What $5,000 Buys You

What $5,000 Buys You

Without wading too far into politics, I’d like to discuss the actual value of a $5,000 artist fellowship I received in 2009. It was an Individual Creative Artist Fellowship through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA).

First, some background. From a recent article by Rosemary McLaughlin:

The romantic image of the starving artist shivering in his garret seems more real than romantic to today’s artists as they struggle to survive in a depressed economy.

There isn’t much sympathy for artists in our culture, though. Mostly they’re told to get a “real” job. It wasn’t always this way.
During the Great Depression, artist George Biddle prevailed on FDR to keep American culture alive, to keep gifted artists working and to make their artwork accessible to everyone. Even though the entire budget for the Works Progress Administration budget was a modest $35 million, some of the money found its way to artists.

Because of this federal support, artists like Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning did not have to exchange their artists’ smocks for waiters’ aprons. The WPA sponsored works that documented the life of the common man while supporting art education and outreach, helping a kind of American Renaissance emerge from the smoking ruins of the Crash of ’29….

The Federal Theater Project (1935-39) once employed more than 12,000 artists whose productions of classics, comedies, vaudeville and new works were performed throughout the country. Rural areas too small to entice big companies for the first time enjoyed performances they could only have read about prior to the FTP. Such national treasures as Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman and Elia Kazan were alumni of the program.

Finally there was the Federal Writers’ Project, whose members make up a Who’s Who of American Lit classes: John Cheever, John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Studs Terkel, to name a few. The lofty intention of the program was to develop a “national culture of diversity” while supporting talented American writers. State and regional guides, oral histories, slave narratives, folklore and folk songs were documented and preserved.

Shortly after I finished grad school in 2008, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day emailed and encouraged me to apply for the PCA fellowship, so I did. At the time, I was living with my parents and helping them fix up their two-acre farmhouse in Northeastern PA. Because I had student loans, I was working a minimum-wage job as a cashier at a grocery store near the house. Every day after work, I’d drive home and try not to think about the economic collapse everyone kept talking about; my career prospects weren’t great even before the financial meltdown. I’d revise my stories through laser and noise-induced headaches, then go to bed.

Almost a year passed. Then, one day, I received a letter in the mail.

As a writer fresh out of grad school, it was an honor to be one of nine fiction writers who received a PCA fellowship. It gave me confidence, which encouraged me to take artistic risks and justified the time I spent writing. I shudder to think where I’d be had I not received this fellowship. As Rosemary McLaughlin writes, “I can’t help but wonder how many talented painters, writers and performers today are selling shoes, driving cabs or cleaning hotel rooms as they watch their dreams dissolve and their talents dwindle.”

The house was fixed up by that time, so I decided to move to Pittsburgh. There, I could conduct research for the writing project, a novel I’d proposed during the PCA fellowship application; take advantage of professional contacts; join writing communities; and access several libraries and archives, including Pitt’s Hillman Library and The Carnegie Library.

In 2009, shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, I was contacted by the Director of Chatham University’s MFA program and offered a position as a thesis director. I also interviewed for and received a job as a consultant at Pitt’s Writing Center. These jobs kept me active in the literary and writing community. I worked 25 hours a week and, in addition to the fellowship, made about $8,000 that year. It was hard to find even a waitstaff job at the time, and the PCA fellowship allowed me to focus on my writing instead of finding additional work.  Many people I knew, close friends of mine, got laid off that year and never found jobs.

I spent a lot of time working with my old fiction mentor Chuck Kinder to revise my novel.  (True to the spirit of the fellowship, most of the novel takes place in Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh.)  I sent query letters for literary agents. I was also able to revise and send a total of eight stories to at least ninety-five literary magazines. The total amount of finished, revised writing I did in 2009 is 40,818 words (over 150 pages, enough for a full-length short story collection).

I published one story, one interview, and one book review in 2009. This might not sound like much, but consider that according to industry averages, literary journals accept 1-2% of the submissions they receive. A prominent journal such as Glimmer Train receives about 40,000 stories a year, according to their website.

In addition, I helped former students and colleagues with school applications, personal statements, and artist grants.

Today, and thanks in part to the support I received from the PCA, I have stable teaching jobs at Pitt and Chatham, and I volunteer at The Neighborhood Academy, a college preparatory school for low-income students. I’ve published stories in several journals, including one shipping tomorrow in The Kenyon Review, a journal which has also published Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow, and Flannery O’Connor.

