About five years ago I was visiting Portland, Oregon, when my cell phone rang. I was getting ready to attend my son’s college graduation, and almost didn’t answer. I’m glad I did.
On the other end of the line was Mary Johnson, calling to tell me I’d been selected to receive the 4th Gift of Freedom, a $50,000 award from A Room of Her Own Foundation.
Imagine my surprise! I’d spent a lot of care and effort on the application, but I knew the odds of my winning the prize were slim. Nearly 800 women had submitted their work for consideration. I almost hadn’t applied. But the process of drafting answers to tough questions about my work and my commitment had been challenging, exhausting–and ultimately exhilarating. I had carried my packet to the post office and sent it off on the last day, following through on a promise I’d made to myself.
I’m tremendously grateful to the women at A Room of Her Own Foundation for this incredible gift, and proud to share tips and wisdom to improve your odds when applying for grants and fellowships. The most important suggestion? Get started. Learn more about what’s out there, and make a pact with yourself to keep pursuing your dreams.
Part I: The Big Picture
Zero in on your passion. This is no time for baby steps. Dream big. Contagious passion is the key to creative grantwriting. Look 1, 2, 5 years down the road. What would you like to be doing? Write it down. Hold on to that scrap of paper. Refer back to it any time you’re ready to apply for a grant or make a life decision. If it doesn’t advance your passion, think carefully before you decide to devote your energy to it.
Envision, refine, articulate your project. Still thinking on a grand scale, choose TWO things you’d love to do if someone would pay you to do them. Jot a few notes to yourself, but stay clear of writing in detail. Next, describe one of those ideas to a partner. Have a conversation. Flesh these ideas out. Part of this is about the scary thing that happens when your ideas get out of your own head and into the world. When you’re ready, draft a 3-4 sentence statement of intent. You are aiming for a statement that is clear, concise, and conveys excitement. The project you describe should be appropriately ambitious (but achievable), original in some aspect, and attractive. It should make you want to do it. It should make someone else want to pay you to do it.
Present yourself. This is always… uh… interesting. When faced with the need to describe ourselves, most of us spend half the time wrestling fear and loathing and enumerating the many reasons we hate to toot our own horns; the other half the time we spend writing ad copy for the greatest show on earth. Aim, instead, for the middle road: an authentic, personal, accurate assessment of your accomplishments, your strengths, and your weaknesses. You’re just a human being, true. And, YOU are a HUMAN BEING! And so is everyone else.
To help you draft this, pick up a pen, or turn on the computer, and ask yourself these questions: What does my writing mean to me? This question shifts the emphasis from judgment to passion. Write quickly, and don’t revise; the phrases that emerge can be recycled into any grant application. What steps have I already taken to achieve my goals? Maybe you’ve earned an MFA, or published a poem, or won a prize; or maybe you’re waking up 15 minutes earlier every day to get 100 words on the page before you head to work. Don’t think about how others view your accomplishments. Write down what you know you have done on your behalf as a writer. What steps might I take to bring myself closer to my goals? Be honest, now. And be kind. What can you do that will honor your intention and help you achieve your creative aims? Now, go back and write a one page comprehensive, humble, authentic description of yourself. Set it aside. When you come back to it you’ll think, who is this fly gal? I want to know her.
There’s one secret to all this, and it’s not really all that well-concealed. The attention you put toward achieving your goals will not go to waste. If not this grant, then another; if not this publisher, then another; if not this year, another year will be yours. Just don’t stop. Rest when you have to; recharge; examine your intentions and make sure you’re on the right path. Celebrate the good fortune of friends. But then keep right on walking. Don’t let go of that dream.
Part II: Ace the Grant Application
You’ve looked deeply into your soul and determined your passion, your project, your commitment, and your readiness. You’ve settled on a grant possibility that’s just right for you. Now what?
Examine the grant carefully. WHAT DO THEY WANT? Become an expert on this. Check out past recipients; read everything on the website; make sure you understand the guidelines. Are you eligible? Is there a fee? The most frequent mistake is to ignore their rules. They really do seem to care about that stuff. Who knew?
Pay attention to deadlines. Chart your calendar. Plan ahead. Break the process down into smaller objectives: do you need references? Tax forms? Give yourself plenty of time. Don’t wait for the last day. (I am trying to learn to take my own advice. This one is particularly difficult.)
Cultivate allies. You may need letters of references. In that case, be sure to be specific in your request, and give people an adequate length of time to respond. Be appreciative of any help others give you, and help others as you can. Be in it for the long haul.
Update and customize your resume. Make sure it’s formatted appropriately for your field. Do they ask for a resume or for a CV? Don’t be shy about recording your accomplishments, and do proofread carefully for style and accuracy. A good-looking resume beats a head shot any day. Even with cleavage.
Formulate a budget. Do you need help with this? Ask a friend who’s good with financials. Don’t undercut yourself—you’ll betray your inexperience if you don’t account for reasonable expenses—but do be resourceful. Some grantors may request or require that you find outside sources help fund your project.
Tackle the application with confidence. Below are a few tips that will help you do that.
• Answer the questions creatively, but stay within the confines of the form they provide. Don’t step out of that form. It undercuts your seriousness.
• Write great sentences. Use strong and exciting language, great first lines, and tell a story if you can. Ask someone to read and critique for you. Be impeccable. Know what they’re looking for, and let them know you know it.
• Remember: real people, good people, are reading your answers. Treat them that way. Show them a good time, and be appreciative of the gift of their effort, concern, and money.
• Use good hygiene. Don’t let your writing crawl up the side of the page. Don’t smudge the pages. Make sure your printer has sufficient ink. Use the font and size they request. Don’t be cute: no stickers, no baked goods, no pictures of your dog. (Well, maybe pictures of your dog.) NO! NO PICTURES OF YOUR DOG! These people want to give you money. Help them do it! What’s the main thing? APPLY. You can’t win if you don’t try. A few more general ideas?
• Plan strategically. A Room of Her Own Foundation requires award recipients to develop a “creative project plan.” It’s a good idea for anyone wanting to accomplish an ambitious creative project.
• Find a coach or mentor. This might be a peer with whom you trade advice sessions. Commit out loud to someone who will ask you about your progress and applaud your success.
• Do one thing every day to further your project aims. Value persistence, consistency, and affirmation by putting your butt in the chair.
• Apply for a whole bunch of grants to counter your (natural) fear of rejection. Consider residencies, contests, etc. Get good at failing. It makes success that much more sweet.
• Give back. Need I say more? Good luck!!!
Summer Wood received the 4th $50,000 Gift of Freedom award from A Room of Her Own. The result of the grant is Wood’s novel WRECKER, published by Bloomsbury in February 2011. This September, Bloomsbury will release it in paperback as Raising Wrecker. Find out more at www.summerwoodwrites.com.