Volume 14, Issue 30 ~ July 27 - August 2, 2006

A Tale of Two Writers … and One Would-Be Writer

Win a Maryland Arts Council award and you get validation, motivation, confirmation — and a few other -tions that I’m probably missing.

by Matt Makowski

If you’re of the deadline-conscious artistic ilk, you’re long since done by now. The drop-dead date for on-line application for the Maryland Arts Council Individual Artistic Awards is July 27, and all snail-mailed submissions need to be postmarked by July 29.

Of course, more than a few people get a kick out of the adrenalin afforded from waiting until the last minute. Have you ever been to the mall on Christmas Eve or the post office on April 15? People like me are not as rare as we should be. Much to the chagrin of friends who spend 364 days of the year planning their Halloween costume, I tend to wait until around noon that day to start thinking about my outfit. But I digress.

Last year, 99 artistes won Arts Council awards ranging from $1,000 to $6,000. As a struggling artist myself, I could really use a piece of that pie. Yes, I’m a bit late finishing my application, but I’ve got good excuses. A decent chunk of my excuse is due to the amount of research and reasoning I put in before the creation of my latest opus. At least that’s how I justify it.

First, I had to figure out the discipline I’m most suited for. This year, awards are granted for choreography, music composition, playwriting, poetry, crafts, photography and sculpture; next year’s awards are in 10 different categories.

Because I don’t even know what crafts consist of, that’s out. I don’t know how to sculpt anything besides a suspiciously familiar mound of mashed potatoes, so that’s probably out. I’m way too tough to dance; therefore, my familiarity with choreography is pretty limited, so that’s out too. Photography is fun for me, but my talents lie in taking pictures of friends after long nights of drinking. Though artistic at times, it’s probably not what these folks are looking for.

Looks like my art is going to come down to writing of some sort. Despite degrees in journalism, film production and what seems like hundreds of hours of writing-intensive classes, I’m still a little green. I need still more research.

When you boil a writer down to the bone and sinew, what’s really left? What makes a good one? Personal experience? Think Hemingway and George Orwell. Or could it be the right chemical compound? Hunter Thompson, Aldous Huxley and William Burroughs come to mind as examples of the highly touted substance-inspired. Of course, any of these writers supply a combination of these factors plus at least a dash of hubris.

There’s got to be more to it than that. I can get cocky when I need to. I’ve got a pretty good load of experiences for someone my age, and I’ve never met a whisky I didn’t like. But still, I’m not quite there.

Making the Grade

To fill in the blanks (here comes the analytical research part of my excuse for tardiness), I talked to two award-winning Anne Arundel writers. You’ve probably never heard of them, but both won Individual Artist Awards last year for fiction — a category sorely absent this year.

Laura Oliver is an adjunct creative writing teacher at St. John’s and the University of Maryland. She’s got a literary agent and a master’s degree from Bennington College in Vermont.

Joni Turken is a manager of stewardship and outreach at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She’s got a master’s degree from the University of Baltimore and a group of friends that she gets together with once a month for an informal writing workshop.

Similarities so far: Keeping contact with other writers and earning master’s degrees.

Note to any Literary Judge who may read this: Notice my keen acumen in the use of Aristotelian-esque logic to deduce the fact that both writers spend time with other writers. That was no accident.

After meeting these people, I already felt I was becoming a better writer. With the money I hope to get for this article, maybe I’ll get a master’s degree from that University of Phoenix online program.

Sadly, the more time I spent talking with these two, the more I realized how much more there is to it. My quick fix for these awful sentences was foiled.

Oliver is at work on the second draft of a novel, which is half the reason she won a $3,000 grant from the Maryland Arts Council in 2005. The first chapter of said novel, along with a short story titled “Red Right Returning,” nailed her the award. She described her year-long efforts in novel writing as “consuming.” Once again, this was bad news for me and my quick fix; and it gets worse.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” Oliver said over a bowl of cottage cheese and fruit, adding, “Nobody can teach you to write a novel.”

This was a serious nail in my novelistic noggin.

Note No. 2 to any Literary Judge: Please note the boundary-pushing use of alliterative homographic paronomasia for slight comic relief. Not bad, eh?

On the upside, there’ll be no straight-up fiction prize this year, so I wouldn’t have to sweat a novel, a la Oliver.

Thus far in my quest, I still hadn’t narrowed down the whole writing business.

The Reading Road to Success

My hopelessness grew when I met Turken at a local coffee shop the next week.

“You only get better at something by doing it over and over and over again,” Turken said.

With broken spirits and more than slight disparagement, I pondered all the hours wasted on googling my friends’ names and reading trite fiction. After a sip of my coffee, it clicked: A new point of entry. A writer’s got to read, right? I read tons of claptrap nonsense. What does this writer read?

Turken said she pores over literary magazines. What’s she talking about? If I can’t get it for a buck at a used bookstore or a library sale, I probably haven’t heard of it. But that isn’t all she reads.

“I just read Middlesex,” she told me. This was a good sign. At least I’d heard of that one.

