Don’t Wait for Permission: Notes on a D.I.Y. Writing Fellowship

We live in an era when more and more writers apply to the same small handful of grants and fellowships, awaiting institutional permission to pursue our craft. I’m not claiming to be any different -- I’ve sent out countless applications to the Stegner and the Fine Arts Work Center, and when the rejections arrived, I shook my head and went back to doing whatever I had to do to pay the bills, fitting writing into the margins of my days. This worked well enough for short stories, but after struggling for a few years on my novel, I came to realize that if I was going to write the best book I could, I would need an uninterrupted stretch of time.

This is the struggle of pretty much every writer I know – including my wife, fellow Grub Street instructor Jenn De Leon. One afternoon last fall, we looked at each other over a kitchen table cluttered with self-addressed stamped envelopes and statements of purpose, and we reached a decision. This year, we were not going to wait for permission.  This year, no matter what kind of news the postman delivered, we had already made our choice: we were going to write full-time.

Adam's desk at Lake Atitlan

As the rejection letters trickled in, we got to work, researching artist colonies and holding down multiple jobs all spring and summer, saving every penny. And then we set off, cobbling together a year of short-term residencies, international travel, and any other offer that included a bed, a coffee maker, and two desks. Over the past twelve months, we unpacked our suitcases in twenty-two bedrooms across three continents and seven states, and that’s not counting all the places we stopped so briefly we never unpacked: a Motel 6 near the Cleveland railroad tracks, a hostel in a small New Hampshire town, the spare room of an aunt in Guatemala City.

We planned our year around those writing residencies that accepted both of us – the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Spiro Arts –  plus the rainy season in Guatemala, and we held tight to an irrational faith that the rest would somehow work itself out. And somehow it did, thanks to good luck and great people, such as the author Joyce Maynard, who invited us to write in her stunning home on Lake Atitlán. Such as the poet Richard Blanco, who generously offered his cabin in the White Mountains. Such as family and friends who came through with offers of places to stay in the Vermont woods and the Maine coast.  We pulled it off, building an entire year around this singular focus: we wanted to wake up in the morning and have that day’s work be to write.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Jenn and I both had some luck with publications this year, though no million dollar book deals have magically appeared. But I did completely rebuild my novel from the ground up, and after years of floundering, I feel good about the manuscript for the first time. I also managed to revise my short story collection and add a few new stories. As for Jenn, she took her novel through a major revision, finished several new essays, and completed the first draft of a new memoir. In other words, we did the work. Time will tell where these projects go from here, but no matter what happens, I have no regrets.

Desk in the White Mountains

There is much more to say about this wild, unforgettable, life-changing year than I could possibly fit in a blog post. So let me just end with one lesson learned: it can be done. Forget the idea that writing full-time is only for gentlemen of leisure. Half the writers in this couple aren’t gentlemen and neither of us come from money, and we made it work.

Sure, it may take a willingness to work six jobs all summer long, an affinity for rice and beans, and a leap of faith, but you can do it too. Be creative and use whatever resources you have at your disposal.  This might mean crashing in your childhood bedroom or on friends’ spare sofas, or it might mean asking around if somebody has a ski cabin that sits empty once the snow melts. Look into sabbatical homes  and writing residencies  – there are many amazing artist colonies around the country, and if you can apply for periods other than summer, your chances improve. If nothing else, invest in a plane ticket to somewhere your savings will be enough to survive on as a writer. Be brave, be strategic, and hustle like hell. And no matter what, don’t wait for the postman to tell you when it’s time to pursue your art.

About the Author

Adam Stumacher's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, The Kenyon Review, The Sun, Night Train, Massachusetts Review, Five Chapters, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere, was anthologized in Best New American Voices, and won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. He holds degrees from Cornell University and Saint Mary's College and was a fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He has been awarded a tuition scholarship from Bread Loaf and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Spiro Arts, and others. He has taught creative writing at MIT, the University of Wisconsin, Saint Mary's College, and Grub Street, and he has many years experience as a teacher in inner city high schools, for which he was awarded the Sontag Prize in Urban Education. He is the author of a short story collection, The Neon Desert, and is currently working on a novel, entitled A Liar's Opus.

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