With NaNoWriMo ending, you might find it helpful to know (and Later Me needs to remember): even after a manuscript is done, there will still be times when you won’t know what you’re doing and too much is up in the air. But that’s okay–building on what you have will be enough, even if you’re pulling together a panel for a reading and think you have no one to ask.
A couple of years ago, when my thesis advisor Sheila O’Connor recommended I apply for a State Arts Board grant, I had to. (I’ve always been the kind to sit in the front row). I hadn’t any luck applying before, so this time, for my Artist Plan, I diligently followed the example posted on the website–Sheila’s, from a grant she’d won. For the required community component, I proposed a couple of writing workshops up in the Arrowhead as well as a local reading. The best readings I’d attended included a visual component and a range of voices from different genres. I imagined doing something similar–if I ever got a grant.
I got the grant. (Thank you, Sheila!) Luckily, I had a whole year to set up the reading–and I needed that much time to figure out who to ask. Especially since Past Me had been rather optimistic about my estimated audience draw. Rather distressingly so.
I went to a Hamline event for inspiration and ran into Caren Stelson, whom I met my MFAC semester. I thought her middle-grade nonfiction Sachiko (about a girl who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki) would complement my historical fiction about a Korean War POW who couldn’t forget the Forgotten War. She said yes, she’d be happy to join me for a reading. So at least I wouldn’t be alone up there.
Past Me had also proposed including a poet who’d written on the latest war. I don’t know where Application Me thought I’d find one. Currently Stressed Me had nowhere to start but Google. That’s how I found someone I should have remembered: Gretchen Marquette–a 2012 Hamline MFA grad who rocked the panel she led at a Water~Stone Summer Writing Workshop I attended. Of course her May Day poems about her brother going to Afghanistan would be perfect. But how to ask her when I didn’t know her? I couldn’t find her on Facebook or Twitter, so I circled through the Graywolf Press site again. Next best thing to emailing her directly–emailing Graywolf’s marketing person. As I would in contacting others, I noted who I’d already lined up, why I was pulling together the reading, and that, unfortunately, I couldn’t offer an appearance fee. I suggested a Tuesday or a Thursday (which I’ve found work best for readings), preferring the Thursday, since Caren returned from book promotion in Japan that Monday.
Was there a place and start time, though? Marketing wanted to know.
Eventually, yes, ideally, but I was still coordinating that while nailing down the best dates for all authors. I planned to book a 7 pm start time at a bookstore where I knew a bookseller.
With that, hey, I had another Minnesota Book Award Finalist on board!
Now, three readers is plenty. But I hadn’t even asked the one local author I should. Anyone who knew anything about writing about war knew this author should be included for her memoir of her family’s escape from Laos during America’s Secret War. Yet how could I ask her? Kao Kalia Yang was a finalist for the Dayton Peace Prize. For the National Book Critic Circle Award. For my first book I’d connected with authors who’d been on Oprah, sure, but I talked to them before I knew that, so I could form words in front of them. (I knew Caren before she’d been long listed for the National Book Award and she hadn’t yet won the Sibert).
I can’t tell you how long I stared at the contact page for the agent who coordinated Kalia’s speaking engagements. (She has an agent for speaking engagements). What I can tell you is that I couldn’t not ask her. So I sent the email, keeping the part where I sounded like a total fan girl, saying The Song Poet was the best memoir I’d ever read, even after judging several memoir contests. Because it was the truth.
And I received such a lovely direct response: She’d be delighted.
In the end, the reading fell on Armistice Day, which was perfect. The last two readers I contacted through their websites. Nancy O’Brien Wagner kicked us off with her great aunt’s eyewitness account of treating war wounded through Alice in France, a MN Book Award Finalist in Nonfiction. And local NYT bestselling novelist Faith Sullivan joined us, too, with her latest, Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse, detailing how a town’s (and a mother’s) welcome overwhelmed a soldier returning with PTSD.
I wish you could have been there, to hear these women writers explore in their own way and through different genres all that’s been promised, threatened, and delivered through war. To feel the devastation of these poems and narratives crossing the past century, to know it began with a war intending to end all wars. The reading, something Past Me only imagined. The only thing more I could have asked for was world peace.
Applications for the 2019 Artist Initiative Grant is due April 26. For more information, click here.
Kate St. Vincent Vogl was honored to be part of The Front Row for her MFAC semester. She is the author of Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers, which was featured on national ABC news. Excerpts from her work-in-progress appear in Bellingham Review and were included among the finalists for the New Letters Prize. She received a 2017 Minnesota State Arts Board Grant to have Mary Logue edit her novel, and a residency at the Anderson Center to complete what began as her MFA thesis at Hamline. Vogl recently began submissions for The Narrows, a novel of war and love and the secrets embedded in each.