What is a “writing fellowship,” anyway? A fellowship means cash (a grant) or living space earmarked to help writers write. Sometimes it’s just breathing space – a few days in a remote location, meant to help you jump-start a project. Most grants are for literary writers of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, but there are also journalism fellowships. For writers who are busy earning a living and making a life, a chunk of time, a wad of cash, and the instructions to “just write” can be a critical gift.
While the big fellowships – such as the $20,000 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts – are extremely competitive, there are plenty of smaller fellowships for writers of all ages and experience levels, and there are special awards for specific groups of writers such as feminists, African-Americans or even residents of Oregon. The key is to match the work you do and the stage you’re at in your writing career with the grant or fellowship you’re applying for.
The three major sources of fellowships are the government, private foundations, and universities. Here’s some information about all three types, along with some resources on how to find a fellowship that will help you.
Federal – The granddaddy of fellowship-givers is the National Endowment for the Arts. Every year, the NEA awards generous grants to dozens of writers, including poets, fiction writers, and literary translators. Information on the awards and how to apply is at nea.gov. For specific application guidelines, see http://arts.gov/grants.
State – Every state has an arts program, and some states have very generous awards. Most of these fellowship programs have residency requirements, so check the guidelines before you apply. Massachusetts offers annual awards to state writers, and in recent years they have ranged from $1000 for honorable mentions to $7000 for winners, and it also provides funds for writers to attend conferences and other professional-development events. The web site is http://www.massculturalcouncil.org. Visitors to the MCC’s offices in Boston can also look through a binder of local opportunities, including grants and jobs.
Valerie Duff, a poet in Brookline, MA, whose work has appeared in AGNI and Antioch Review, applied for and got a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “I used the MCC money to transition from editing to teaching, which I thought at the time would give me more time to write,” she says.
Local – Local arts councils sometimes award grants of several hundred dollars, and they may sponsor readings that come with the fellowship. You can usually find out about these organizations from the phone book or your state’s arts council web site. These local groups are often especially supportive of young artists, and sometimes, senior citizen writers have special award programs too.
Many foundations offer fellowships to writers. A great book is PEN’s Grants and Awards Available to American Writers, which can be purchased through the PEN foundation as well as through Amazon.com. The book includes contact information for hundreds of fellowships and grants. Both Writer’s Market and The Writer’s Handbook, which are available at bookstores and libraries, have some fellowship listings. Another excellent source of information is the listings section of Poets & Writers magazine. C. Hope Clark has a wonderful email newsletter and a site, http://www.fundsforwriters.com, which is terrific. If you have a foundation library in your city, you can also go search there in person.
One way to find foundations that may be interested in your work is to search the biographies of writers you admire. Where did they find support? Are those organizations still around? Locally, a librarian may know of city or town foundations that want to support local writers, and a fellow writer can also be a good source.
For poets and fiction writers who are in the early stages of their careers, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, offers several months of housing and living expenses, plus the companionship of other writers and visual artists. One of the country’s most prestigious fellowships, FWAC is credited in the acknowledgments page of many first books.
Jill McDonough, a poet who lives in Jamaica Plain, MA, and who has taught at Boston University and Harvard, said the FWAC fellowship meant “time, confidence, community, and a chance to start fresh. I had time to go through all the drafts that you always keep in stacks, and decide what was worth keeping. Then I had the space in my head/schedule/office to see a manuscript take shape. And then I could see what poems needed to be written for the manuscript, and write them.
“By then it was about three months into the fellowship; everybody’s different, but for me it was mostly about being able to finish all the half-finished scraps, either polish them or ditch them, and come up with a manuscript so I could stop thinking about those guys. Next I spent a million hours doing secretary duty, getting the poems published in literary magazines so the manuscript would look better to the contests. Then, I was able to start a whole new project.”
The FWAC fellowship, she says, was essential in her effort to finish a first book. “I put together my first collection, which is good enough for me. It’ll get published someday, and I have since been working mostly on a series of sonnets about executions in American History.”
So how important was that fellowship?
“Without the year off getting organized, I don’t think I could have developed such a big project,” McDonough says. “I would have just kept going from one poem to the next. So it gave me vision, the space and time to step back, see ever larger pictures, and redirect.”
Valerie Duff won a second fellowship from the St. Botolph’s Foundation, and McDonough won a second from the Boston Atheneum, which have helped to advance their work. “I was nominated for the Botolph, which offers a Grant-in-Aid. You get nominated and then write a proposal indicating how you would use the money. I used it to travel to Wales and found my grandfather’s birthplace.”
For journalists, JournalismJobs.com has a great page of links to dozens of fellowships. University journalism departments often post such information on their sites, and some of these sites are publicly accessible. Sometimes, a fellowship year can let a journalist write a book, and in most cases, a fellowship offers a break from daily deadlines.
Many writers get a fellowship as part of their graduate-school training. Students pursuing a Master’s of Fine Arts degree can get tuition plus a teaching fellowship, which often covers living expenses. The Associated Writing Programs publishes a guide to writing programs, and the AWP publication, The Writer’s Chronicle, has advertisements from many of these programs. Two or three years out of the work force can help many writers deepen their work, and so university funding is an option to check out.
Even if you get rejected many times, don’t get discouraged. Writers who’ve won fellowships say it’s a numbers game, and many applied for the same fellowship several times before they finally won. Fellowships are intended to encourage writers – and you can do that by encouraging yourself, whether or not you win an award on the first try.
Aviya Kushner is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at the University of Iowa. Her poems and essays have appeared or will soon appear in Partisan Review, Prairie Schooner and The Jerusalem Post. She’s completing a manuscript of poems titled Isaiah, From Afar.