[McCabe Lecture, American University, February 25, 2015]
My dad is a year and a half shy of 80 and for the first time in his life he’s dealing with a breakup. After two years, his 70-year-old lady friend said she no longer wanted a committed relationship. Friends? she asked. Forget it, he said, and promptly sent back her belongings that she had left at his house. I’ve been calling him every day, helping him deal with his sadness and anger and confusion, for it is on this topic that I am an expert. I had 20 years of boyfriends and breakups before I settled into 10 years of marriage. My dad enjoyed 50 years of marriage until my mom died suddenly and he found himself single and living alone, which he hated, so he found someone to fill the void. Now he’s lamenting having to date again and he’s worried that he’s not going to be attractive to women because of his heart condition.
I lingered on that double entendre for a good long while – his heart condition. I know he was referring to his pacemaker and unexplainable shortness of breath, but all I could think of was: how can I not write about this? My last novel tackled the issues of marriage and relationships from the perspective of a 30-something. Is this not the perfect sequel? Or at least worth a personal essay about the changing roles we play in life and what a lovesick grandfather does in lieu of eating a half-gallon of Ben & Jerry’s?
That’s what folks mean when they ask me if I’m writing, I think. If they know I wrote a few novels, they want to know – for I get asked this a lot – are you writing? Are you working on a new novel, or at least towards something publishable?
I used to shake my head without hesitation – though sometimes with a wistful downward glance of regret — and rattle off reasons why I have no time for writing, nowadays anyway.
I mention my kids, my boys. They’re 3 and 6 years old. There are days when — from the moment I get home from work to the last excuse we’ll tolerate for why they’re not in bed — I’m in constant motion. With my 47 hands and extrasensory perception I’m endeavoring to keep muddy shoes by the door, Legos off the floor, hands off my wallet, car keys out of hiding, balls clear of lamps, rice out of hair, tongues off hard surfaces, water in the bath, pee in the potty, fingers out of the nose, sharp objects clear of ninja leaps into the air and my composure at the unending, impressively creative and varied use of the word “bootybutt.” Or poopiebutt, butt bottom, or just simply “butt.” I prefer the word “tush,” myself, but that’s a mom’s term, apparently, as I’m learning that the goal is not to be cute but to fulfill a certain destiny of the male species.
Sometimes at night I make up a story for my kids if they lay quietly under their covers with the lights off. They share a room, so I stand between their beds and use my lulling voice, letting them fill in some blanks until I hear one of them yawn. “In a house on top of a mountain,” I might say, “there lived a ….” and one would say “a teddy bear,” the other one, “a leaf.”
If you were to listen in to one of these stories lately, here’s what it would sound like:
“Once Upon a Time There Was …”
“A zombie, a creepy skeleton, and a giant monster bad guy that kills you so you’re dead, goodbye.”
“A squirrel. And the squirrel was walking in the forest and saw …”
“A magic flower.”
“A magic flower that turned into your butt.”
I’ll usually give in at this point and tell a story about the evil powers of a magic butt and call it a night.
So that’s one big time suck. The other is my work at the NEA. Negotiating those two worlds can get surreal sometimes. I might find myself one morning in a suit addressing a group of Congressional staffers on the Hill or in meetings with the Library of Congress and two hours later, at my son’s preschool at a parent-teacher conference, contorting my suited ass – I’m claiming that word as my own – into a toddler chair with my knees in my chin, apologizing for forgetting what the sharing theme is week after week. Not too long ago it was, “something that makes noise,” and I thought … well there you go. Just ask him about his butt and he’ll make some noise. A coworker was once walking in front of me and slipped and I found myself saying, “Whoopsie.” I stopped short of asking if he’d like me to kiss his boo-boo.
To my husband’s occasional consternation, my current stint as the NEA director of literature is often all-consuming, and not just because the position is demanding but because I believe so strongly in what I’m trying to do that I live and breathe it. [There’s another reason why it’s sometimes all-consuming, but I’ll get to that in a few minutes.]
