In 1998 you won a literary fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. What impact did that grant have on your writing?
—Dana Gioia, Los Angeles, California
I have to say this question brings back very sweet memories. Cliff Becker, who was then in charge of NEA fellowships, called me on a late winter afternoon with the news that I was one of that year’s winners. I was home alone and I think I ran down the hall, maybe jumped up and down a few dozen times, maybe babbled and shouted a little, and then sat, dazed, on the steps in our building entryway, waiting for my husband to get home so I could tell him. For excitement, I suspect it’s something like getting called up to the majors. It certainly was close to important events like the birth of a child, though I felt better.
When you’ve had a long apprenticeship as a writer, an NEA grant is huge in the validation department. I happened to receive my fellowship when the Endowment was under serious political attack, and there were not all that many given out that year. It felt like a particular honor to win when only about five per cent of many highly qualified applicants did. It also made me feel a special responsibility to represent not just myself but the NEA, the other fellows, and the people who might have made the list that year if funding hadn’t been cut back. So the first impact, along with the excitement, was both a greater feeling of confidence about my writing and a renewed sense of serious commitment to it.
The financial award that accompanied the fellowship was probably as important to my writing as the validation it brought. At the time I won, I was working part time as a college teacher (translation: fifty hours a week) for very little money. Generally, I planned my fall semester with writing time built in and that schedule lasted until, say, September 29th when the first batch of papers came in. I’ve always taken teaching very seriously and, in fact, have a sort of missionary zeal about equipping kids with skills that will make them better readers and decent writers who can communicate well no matter what line of work they pursue. It didn’t take me more than five minutes to realize the grant award would give me both a welcome break from teaching and the money I needed to pursue my research aims.
Though the grant money wasn’t a huge amount, it was enough for somebody who can do a lot on not much. Because I don’t like to leave projects incomplete, I used a small chunk of the funds to make a trip to Guadeloupe that helped me write the Roland sections for the major revision of the Second Magician’s Tale I’d been working on. Then I picked up my research on Suite Harmonic. I’m just checking back in my notes and see there were twenty research trips in over more than four years. Maybe those trips would have been possible without the grant money—I hope so—but I’m not at all sure how I would have managed them. My typical trip involved gas money for the thirteen hour drive to New Harmony, thirty bucks a night to stay at the Old Rooming House (going rate then) and money for a few groceries or a sandwich from Subway when I drove to Mt. Vernon. A more ambitious trip required airfare to Ireland, some B&B money, a rental car and petrol and, once, the price of admission to the Abbey Theatre. This was all on the NEA ticket, and I am more than grateful.
I should interject here that it was a real door opener for me in doing research to be an NEA fellow. That became an automatic part of my introduction, and it meant that people in libraries and archives and at the end of emails and random letters everywhere took me seriously as a researcher. Once many years ago, when I was working on an earlier book, I got some information I needed about explosives from a munitions expert in Australia via the Internet. Needless to say, this was before 9-11, and I don’t think even an NEA credential stamped to my name would make that particular kind of query successful now. But in doing the research for Suite Harmonic, I had the sense that most people went out of their way to help me when I started out by saying I was doing work on a novel that I’d received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to write. This was the case even when people here or in Ireland weren’t sure what the NEA was. I came with some kind of imprimatur that meant I was generally welcome even with my blue jeans and my backpack. The phrase National Endowment for the Arts fellowship simply garners respect.
As far as whether or not I became a different writer because of the fellowship, I suspect the answer is no. The projects and plans were already there even if the research was on hold. The intention and dedication were already well established. My voice as a writer was clear. What I think I became, though, was a happier and more productive writer and one who felt more an accepted part of the community of writers. It was an irreplaceable feeling, one I still have, and it made a difference I can’t even begin to calculate.
Note: Dana Gioia is a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts