Massachusetts Is Paying Me to Write Fiction!

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The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will deposit $10,000 in my bank account in 4-6 weeks. Because I won a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship! Money and external validation? Yes, please. I’ve applied for plenty of grants, including this one in past years, and this is the first time I’ve received funding.

I was last paid for writing fiction in 2005, when I won Harpur Palate’s John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. They sent me $500. I couldn’t have imagined it would be another nine years before someone else would pay me for my fiction. It’s better not to know those things. In 2005 I still had time to get into one of those 30 under 30 anthologies. “How shallow, how arbitrary those things are!” I always said if someone else (in all likelihood over 30) griped about them. But my secret self was dying to be chosen. 

My thirty-seven-year-old self was in Whole Foods with her 3-year-old on Thursday. I rarely go to Whole Foods, which only recently replaced a normal grocery store in my town. Had I sensed that my fortunes were about to change? I was there because I have become more rigid about the meat I buy and should probably become a vegetarian. The air-chilled chicken thighs with an extravagant animal welfare rating of 4 out of a possible 5 were already in my cart, and I was considering whether I should spring for the organic apples. Apples are on the dirty dozen list, but these were from Chile so it was a quandary. I really try, but our meat CSA declared bankruptcy after swindling a bunch of people and our veggie CSA just pushed the start of the season back two weeks because it’s been a weird spring and they only have kale right now. 

I considered the apples. They were unusually pretty. The phone rang. It was a Cambridge number. My dentist and the kids’ pediatrician are in Cambridge, and I’ve forgotten a lot of things lately, so I figured it was a reminder for an appointment I’d failed to put on our calendar and I’d have to juggle things around again because of my incompetence at managing family life. So I picked up, even though I’m not the kind of person who should ever pick up the phone while in the grocery store, because I can’t even handle call waiting in the privacy of my own home and am always hanging up on someone or seeming rude. 

You can probably see where this is going. It wasn’t the dentist. It was the program director of the Mass Cultural Council! But I had also been texting all morning with a friend who has a tiny baby. We were supposed to meet at a park, but the plan was in flux because it might rain.   

Evidently during my phone call she reached a decision, because what I heard, after confirming that I was Kate Leary, was: “Hello, this is [text messaging notification beep] from the [text messaging notification beep] Council. I’m calling with some great news today.”

Here I geared up to say that I was in the grocery store, should never have answered the phone, and did not have a minute for the environment. Or want the amazing deal on Comcast Triple Play because I don’t have cable TV so those things never add up for me. But then he said something about a fellowship. I apply for lots of fellowships, some for $1,000, some for $10,000, and as a matter of self-preservation, I try to put them out of my mind as soon as I click send. 

I made a series of noises as I worked my way up to interrupting him: “I’m sorry. I’m in the grocery store. I — thank you. It sounds like you are telling me something really good, but I am in the grocery store and I couldn’t hear you. What organization are you calling from? What fellowship?” There were a few more text message notifications. This seems like a real design flaw, Apple. Maybe disable those notifications during phone calls and notify the user after she hangs up. 

After the final beep I did better. I understood the name of the organization. He told me the number of dollars and said the word unrestricted. I said thank you many many times. I said, “I can really use this”. He laughed. Visions of babysitting danced in my head. There was more, about promoting my work and an optional reading series. I said, “That sounds fun. I want to do all those things.” I confirmed my address. I knew I needed to close strong, to fully express my joy and gratitude. “You’ve made my—“ I hesitated. Definitely not day. Week? Month? No.“Year,” I said. He laughed, but I should have said “decade.” It has been nine years, after all. 

I told my 3-year-old what had just happened. He asked if he could get a treat. Well played, sir. You sure can. 

What am I going to use the money for? Child care! The next day I signed both kids up for a week of day camp: $340. This week I’ll be in touch with our babysitter. I had been looking down the barrel of a summer of not writing at all and taking care of my own kids all the time! I think I could have done it, but phew. I had already planned a lot of this summer, so I will still be spending four weeks at the reservoir with my two boys arriving late to swimming lessons, packing lunches galore, and finding sand in inconvenient places. Next summer will probably look different, though. I will also make sure my husband and I get away for a couple of creative retreats. Those are insanely pleasant and productive, and he deserves some of this, too. Maybe a small research trip to another New England state. I’m not going to say any more because I don’t know if I’m really writing that book.  

What am I going to work on? That’s the funny thing. When I’ve applied for grants in the past, I had a novel I was desperate to finish or revise. Maybe the desperation came across as unseemly in my previous applications. This time I’ve finished that novel and it had a lot of problems. It wasn’t a waste to have written it, but I’m not interested in reworking it. Right now I’m trying to get the novella I finished this winter published. It was my work sample for this grant, so maybe that will help, but geez, there aren’t tons of markets for novellas. I’m putting together a short story collection that includes the novella and am working on publishing more of those stories. The collection could use a spanking new story, but every time I have an idea lately, I wind up typing, 20 or 30 pages in: “This doesn’t feel like a short story. Is it a novel? [Expletive]!” I have two possible novels I could dive into. Either one could be good, and both have plenty of pitfalls. I just have to make a choice. 

Speaking of choices, I bought the organic apples. They probably flew first class from Chile, sipping local Malbec all the way. It’s hard to say whether their pink and gold skin is dappled or striped, but one thing is clear: they are delicious.