So what is it that I’m trying to do, what is the NEA set up to do? In broad strokes, make sure that we live in a literary culture, that our society values diverse and excellent art, that money is not the only driving force of our literary legacy, and that writers from all walks of life continue to write and find an audience.
We know based on scientific studies that reading literature reduces stress, makes us more empathetic, can ward off dementia, makes us smarter, and is good for job prospects. And yet, according to one of our recent NEA research reports, the percentage of American adults that read at least one book, poem, or play in 2012 dropped to 47%, down from 50% in 2008, and that women are far more likely to read literature than men. So this weighs heavily on my mind.
Let me take a few minutes and unpack what it is we do and think about at the NEA, as it pertains to literature. Through our grants, we support translators and writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, as well as a wide range of literary organizations around the country, including book publishers; journals; book festivals; reading series; writing workshops; online, audio, and video initiatives; outreach to prisons, senior centers, and other underserved communities; and service organizations offering career advice and support. We’re in contact with these organizations throughout the year, keeping track of what they’re up to and, when we can, offering advice and initiating cross-pollination of ideas and expertise.
I know some of you are familiar with our creative writing fellowship program – I’m proud to say there are some NEA fellows in this room. Applications are judged anonymously, meaning the reviewers look only at the work sample. The program is designed to level the playing field, no matter where writers live in the US, what they’ve accomplished, or how many followers they have on Twitter. A fellowship is $25,000; we award roughly 35-40 a year – about 2-3% of the applicant pool.
I can tell you that making those initial calls to new fellows has been a favorite part of my job over the years. I remember one poet said this would finally allow him to stop signing up for paid medical experiments. And a fiction writer, who couldn’t stop crying, said I had caught her at a time when she was on the verge of giving up writing, that the short story she had submitted had been rejected for publication 19 times. I told her one of the panelists had called it “a small miracle.”
I’ll also say that it’s been a privilege to work with many established writers as judges over the years. One of the most memorable panels was one we held on 9-11. We deliberated in a hotel room because the federal government had shut down. The phones were out and there was nowhere to go, so we – we being Rick Moody, Cristina Garcia, Nicholson Baker, among others — spread out around the room and discussed manuscripts. It was intense.
Our translation fellowships are just as prestigious. They’re project-based grants to individuals to translate literature from other languages into English. Since the program began in ‘81, we’ve supported about 350 translators to translate literature from 84 countries in 66 languages, including, for example, works in Urdu from Pakistan, Zapotec from Mexico, Malagasy from Madagascar, and Swampy Cree, an indigenous language from northern Canada.
You may have heard the statistic that only 3-5% of books published in America are books in translation, which means we’re not hearing a lot of important voices outside our borders at a time when the need for international, first-person perspectives from ordinary citizens are so critical. So this is one area I’ve been particularly focused on. In addition to our translation fellowships, we published a compact (though we think powerful) anthology of short essays last year called The Art of Empathy, which celebrates the art and importance of literary translation.
Outside of our granting programs, our staff also oversees a few large national initiatives, like Poetry Out Loud and The Big Read. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest to encourage students around the country to study, memorize, and perform poems, mostly by contemporary poets, like Phil Levine, who – as many of you I’m sure know — sadly just passed away. Since 2005 — it’s our 10th anniversary — more than 2.7 million students and 45,000 teachers from nearly 10,000 high schools have participated in the program.
The Big Read is a program designed to strengthen communities and get folks reading by encouraging residents of one town or city to come together to read and discuss one book. We’ve also been doing it since 2005 and in that time, we’ve given grants to 1,100 programs in every district in every state. The program has sparked more then 2,000 civic and local partnerships across the country, and leveraged an additional $35 million in local funding. We’re hoping to reboot the program a bit this year to make it more relevant and perhaps more far-reaching.
