by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
The first time I applied for a fellowship was in spring 2009. I was about to finish grad school, and I sent out a slew of applications like I was applying for a PhD. I figured it was the next logical step as I readied myself to move beyond my MFA program, and I had the mentors close by to help. I gathered transcripts and letters of recommendation, curated samples of work and wrote project proposals. I remember one mentor agreed to write a letter with what I perceived as little enthusiasm. When all the rejections came in that summer, I read the bios of those who won and took notice of all their previous awards and accolades. I thought back to that mentor and considered her lackluster support the response of someone who understood the literary world better than I did at that time.
See what I learned from this experience was that “emerging” doesn’t mean new like I thought it did, but more as the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines, “becoming widely known or established.” After my first attempt at a writing fellowship, I realized that to win an “emerging” literary award a writer must already be on the way to becoming established. In other words, to win a big award, you usually have to have won an award. After this discovery, I didn’t put too much energy into fellowships the following years because they are expensive, time consuming and I had little chance to win one anyway. I don’t mean I stopped applying all together. Since the start of this process my mantra has always been, you can’t win if you don’t apply, but instead of applying to six like I did that first year, I applied to one or two that I could either see myself doing (Tickner Writing Fellowship) or ones I dreamed of doing (Stegner Fellowship), and then submitted to a group of workshops and residencies.
In the spring of 2011, I applied to Macondo Writing Workshop, Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship, and University of Arizona’s Poetry Center Summer Residency. For the latter application, I wrote a project proposal that included volunteering with the direct desert aid humanitarian organization, No More Deaths. I proposed that I would use my two weeks at the Poetry Center to write about my volunteering experience once I returned from the desert (the application no longer requires a proposal). I was rejected from all three, but that summer I decided to make my project happen anyway with or without the University of Arizona. I applied to be a volunteer and was accepted. Then in July of that year, I spent nine days in the Tucson-sector of the border camping, hiking, replenishing water supplies, and being a witness to the horrific realities of border policies and border patrol practices. When I was done, I set up my own little seven-day residency in Tucson at the Roadrunner Hostel & Inn, but I didn’t do much writing. Those nine days in the desert were difficult on my body, mind and spirit, and processing the experience wasn’t as easy as I originally thought it would be. In fact, I spent most of my “residency” streaming bad movies and TV. It wasn’t until six months later that I started writing poems about the border. I had written about 10 by the following summer and when the Poets & Writers California Exchange prize opened up that August. I submitted my new border poems, and shockingly I won.
In the fall of 2011, I applied to Hedgebrook for the first time and Las Dos Brujas Writers’ Workshop. For the Hedgebrook project proposal I wrote out a novel idea that had been tossing in my mind for a couple of years about a feminist retelling of Of Mice and Men. I taught the novel to 9th graders and every year I would be angered by Steinbeck’s treatment of the nameless, one-dimensional character, “Curley’s wife.” Writing the proposal was the first time I took that idea from my mind and wrote it on paper. It was the first time I allowed myself to believe the idea could turn into something real. I ended up making it into the top 100 applicants. I wasn’t accepted, but in the summer of 2012 I did attend Las Dos Brujas, which was my first week-long writing workshop. I had the opportunity to work with Juan Felipe Herrera (now the Poet Laureate of the United States) and a beautiful community of writers of color in a magical location among mesas and red rocks in New Mexico. That summer I wrote more poems, completed a poetry manuscript and started sending it out to first book contests.
Over the last few years I’ve applied to Canto Mundo twice, Macondo three times, Hedgebrook three times, UofA’s Poetry Center Summer Residency three times, the Stegner fellowship twice, Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing three times, Bread Loaf three times, Bucknell University’s Stadler fellowship twice and a few others. This year, I was finally accepted to Hedgebrook and Macondo (after moving up from “alternate”) but when I was rejected for the second time from Macondo in 2014, my good friend Ashaki Jackson asked why we didn’t make our own residency, and that summer we spent four days writing in a little cottage we found on AirBNB that sat in an avocado grove in Carpinteria. When I got back, I reworked my poetry manuscript for the fourth time and resubmitted to first book contests.
In 2015, I received my first residency acceptance from the Ragdale Foundation in North Shore Chicago. While I was there, having 25 days to myself to do nothing but write, I finally found time to return to the proposal I wrote for Hedgebrook three years prior. I wrote a first draft of an epistolary novel telling the story of Nora aka “Curley’s wife,” a 16 year-old Mexican-American migrant worker who marries a gabacho landowner from Salinas County when her family is deported to Mexico during a Depression Era INS sweep.