“The Sacred Heart Auto Club,” a story that was part of my PCA Fellowship writing sample, is forthcoming at Connecticut Review.

One of my Pittsburgh stories (set in Mount Washington, in fact) is forthcoming in the Canadian journal Wascana Review. All three poems I wrote about Pittsburgh during the 2009 G20 protests have been published: one in J Journal, which is put out by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and two in The Furnace Review.

And, finally, I’m hard at work on my second novel, which is set entirely in Allegheny County.  I’m not sure the point of the fellowship was to promote our great commonwealth in the larger arts arena, but that’s one highly visible result of supporting Pennsylvania artists.

 

Since I was required to track and account for my activities during the award period, I figured I’d share them—to back up my numbers, yes, but also to detail the number of hours writers all over put into their work.

My creative activities during the award period:

Publications in 2009:

Short story: “Clear Blue Michigan Sky.” Green Mountains Review, Vol. 22, No. 2

Interview: “Bouncing Free Radicals: An Interview with Michael Byers.” Hot Metal Bridge. Vol 5, Spring 2009

Book review: Allison Amend’s Things That Pass for Love. Hot Metal Bridge. Vol 5, Spring 2009

Awards and honors in 2009:

Received an honorable mention for a short story, “Princeton,” in Glimmer Train’s April 2009 Family Matters contest, placing in the top 50 of over 1,000 entries.

The fellowship gave me time to help other Pennsylvania writers:

University of Pittsburgh alumnus R (personal statement for MFA programs). R was accepted with partial funding to USF’s MFA writing program.

Pitt alumnus S (personal statement and writing samples for MFA
programs). S was accepted with full funding to Temple’s MFA program.

Colleague G (personal statement and writing samples for MFA
programs). G was accepted with full funding to South Carolina’s MFA program. Also accepted with full funding to Purdue’s MFA program.

Pitt colleague and Pitt MFA candidate P (personal statement and writing samples for fellowship applications, including the Stegner Fellowship and the Axton Fellowship).

The fellowship gave me time to help former students and members of the community:

Pitt senior U (personal statements and applications to med schools
including Duke, Temple, Penn State, Pitt, NYU, and Columbia). U was accepted at Penn State and Temple, waitlisted at Pitt and NYU, and is currently attending Penn State.

Pitt senior J (revising short stories, formatting stories for publishing consideration).

Prospective student C (personal statements for Pitt’s KGSB MBA
program and Pitt’s graduate engineering program). C was accepted at
both.

Although helping former students and community members might not seem like an artistic pursuit, several Pennsylvania artists benefitted, and I think this was in the spirit of the PCA. Like the fellowship, the work had a ripple effect that continues to magnify.

How I spent the $5,000:

$2,266.50 rent and utility bills

$1,263.07 groceries

$234 postage and office supplies (about $100 was spent on two ink cartridges and refilling costs)

$117.53 gas

This amounts to $3,881.10

I paid myself a salary of $93.24 a month for a total of $1,118.88. To round out the numbers, I paid myself a bonus of $.02 in December 2009 to bring the total to $5.000.

An estimate of how many hours I spent on creative work:

To write and revise the novel, I worked at least one hour a day for six hours a week times 52 weeks in a year. (6 X 52 = 312 hours). Given the significant redraft I completed after meeting with Chuck Kinder, I’d place the total work-hours spent on the novel at 400.

Consulting with Chuck, 2 hours

I spent 70 hours writing cover letters and formatting stories to particular journals’ specifications. (I wrote at least 70 cover letters and conducted research on some publications by reading past issues to familiarize myself with their aesthetic. Some cover letters underwent revision.)

14 hours revising short stories, especially “Solitude City,” “Princeton,” and “A Handful of Pennies.” These significant revisions included overhauling the story’s point of view, setting, or adding/deleting a character.

12 hours researching for a new story, “Scenic Death Valley.” Research included traveling to the Century III Mall in West Mifflin, PA, sketching and photographing the surrounding area, and taking notes.

10 hours conducting research: research for the story “The Edge of Pittsburgh” involved travel to Mount Washington, photography, taking notes, research for the story “A Handful of Pennies” involved reading written- and photoblogs, watching Anthony Bourdain’s Philippines special, personal interviews, and reading travel guides.

12 hours total helping people with personal statements— to read the personal statement took an hour, to read the writing sample (and subsequent revisions) took two hours. Statements in total took about 4 hours, writing samples 8 hours.