And that brings me to another part of my job, the part where I pay attention to trends and trouble spots, and try to ensure that we’re staying current and thinking up ways to help, whether it’s improving an existing program or inventing a new one. This is not an uncommon challenge in the digital age; just look at the overhaul of the NYT Magazine that premiered last Sunday. While I can’t say I’m a fan of every change, I was thrilled to see that they’re going to start including a poem in every issue, selected by former US Poet Laureate and NEA fellow Natasha Trethewey.
So, for example, I try to pay attention to what’s going on with bookstores and libraries. One of my favorite stories from last year — and you may have heard this – was about the public library in Ferguson, Missouri. When schools, shops, and city services shut down amidst protests following the infamous grand jury’s decision there last November, the library stayed open, offering a safe place for all sorts of people to come and talk. They distributed free “healing kits” for kids with books about dealing with traumatic events. The word got out and by the end of the year, it was reported that more than 10,000 people (many of them writers) donated signed books and more than $350,000 to the library, 85% of the library’s budget for the whole year.
I try to also pay attention to offerings at MFA programs and writers’ residencies. You may have heard that Amtrak launched a new writer’s residency program last year, which was fabulous, though they were shocked to receive more than 10,000 applications. We were called in to help them get their footing and I ended up being invited to be one of the judges. Was very fun. Go Amtrak.
Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in how the digital age has affected writers and publishers. So, issues like the decline in book reviews, the potential of enhanced e-books, the challenges of digital marketing and social media, the pricing wars, changing distribution channels, and the all-encompassing term known in the publishing business as “discoverability” – how discerning readers can discover good books that they might not find otherwise given all the noise and clamoring for their attention. I recently assembled and hosted a convening on publishing in the digital age that was really exciting. I had about 20 experts in the room from three main sectors of the industry – commercial publishing, independent publishing, and the tech world, as well as someone from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the media.
I’ll share my favorite digital publishing story from last year, which was about Emily Schultz, a writer whose novel Joyland came out eight years earlier, but suddenly – seemingly out of nowhere — started to receive large royalty checks, larger than she could have ever imagined. As it happened, Stephen King came out with a novel last year called Joyland. In a push to generate more income, his publisher released it first only in print, so King fans were purchasing Emily’s ebook thinking it was his. When she figured it out, she started a blog called, “Spending Stephen King’s Money,” posting photos of a new dresser she bought at Ikea or her husband’s new haircut. When Stephen King found out about her blog, he tweeted, “Emily Schultz is my new hero. You go with your bad self, girl.” My next novel is going to be called “Harry Potter Eats, Prays, and Loves the Da Vinci Code in 50 Shades of Gray.”
For 30 years — up until last spring — the NEA had been housed in the old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, an historic landmark that Donald Trump is now turning into a luxury hotel. [You’ll reportedly be able to stay in my old cubicle for $700 a night.] When I was packing up all the old files, I came across an interview with the poet and my predecessor, Carolyn Kizer. She was the first NEA literature director in the late ’60s; in fact, there has only been three female literature directors in the NEA’s 50-year history … the third was Gigi Bradford, who brought me on as in intern when I was a grad student here at American in ’98.
The interviewer had asked Ms. Kizer, too, if she was writing and she said no, but she didn’t plan to give it up. “It’s just in abeyance,” she said. She went on to say, and I feel this deeply, “as long as I can say to myself that I am doing what I think is right, without having my behavior modified by fear of anybody inside of Government or outside, that’s all I want…. You have to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty…. [But] life itself is a pretty uncertain thing…. I have found with this job that I can live uneasily but cheerfully because it’s highly speculative, and highly creative.”
And that right there spoke volumes to me and is the other reason why this job is all-consuming — it requires creativity … and creativity is what fuels me, whether it’s working on a novel, or writing blog posts, or not writing at all but dreaming up literary initiatives or making up stories for my kids.
