The Hell with Grants
Hugo House's New Program Gives Writers What They Really Need: Each Other
Writers get grants and gifts and fellowships all the time. Most of what these programs provide is space, either of the spiritual or mental varieties. If you fill out enough forms, for instance, you can possibly earn enough money to not have to worry about a "real job" for a while, or some college could grant you a writer-in-residence position that takes care of room and board, granting solitude and peace of mind.
But space and comfort are not always conducive to good writing. Some of the best books ever written were composed under the constraints of day jobs—Jorge Luis Borges was an assistant at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library, Franz Kafka was a legal secretary—and a rule of thumb in the publishing industry is that the larger the advance an author gets, the longer it takes for that author to finish the goddamned book.
Of all the grants I've encountered in my time at The Stranger, I've never heard of anything quite like the Made at Hugo House fellowship program. It's like a more pragmatic version of the classic writer-in-residency: Last year, Hugo House put out a call for writers age 35 or younger, living in King County, to describe a project they'd like to complete. From more than 50 applicants, House program director Brian McGuigan and an anonymous panel of poets and novelists chose six writers. Those writers get access to office space in the House, they have monthly progress meetings and contribute to a private blog on which they can share work, and they can attend any of the Hugo House classes, featuring teachers like Eileen Myles, Peter Mountford, and Sam Lipsyte, for free.
Assembled around a table, they're a broad range of writing talent. Katharine Ogle says she's writing a chapbook of poems that she hopes will display "accessibility," but as soon as she says that, she pauses at the word, looks annoyed at herself for saying it, and restates "or transferability." "Not, like, looking-out-the-window poems," but poetry that appeals to a broad audience "without sacrificing my weirdness." Bill Carty is working on a collection of poems titled Northeast Kingdom, about his roots in Maine and "the mythology of place." Anca Szilágyi's proposed collection of stories, More Like Home Than Home, is also interested in place, but through the lens of migration, with the occasional talking bird. Elissa Washuta is working on her second memoir (her first, My Body Is a Book of Rules, will be published by Red Hen Press in 2014).
The two novelists in the program are working at opposite ends of the spectrum. Eric McMillan is writing a fictionalized version of his experiences as an army officer in Iraq during the surge. Irene Keliher is telling the story of a bookstore in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula that has been removed from civilization. It's a premise—"realistic but sort of futuristic"—that is utterly unlike the realistic short stories she's published up to now, and she hopes to use it to explore "the future of books" and digital publishing. (Keliher got the idea from a visit to the Borders bookstore on Fourth Avenue downtown during its last day of business, when everything in the store, from books to magazines to fixtures, was on sale for 90 percent off. She left with a garbage bag full of books she felt like she had saved from a terrible fate.)
Despite the different disciplines, all six writers seem to agree that the most important thing the Made at Hugo House program gives them is a deadline; the goals of the program provide much-needed structure. McGuigan says that while Made at Hugo House is definitely intended to focus on the "art and craft of writing," he also wanted to "talk about how writers make money," which is an earthy—but necessary—goal that most programs that benefit writers don't bother to discuss. In the group's most recent meeting, they were joined by local literary agent Elizabeth Wales, who answered their questions about how to choose a literary agent and how to shape a manuscript for submission. When the program ends, Hugo House will provide support for the writers' finished work, helping to edit and place the manuscripts with publishers. McGuigan says Hugo House is invested in the authors for their entire careers. (In some ways, Made at Hugo House resembles a fledgling version of the New York–based, national program Creative Capital.)
This Friday, Hugo House is hosting a midyear reading, an open-to-the-public progress report where each author will read. And as the writers work together on completing their manuscripts, the process will begin all over again; the submission period for the next year of Made at Hugo House opens on April 15 and closes on June 3. They can't promise solitude, but those in need of deadlines are encouraged to apply.