkowski all mentioned having grants be an opportunity for them to focus on specific artistic projects, yet these awards weren’t sustaining their everyday living costs. Artist grants or even stipends/scholarships may come in small amounts, so getting several of those can help pay rent or take a trip yet are not reason enough to forgo other stable income.
Brittany K. Allen, however, is working to sustain herself via a freelance career. The Van Lier New Voices Fellowship from The Lark allowed her to begin this pursuit of centering her art full-time. At $15,000 (with a nominal amount for health insurance), she utilized this amount to build a freelance career for herself over the past three to four years.
Everyone did admit that it’s extremely challenging to find windfalls that will sustain your work for a long period of time via grants you apply for. There are ones like Creative Capital you can apply to, yet others can be nomination based and so even harder to attain by being proactive. Building community (locally and/or online) is also key in this regard of what you may be recommended for or hear about through the grapevine ahead of others.
Barriers of entry to consider
Phillips touched on this, mentioning application fees, paying with your time by volunteering in exchange for space/money, gaining recommendations for those who do not have community, as well as the “small and fussy elements” of an application.
Phillips suggested interfolio.com as a godsend to help keep recommendations on file. Via this service one can save a couple of letters of reference and have those sent for an application that may not have to be tailored. An audience member on a residency board noted that one of the biggest issues she’s found is the incompletion of applications due to a lack of recommendations.
While Rutkowski mentioned it can be helpful to attain references from someone well-known and/or who has attended residencies or gained fellowships from where you’re applying, Phillips countered that she had gotten into Yaddo without letters from anyone who had been there. So not knowing big-name authors should not prohibit one from applying. Places like Guggenheim also prefer people who have received it, but there are exceptions to everything. Darley Stewart encouraged those requesting references should provide a bulleted list to their recommenders to let them know exactly what you’re working on and what is being asked of them so they don’t have to decipher it.
Allen mentioned taxes as another concern when navigating the receipt of grants because it takes a bit of time to get in the game of paying quarterly or even knowing how to do write-offs. Phillips recommended Brasstaxes as a good resource for artists and more detailed for their needs than a site like Turbotax and cheaper than an accountant.
Where to find opportunities
- Poets & Writers
- Funds for Writers
- Word of mouth (social media, emails from connections, postings in group forums)
- Regional arts councils (they provide smaller grants)
- CRWROPPS Yahoo! Listserv
- Add yourself to a mailing list of arts organizations or producing bodies (for plays)
- Online forums/groups of like-minded artists
- Look at bios of writers by seeing what they’ve gotten or even who they thank in their acknowledgments for aid.
- Here’s a calendar of opportunities for grants big and small (this does not include regional opportunities or residencies you’d have to pay to attend)
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and she formerly served as panels organizer & social media manager for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. In 2017, she was awarded a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship & Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant for Nonfiction Literature. Jennifer is a contributing editor to Electric Literature and the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books. Her website is jennifernbaker.com.