I applaud and wholeheartedly support those of you working on a writing project full-time, or even part-time — and I’m speaking here to creative writers, academic writers, journalists, what have you. I second all the advice out there to get you to keep at it — stay motivated; turn off your inner critic; ignore the negative, cranky people who just like to hear themselves kvetch; and try not to worry — at least while you’re writing — about how hard it can be to get published or find an audience or get tenure. You’re brave to do what you’re doing and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But I’d like to speak to the rest of you who aren’t working on a book or essay or poem and because of that also say – as I once did — that you aren’t writing or can’t write or even hesitate to call yourselves writers when that wasn’t always the case, and even to you folks who are now writing full time or part-time because there will likely be a time in your future when your teaching is all-consuming or your days as an MFA student come to an end and you need a job that pays actual money and, in essence, life gets the better of you and you become one of us — writers in remission.
With all due respect to the brilliant Ms. Kizer, I think maybe it’s time to stop saying we’re not writing or we’re not writers and redefine what we mean by “writing” and “being a writer.” Is it to have been published? I would argue that some of the best writers I know struggled, sometimes for years, to get their work published before they landed a contract and launched their award-winning writing careers. Weren’t they writers before that happened? Are you a writer if you get your MFA degree, like a doctor who just earned his/her MD? I think you’ll agree it’s not like that in our field, that there are plenty of fine writers who didn’t go that route.
I know it can be a struggle to gain legitimacy — whatever that means — through some sort of recognition and it’s easy for someone like me to make this argument when I have two novels out, but I really do believe this sincerely: if you simply pop off a fast Tweet here and there, or email jokes to your friends or find an audience with the most banal, cliched, unedited offerings, I don’t believe you when you call yourself a writer. But if — when you pick up a pen or get ready to type on your computer, whatever it is you’re doing with words — you put time into it; if you think about not just what you’re saying but how you’re saying it; if you struggle with the words, the arch of your argument, the sound of your story; if you think both concretely and metaphorically; if you write and rewrite and occasionally scream at the screen and try again; if you jettison the perfect paragraph because it doesn’t fit or expand a passage of raw feelings because you have to dig deeper despite the pain; if you look up from your screen and are surprised by how much time has passed; if you’re a little nervous – or maybe panic-stricken — about the birth of your writing to the world and how it will be received, especially by your mother; if you drink absinthe — you’re a writer, you’re writing. In my book.
And if you don’t write much at all but you value creativity in your life — whether it’s playing an instrument or planning a wedding or building a bionicle (don’t ask … it’s a Lego thing … my husband’s here … I had to throw him a bone), well then … I’m speaking to you, too. There are many ways to feel fulfilled; many ways to see life as an artist.
About two years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of about 15 poets and writers from Iran, who were here through a program run by the State Department. I talked about the state of literature in our country and the challenges of getting published and finding audiences. Afterwards, I asked them what their biggest challenge was. Censorship, they said, and for the next 15 minutes they told horrifying stories of how their work or work of their friends had been forbidden or destroyed, their careers derailed, how they lived in fear of a worse fate. It was a good reminder not to take for granted our freedom to write.
About three months after my mom died, my dad started to obsess over the idea that he was alone in his house, that if he died suddenly, no one would know it. So he decided that every night, he’d send me and my brother an email; if we didn’t get it, we’d know to check up on him. “Dear Amy and Eric,” he’d write, “All’s well. Love, Dad.” Every night. Drove me crazy. So one day I sent him a book of Ogden Nash poetry — he loves Ogden Nash — and suggested he use that time and space to be more creative, to write. And he did. The poems started coming fast and furiously — Ogden Nash rip-offs, every one of them, but they were clever and thoughtful and I could tell they had been labored over. “Dad, you’re a writer,” I said to him. “No, no,” he said, “you’re the writer, I don’t know what I’m doing.” “No listen to me,” I said, using my annoying mom voice, “you’re doing exactly what a writer does.” “I don’t know,” he said, “whatever it is … it feels good.”