On Relentlessness

Two days ago I found out that I received an award from the Sustainable Arts Foundation. I was overwhelmed by this news. The last time I checked my email in the middle of a writing day, which I am not supposed to do, I received my second rejection of the day for a short story I have out. I can handle one a day, but two felt like a lot. That was last week. Also, I applied for this grant six months ago with no luck. This time I applied with the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, and they dug it. They even sent me nice comments from the jurors encouraging me to keep going. I am still reeling a bit from the MCC Fellowship, which I found out about in May (they funded me based on nearly the same work sample I sent to the Sustainable Arts Foundation last time around, so it really does depend on who’s reading).

I’m excited about this new award for a lot of reasons, but one of them is because it’s for the work-in-progress. That’s energizing, because I’m in the thick of it. They want to help me finish it, and boy are they going to. Next year is my four-year-old’s last of three years of preschool (oh, November birthday). This will get us through it with more late days for him, which translate to more long writing days for me. And summer camp. So much summer camp for two boys. We’ll also do some family vacationing/research in Vermont, I will still probably do two weeks of swimming lessons at the town pond with them because it wouldn’t feel like summer otherwise, and I’ll be able to cherish them all the better during the rest of the summer after three o’clock with a day of writing under my belt. 

The Sustainable Arts Foundation is a relatively new organization founded by Caroline and Tony Grant. They award money to artists who have kids under the age of eighteen living at home with them. They understand that the idea of heading off to an artists’ residency is nothing more than a fantasy for people like me at this point. What I need is money to buy smaller but still meaningful chunks of time that can fit into my family life, and they’ve entrusted me with the funds to do that. I’m enormously grateful. Ever since I received the MCC grant, I’ve treated writing this book as if it’s my job, and now I feel as if my contract has been renewed. 

After I found out the great news, I looked back at my application, which I sent in September. In it, I told them I had written three chapters, and that although the book begins in 1992, I planned to follow the protagonist through twenty years. They put this information on their website where anyone can see it, along with a great synopsis that I’ll likely steal when I try to sell this thing. Two and a half months after I sent out my application, I’m twelve chapters in and still stuck in 1992. I do want to follow these characters for twenty years, and I know the two scenes I need to write to get to the next time period. I might be able to pull that off this month. It’s scary because writing about 1992 is like wearing a comfortable, broken-in flannel and when I leave it behind I’ll have some major thinking, planning, and research to do. The research will start with more reading, but I’m probably going to have to muster up the courage to email people I’ve never met and ask them to talk to me about their jobs. These are people doing work I admire in music, which means they’re probably cooler than I am. I hate to ask for things like that and interviews make me nervous (one of many reasons I was never interested in a career in journalism), but I want to write the best book I can write, and I need help to do that. 

The tasks in front of me have become more real now that my intentions are more public. But being able to start those emails with some credentials helps me. Maybe the credentials shouldn’t mean so much to me. I probably could have made overtures without them and gotten good results, because there are many kind and helpful people out there who are happy to talk to interested people about the work they love doing, but now I find myself writing the emails in my head and feeling less intimidated by the task than I did a couple of days ago. 

Sometime last year, I applied for another fellowship I didn’t receive. I don’t know the writer who received it personally, but I have some social media connections to her. Her name is April Wolfe. I was envious but I liked her work. I liked what she said on social media. She said she received rejections on the same day she received news of her fellowship, and that it wasn’t the first time she’d tried submitting to the journal that awards the fellowship. She encouraged other people to apply for the award she’d received. She encouraged everyone to keep going. She didn’t have to take the time to write these words, but she did. I’ve often thought of them as I’ve sent off another application or story with unbearable odds against success. I’d identified so strongly with the mission of the Sustainable Arts Foundation that I’d been disproportionately stung by their rejection in the previous funding cycle, as kindly worded as it was. Even though I’d recently won a fellowship, I can’t say for sure that I would have bothered to send off this application if April’s story hadn’t lodged in my mind. I’ve heard similar advice in the past, of course, but hers felt specific and came at the right time. 

Last week I encouraged a writer friend to submit her work to at least ten places at a time, on the advice of a great blog post I’d read by Michelle Seaton that completely changed my own approach to submitting. I don’t know Michelle, either, but she helped me just by writing that post. I then checked my own submissions tracker and realized my story was only out to eight places. That wasn’t right. I sent it to four more and emailed my friend to tell her I’d taken my own advice. “On my tombstone they will write Relentless,” I told her. She replied saying she’d send hers to more journals, and also with some tales of her own relentlessness. I like to think of us in two different cities proceeding with utter relentlessness, checking in with each other when we need to be comforted and reminded of why we’re doing this to ourselves. 

My dad died in 2006. I miss him. He had many wonderful traits and some annoying ones. Relentlessness was one of his traits. It was good natured but no less serious for that. Was it a great or a terrible quality? Well, both. That’s what I like about it. Persistence is nearly a synonym, but it has nicer connotations, or maybe it’s only a euphemism. I’ve decided I don’t need any implication of niceness. Call me relentless.

“What do you lose by asking?” my extroverted dad often said to introverted me. “Nothing,” was the conclusion I was supposed to reach. It’s not that simple, though. Rejection hurts. Sometimes I move on quickly. I’m testing the theory that the more rejections I receive, the less each one will mean. It has to do with percentages, and it’s sort of true. But still I lose things: confidence, faith, and courage. “You definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask for it,” was another thing he said. This wasn’t true when I was a kid, although it probably was true of whatever situation he was lecturing me about. My parents gave me all sorts of great things I never asked for: love, encouragement, books, and even a Walkman (okay, I did ask for that). I was lucky that way. In high school the administration gave out awards without any sort of application process. I don’t think I received any, but it happened to other people. Now that I’m an adult, though, I see no room to argue with my dad’s ghost. No one will ever reward work that resides solely on my hard drive. I have to send it out. Relentlessly. 

I don’t know who is reading this (hi, Mom). I know some relentless people who are accomplishing great things. I know lots of talented people who could accomplish more if only they could be more relentless. Who am I to say this, but won’t you join me?