Cleveland Press Collection

Cleveland Press Collection

By Laura Putre

I’m not one of those people blessed with multiple talents. I’m not a great cook who can also sing well, or an ebay super-seller who discovered a dwarf planet. The only thing I’m any good at is writing. Since I have to make a living—and since I’d rather jump out a window than count the minutes until I die in a cubicle—this leaves me with few career options. I could either be a part-time crossing guard (no criminal record!) or make my living as a writer.

Unlike many other writers, I don’t teach, so that means I have to take more writing gigs, and one or two of them have the pulse of C-Span. But I get stage fright just thinking about teaching. Standing up, alone, for 50 minutes or more, before 20 pairs of cold eyeballs—I know all about it. As a graduate student, I taught English composition. I’m glad that time in my life is not on video because it would be up on YouTube as “watch this person implode”

When I tell people I’m a writer, they get sort of hopeful. “What sort of things do you write?” they ask.

“Well, right now I’m doing a lot of healthcare writing. I‘m really hoping I get this ghostwriting job for a book on building a backyard greenhouse.” I wait for the sparkle in their eyes to deaden. There it goes!

Most of the stuff I write is my way of not being homeless in an economy that in the past eight years or so has been particularly unfriendly to writers. Heard of journalism lately? Yeah, I thought not.

But I always try to have at least one fun project going that I can maybe even be proud of. A few times, I’ve applied for writers’ grants, thinking “wouldn’t it be great if I could take a break from the grind and spend a good chunk of time on [insert name of meaningful project here]?” Twice, I came close enough that the judges even wrote me little notes. One, for a summer residency in Arizona, I memorized: “We liked your work. You were a finalist. Sorry the news isn’t better.”

So I remain a bridesmaid. Like many Clevelanders, my default mode is not “apply for an artists’ grant.” But two years ago, when I heard about the Creative Workforce Fellowship, I thought, “I have to apply.”

Every year, 20 artists in Cuyahoga County each receive a $20,000 grant to further their artistic goals. It’s one of the largest, if not the largest, publicly funded grant program for individual artists in the country (not counting the NEA).

[blocktext align=”left”]”Artists who come here from out-of-state, they’re blown away by this program,” says Susan DePasquale, program manager for the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the non-profit organization that administers the fellowships.[/blocktext]“Artists who come here from out-of-state, they’re blown away by this program,” says Susan DePasquale, program manager for the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the non-profit organization that administers the fellowships.

The money comes from the sin tax—so thank you, smokers. Apparently there is still a smattering of you, sucking poison out by the docks.

This year, writers, musicians, and theater and dance artists could apply. True to myself, I starting filling out the application exactly two hours before the midnight deadline. I didn’t attend any of the workshops on filling out the application because, get this: I had to work. Also, I didn’t try very hard to attend.

Surprisingly, though, I made it through the first round, where 237 applicants were winnowed to 52. I had an exactly a 38.46 percent chance of getting a  $20,000 grant. I also received a letter stating the final grant review was open to the public. You could sit on a plastic chair in a room with the judges (called “panelists”) while they critiqued your work over two days and see in real time whether you made the cut or not.

My first reaction: No frigging way. But then I started thinking. I’m old. I’m in my forties. My writing has been sliced and diced by many overworked or ill-trained editors (not you, my favorite editor). I can take it. And maybe, I can learn something from it.

So in early November, I sat in the audience for the panel review. There weren’t many of us there, in the basement of Ideastream.

First, Susan DePasquale gave a disclaimer: “There are jackhammers because there’s a giant chandelier that’s going to be installed in the plaza outside, and they’re jackhammering the pylons that are going to suspend it.” I don’t think we were supposed to read anything into it.

I was impressed by the panelists, distinguished artists from out-of-town whose critiques were smart and generous. Not having been in any kind of academic setting for a long while, I felt like I was vacationing in some sort of intellectual spa.

A writer of young-adult fiction got them particularly worked up. One judge, a poet, started the conversation by calling it, “a prose version of Hallmark card.” But another, a memoirist, had a different take:

“I spent a lot of time with my 13-year-old nephew,” she began. “I’m very familiar with the stuff that he likes, and he would like this. He likes things that are a tiny bit canned, but he does like inner life a lot, and things that describe action—the Percy  Jackson series and especially sports. I thought the writing about running was really exceptional …

“There’s also a study out—right now less than three percent of children’s and youth literature is for African-Americans, Asians, native Americans,” she continued. “It’s really atrocious, so this was exciting to me that the main characters would open up a whole new world. I felt this shows extreme promise. The voice is really direct and clear … This writer definitely is an important voice and should be heard. I’m really encouraged by this, and I hope that whatever happens, they really keep focused on it.  When you go into a library, most of the main characters are white. I think this is really important, good crisp tone and really good writing about action.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Within the writing category alone, I spotted a graphic novel, young adult fiction, immigrant fiction, fiction fiction, historical non-fiction, reported non-fiction, and poetry.[/blocktext]I loved that high-caliber artists were spending so much time thinking about and discussing our work. It was a tall task, considering the number of disciplines and the styles within those disciplines that were so different, it was almost ridiculous. Within the writing category alone, I spotted a graphic novel, young adult fiction, immigrant fiction, fiction fiction, historical non-fiction, reported non-fiction, and poetry.

I also loved seeing other people’s work (each entry was displayed on a screen with the entrant’s name blacked out). At one point in my notes I wrote, “Oh, I just saw a fiction piece that made me ache.” Each work was only up for minutes, but long enough for certain lines to make me catch my breath: You could tell people had fallen in love, fought, maybe even died in that room. But we were all too young and full of ourselves to care about their stories.”

It was humbling. All I hoped for was that the panelists wouldn’t be dismissive of my writing, which thanks to my procrastination virtuosity, would be reviewed second last because they went in order of how early you submitted your application.

They were gushing about another piece. When would they get to my work? I heard the memoirist saying, “This was one of the first things that I read, and it’s not a flashy work but it’s very engaging and quiet. The artistic philosophy and especially engaging the community is very clear and extremely specific which matches the writing. This author has a fresh voice … and has made a real mindful choice to shine a lovely light on really intricate stories of people who’ve made contributions to the city of Cleveland.

Wait. She was talking about me! I felt tears on my face. “What I love is that this writer has the ability, the playful knack for things, but at the same time, in each of the examples, people this writer is writing about, they’re shown and they’re the focus. That’s really tough. Because I think if you’re a good writer, you want to show off.”

Someone got my work—and described my aesthetic so well. It was such a powerful feeling.

The names of the grant winners won’t be released until December 13, but I saw the final scores, and I’m 99.8 percent sure I did not get the grant. I would have certainly enjoyed the $20,000 and put it to good use.

It was an emotional experience, being on the edge of my plastic seat for two days, but when the grants come around again in 2015, I’ll definitely put myself out there. I didn’t get a cash windfall, but I got affirmation. Cleveland will just have to go find another crossing guard.

Laura Putre is Managing Editor/Senior Writer at Belt.