“Every summer I get into a British thing,” Turken said, throwing Dickens and Agatha Christie on the list of notable authors she’s fond of.

A few hours later, after a brief and unhelpful flashback to Pip and my eighth-grade English teacher, I was back at making deductions. I optimistically flipped back in my notes to my meeting with Oliver.

She credits her mother for getting her into writing, and reading played no small part in her attraction to the art. Oliver’s mother used to read the classics to her. It wasn’t long before she picked up the masterpieces on her own.

“Black Beauty, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn: I read all those books before I was in fourth grade,” Oliver said without a hint of conceit.

I was just four years behind her in literary indulgences. And they say females mature earlier than males. Note No. 3 to any Literary Judge: I recognize the previous sentence is a bad sign for me. Already making excuses for my underdeveloped compositional skills and the story’s just halfway over … for shame.

I remember my mother reading Gahan Wilson’s The Bang Bang Family to me more than once. It wasn’t Mark Twain, or even the work Wilson published in The New Yorker or Collier’s Weekly, but a classic in its own right. All things considered, maybe I’m not doing so bad. I have my roots. Should I start building that display shelf for my upcoming literary honors? Maybe after the interviews are over.

Write, Write, Write

The other key to success Oliver and Turken agreed on was the need to write.

“I try to write in the morning, but it’s always hard to avoid checking email 100 times and emptying the dishwasher,” Oliver said.

For Turken, the routine of writing can be equally elusive.

“I have to bribe myself to get writing,” Turken said, adding later, “To prove yourself as a writer, you need a sustained writing habit,” something she’s been struggling with lately.

The writing group she meets with every month is one of her tactics to keep the writing regular. If she doesn’t have anything to bring to workshop, she has to endure being the weak link.

“I’m a deadline-oriented kind of person,” Turken said. “People keep me motivated.”

The Arts Council award helped a bit too. Up until she won the award, Turken had gotten lazy about writing.

“I just couldn’t believe I was chosen. Now I’ve got an obligation [to write],” Turken said.

For Oliver, the award was validation. Like Turken, she’s not going to be taking time off from her day job thanks to a $3,000 check. The symbolism is as important as the cash.

“Three people who don’t know me from Adam judged my stuff worthy. It’s like saying, All right, I’m in the right business,” Oliver said.

Now she keeps the envelope of prize money near her writing desk, where it’s a reminder to stick with it. Also, she said she doesn’t just want the money to go toward the BG&E bill.

So far, I’ve deduced these award-winning writers have validation, motivation, confirmation — and a few other tions that I’m probably missing.

Measuring Success

I wonder if I have a chance in this racket. Writing talent isn’t something you pay for in a monetary sense (not that that would make it any easier for me). It’s a talent nurtured and indulged over time. Reading a few books and getting the writing bug is natural, probably more so than I know. But success in any form is elusive and needs a stick-to-it-ness just like any vocation.

“Sometimes I’d rather dig ditches,” Oliver said.

Obviously, she doesn’t. Still, her goals aren’t financial. According to her estimates, Oliver’s day job rakes in about $12 an hour. If she got handy with a shovel, she could double her earnings after a couple months of experience. That’s not how it operates in the artistic sphere. Success doesn’t come in a paycheck.

“The single most important expression of success as a writer is to write something you love; something that is a truthful expression of your perspective,” Oliver professes.

“Secondarily, however, ultimate success for a writer is to write something you love that is published in a top-tier publication and well received. That’s important because then the writing has served to not only connect the writer to herself but to others. That’s what it is all about. Connection.” Thus spoke Oliver.

Award City, Here I Come

Digging into my story the day after my interviews, I take a glance at my e-mail spam folder to check on the Viagra and appendage enlargement deals. Stupid Internet. Then I get the urge to go play a video game. I’m also noticing my belly rumbling a bit due to the breakfast I skipped. I tape a small envelope on which I’ve written $3,000 over my desk and press on.

After the last word is typed and all this is printed out for the editing routine, I fix anything that I don’t like and send it off to my editor, who will change all the things I like. Then I can relax for a bit and worry about dinner. After dinner, I’ll worry about whether I can write a few poems for this Artist Award. More importantly, though, I’ll be wondering if any of you will like what you read here.

Fourth and final note to any Literary Judge who may read this: Despite my earlier consternation, the previous sentence proves both my willingness and my ability to learn from my superiors in a neat little Hollywood-friendly ending.

If I truly learned anything from all this, it’s that what seeps into the bones isn’t a writer’s greatest asset. Turken told me she’s become a much better writer over the past 10 years. I hope I can pack 10 years of practice into the next two days.

The Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Awards are awarded to Maryland artists in (seven categories this year; 10 in 2007) through application and anonymous, competitive review. Apply in a hurry or plan ahead for next year: Rebecca Scollan at the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation: 410-539-6656 x 101; Rebecca@midatlanticarts.org.

Matt Makowski, of Annapolis, is a journalism graduate of Rutgers University. His last story for Bay Weekly was High over Maryland: Project Pilot Put the Joystick in My Hand (Vol. xiv, No. 21: may 25).

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