My spring ritual: reading the full-page list of John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship winners in the New York Times. Who do I know? Amy! Phillip! Kathy! Ben! Even good friends don’t tell you they’re applying. Accepting condolences for “No, I didn’t get it”? A writer would rather have a colonoscopy. No sane person expects to get a Guggenheim. How could they? It’s easier getting into Harvard. The odds are roughly one in 20.
Imagine being given a year, a no-strings-attached year, to do exactly what you ache to do and nothing else. I needed that year. But how could I apply for a Guggenheim? I work in a peculiar way. My editor at Knopf calls it “organically.” There’s no blueprint. Emotion supplies the raw material. I shovel in the coal and don’t steer till I’ve built up steam. Pages pile up and I still don’t know where I’m going. In the romantic tradition, I learn en route. En route can fill a shipment of corrugated manuscript boxes.
“You don’t have a contract?” friends say. It’s a nasty surprise when you describe your norm to someone and their eyes bug. But writing a proposal is not the organic writer’s way. We have to see it to know what it is. That said, I was at a point in the new book when a Guggenheim Fellowship would make the impossible possible. Flaubert got sick when Madame Bovary took poison. Should I write a story about a woman who wins a Guggenheim?
A Guggenheim application is brilliant in its own right. First, there’s the computer equivalent of legwork, running down every newspaper and magazine story or review you’ve done for a List of Publications. Next comes a Personal Narrative, your relevant time on earth condensed to a page. This is followed by a Statement of Plans, three pages on what you hope to accomplish during your Guggenheim year. It’s a good idea to have generous friends who understand your work because you’ll need four of them to put their own aside and write letters on your behalf.
It takes at least a month of noodling, trashing, and tweaking to complete the Guggenheim application, but at the end of that month you’ve exhumed every piece you’ve published and crystallized your project. The application becomes your proposal. If you apply for a Guggenheim and don’t get it, you’ve still won that clarity.
I mailed the application. Hopes were stratospheric but realistic. A composer I know was having his 16th go-round. Some of his earliest memories are of applying for a Guggenheim. What made me queasy was the healthy terror of boring the anonymous panel of dazzling evaluators. You’ll never know who they are, but chances are you know them.
During the eight-month wait, I’d fresh-eye my Statement of Plans and think, What are you, crazy? Then I’d look at it the next day and think, Not bad, kiddo. It occurred to me that rereading my Guggenheim application every day wasn’t the best use of my time.
The news came in a letter I consider suitable for framing. Being a Guggenheim Fellow means a year off from free-lancing and teaching. I’ll be able to visit two countries needed to complete the research. My kids were so awed they took me out to dinner—and picked up the check.
I ask the editor who’s published my last three books what the Fellowship means to her. “If that extremely esteemed committee thinks it’s worthwhile, I better look at it hard,” she says.
A whole year, mine all mine. In a file labeled PEAKS, I collect photographs of highpoints: Sugar Ray Robinson’s right to the head of Jake LaMotta, a Zimbabwe woman cradling the 47-carat diamond she found in the road, Javier Sotomayor clearing eight feet in the high jump, Stacy Schiff’s mega-grin accepting her first Pulitzer Prize. Robert Caro’s accepting his second. I’m ready for my closeup.
Patricia Volk’s most recent books are Stuffed and To My Dearest Friends.