14 hours total to help with on Med-school applications and personal statements, since many of the secondary applications have school-specific essay questions.

6 hours total to help with KGSB and Engineering School application and personal statements.

My Interview with Michael Byers took 25 hours (10 to read the first book, 10 to read the second, 5 hours to write questions, interview, and edit the interview)

The book review of Allison Amend’s Things That Pass for Love took 12 hours (10 to read the book, 2 to write and revise the review)

The total of creative hours worked equals 577 hours. This is a rough estimate, and I lowballed it on purpose because it’s hard to quantify, for example, how much time one spends revising a story. I don’t sit with a stopwatch when I read or write, and sometimes, I think about possible revisions when I’m jogging or showering.  Tracking food and gas purchases was easy because I had to keep the receipts.

The fellowship provided me with a lot of time away from regular job responsibilities. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to spend 577 hours on writing if I’d been working a 9-5 job—assuming I could have even found one, and I tried.  I spent a lot of time ensuring that my creative work was worthy of the faith the PCA placed in me. I worked hard, grew as an artist, and have continued the momentum the fellowship helped build.

 

Some additional notes:

1. From The National Humanities Alliance, here are two politicians who worked hard to cut arts funding:

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ-5) – Amendment to reduce National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding by $145 million.  This would completely eliminate FY 2011 funding for NEH.

Rep. Francisco Canseco (R-TX-23) – Amendment to reduce NEH funding by $12.51 million.  This would put FY 2011 funding for NEH at $132.49 million.

2. Also, from a Feb. 25 National Humanities Alliance email:

Humanities advocates sent more than 5,500 communications to members of Congress in support of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The House passed H.R. 1, the 2011 Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, early on the morning of February 19. The measure was approved by a vote of 235-189, following a week of deliberations that included heated floor debate and votes on more than 160 amendments. Democrats voted unanimously against the bill, while all but three Republicans voted to pass the measure.

For the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), H.R. 1 provides a FY 2011 budget of $145 million for the NEH — the same amount provided in the bill as it was originally introduced by Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R/KY) on February 11.

3. I wrote a letter to Rep. Mike Doyle and Senator Bob Casey. Part of Senator Casey’s polite, thoughtful response is excerpted below:

I believe that a meaningful investment in the humanities is important to a thriving democracy. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the NEH is one of the nation’s largest funders of humanities programs. The agency provides direct grants to cultural institutions, museums, research institutions, colleges and universities, and a limited number of individual grants and fellowships in fields such as language, literature, history and social sciences.

The NEH will be funded in the upcoming fiscal year through the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill. Please be assured that I will have your views in mind when this legislation comes before the full Senate for consideration.

4. Due to funding cuts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts was not able to award any Artist Fellowships in 2010. It is their hope, and mine, that they will be able to do so in the near future.

 

Before I conclude, I’d like to quote Rosemary McLaughlin one last time:

Of course, artists always will struggle. Everyone struggles.

But most fields of endeavor provide a path on which you can make a living while reaching for success. Artists have a tougher time of it. They must not only be talented in their medium, they must build skills in display, sales, marketing and finances, usually while holding down odd jobs to pay the bills — jobs that drain their time and passion.

I understand the importance of state troopers, higher education, and environmental protection, and I know politicians have difficult budgetary decisions to make. However, I’m glad that so many people rallied to support arts funding. At their best, the arts celebrate and explore what it means to be human. The arts study instinct and desire. What is plot but the tracing of cause and effect? William Carlos Williams once wrote, “Literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.” That still holds true, and I hope this nation has a strong voice informed by the arts and humanities to help guide our leaders as they deal with unprecedented problems. Problems which, to my mind, were created by business leaders and executives with little to no understanding of how people think, feel, or operate.

And finally, we’re living in an age of upheaval. The sheer number of firsts we’re experiencing as a nation—it’s fascinating and unsettling and new. If creative writers aren’t going to capture those moments and record how we got here, who is?


Article: Starving artists waiting tables: They could use some help by Rosemary McLaughlin.  First published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 6, 2010.

The National Humanities Alliance website.

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2 thoughts on “What $5,000 Buys You

  1. This is a subject for a different post probably, but through my work at Chatham, I have the privilege of fostering a new generation of talent. At my teaching job at Pitt, I’ve helped students study the effects of legislation on Pennsylvania group homes. I’ve helped GSPIA students secure grants to prevent AIDS and human trafficking in Africa. The ripple effect I talked about goes way beyond Pennsylvania’s boundaries.

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