Then in the winter, I found a submission call for the Steinbeck Fellowship from the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University and thought I might have a chance of winning the award since my project was Steinbeck inspired. I submitted the opening section of the book, which I was able to workshop and revise thanks to a weekly workshop I had with two friends, Tisha Reichle and Lauren Barry Fairchild, and asked a seasoned novelist I met at Ragdale to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. He has six novels, tenure at a prestigious east coast writing program, and a Hollywood movie under his belt, so when he said my novel-in-progress had serious potential I was blown away. Thankfully, he said he would write it, and I think the combination of having a Steinbeck inspired project, workshopped pages, and the recommendation are what helped me win a 2016-2017 Steinbeck fellowship.
Now that I’ve reached my goal of becoming a fellow, I guess I can be considered an “emerging” writer, but growing to this point was a seven-year process (more if you count grad school and the road to grad school), and I’ve found that building a career is possible, but it is building something brick by brick. It’s slow and hard, and made of moments when you choose to push forward even when you aren’t getting recognition (I never did win a coveted first book award).
Here is what I have learned over the last seven years of submitting and resubmitting to these opportunities:
1. Always submit work (when you can afford to) whether you feel you can win or not because you will never get an acceptance if you don’t.
2. Resubmit. It took me three tries to get into Hedgebrook. The first time I applied, my application made it into the second round, but the next didn’t make it past the first, so you never know what can happen. First readers often change from year to year and so do judges, so resubmit.
3. Listen to recommendations. I would have never applied to Ragdale if it wasn’t for poet Veronica Reyes telling me to give it a try. I would have never known about Las Dos Brujas if Ashaki Jackson hadn’t sent me email reminders, and that was the best workshop I’ve experienced to date. We can’t possibly know all the opportunities out there, so listen to the writers around you.
4. Use the application process as a way to visualize a project. Even if your project is rejected, it can still end up being the start of a book, and don’t be afraid to move forward without the award or support. Of course, awards are nice, but don’t let the pursuit of such things stop you. You might find when you push forward new opportunities arise.
5. Don’t wait for a writing workshop to accept you when you can make your own. Besides the Carpinteria avocado ranch, this summer Lauren, Tisha, and I will be meeting outside of Denver at Lauren’s family’s cabin to finish workshopping our respective novels-in-progress—a process we sadly had to halt when Lauren moved out of California. Tisha calls it the Three Muses Workshop. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Ask someone who has a cabin, find a cheap rental, go in on a place with friends, but make it happen and write.
6. Look for workshops and communities that are going to feed your writing or awards that link to your writing or your writing philosophy. There is a wide range of workshops, residencies and fellowships to apply to and each application costs money. Like applying to colleges think about what region of the country you want to write in, what mentors you want to work with, what organizations you want to back your project. Be strategic.
7. And finally, when applying to residencies in particular try these tips:
a. Send your BEST work. I have heard this from a few writers. Do not send a sample of new writing that you wish to work on while in residency, but send writing that’s been perfected and even published. If what you submit is not what you want to work on, and you get accepted, that’s ok. No one will be checking.
b. If an application asks why you want to attend, come up with a more specific answer than needing a place to write. This advice came from a Hedgebrook alumna. Again, think of the application like a college essay. Hedgebrook receives close to 1000 applications. The first round is read by alumna, which select about 10% to go into round two, so you want to say something that makes you stand out.
c. When writing a project proposal, name your research sources. I got this advice from my eldest brother who is currently working on a PhD in Communications from University of Maryland. Back in 2007, when I was working on my Antioch University MFA application, I asked him to read my essay of intent. In it I mentioned my interest in social justice writing and poetry of witness but didn’t give specifics. His advice was to go back and name the research I had done, the books I had been reading, the writers I was studying as proof. Basically, let your application show the work you’ve already done and name names.
In the end, if an emerging writer fellowship is a goal of yours, know that you will most likely need to have other accolades first. That sucks, but the good news is working your way up is possible by submitting to the wide range of opportunities available to writers, many of which go beyond publication. Workshops, retreats, and residencies await you, and you’ll find that many offer scholarships and some are even free (after the application fee). I urge you to research and submit to a couple–and then resubmit. Over time you will meet and work with great writers, create friendships, generate and perfect your work, and discover new opportunities as they emerge.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a 2016-2017 Steinbeck Fellow and former Barbara Deming Fund grantee and Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner. She has work published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse, and The James Franco Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She curates the reading series HITCHED and cofounded Women Who Submit. Her debut poetry collection, Built with Safe Spaces, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.