March 13, 2000
The letter was dated on my birthday. It arrived today. It was flat, a one-pager, not a good sign. (Conventional wisdom holds that acceptances are thick, because there are often a lot of details to convey and forms to sign, while rejections are thin. It doesn’t take many words to say thanks but no thanks.) Nevertheless, I opened it as I walked up the driveway.
“Dear Ms. DeAngelis: Congratulations on your selection as the recipient of the $1000 letters award from the National League of American Pen Women.”
I stopped walking. (Reading while walking up the driveway was how I broke my leg in 1995.) I blinked, looked at the paper again.
It still started out with “Congratulations.”
I won. Good Golly, I WON!
I have no idea how I came to learn about this program. I know it was in the 1997 Writer’s Market, back on p. 876 in the Contests and Awards section. But I can’t remember how I was able to pick out this grant, for which I thought I might have a shot, from among all the others which automatically excluded me because they are for writers from Northeast South Dakota or Hispanic left-handers or are really big deals like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.
This program, the Mature Women’s Grants, is for women artists over the age of thirty-five. It is offered in even-numbered years, one grant each to a writer, a visual artist, and a composer. Guidelines are available after September 1 of the odd-numbered year.
I was too distracted by the collapse of my teaching career in the fall of 1997 to do anything about the award for 1998. But I remembered it. Sometime in early November of 1999 I requested an application packet. The due dates were different from what had been reported in Writer’s Digest, giving me less time than I had thought. I gave myself even less time by putting the materials aside and not even seriously considering preparing anything until several days after my trip to Washington, when I resolved to get serious about my writing.
I had to submit writing samples and a proposal for the creative use of the funds. I sent a copy of an essay about a Berks County newspaperman who grew up in Harrisburg which had been published in a regional historical society magazine, as well as part of a personal memoir which concerned how I came to be interested in Berks County.
The hardest part was the outline and sample chapter of my novel. I’d been telling people for ten years that I’m writing this book, and I’d done a fair amount of thinking and dreaming about it. I knew that at its heart it would be about knowing and being known, about knowing who we are and whose we are. It would be about being remembered. I had some haphazard research and some ideas, but only a single line of actual text, an image of a ball of bread dough as smooth and round as a baby’s bottom.
I started working in earnest on December 26, the Feast of Stephen (working toward a deadline of December 31). I took the image and created a scene around it, a scene of my main character kneading bread when a neighbor comes to ask her to care for a suddenly-orphaned infant.
In addition to envisioning the work as a whole and writing a complete scene, I had to come up with a specific purpose for the grant.
I thought of the quilt. It was fashioned in 1899 by the women of Hain’s Church as a fund-raiser. People paid a small sum (maybe 10 cents) and to have their name or that of a loved one embroidered on it. It hangs now in the Heidelberg Heritage Society’s building, a non-climate controlled former tavern just down the hill in Wernersville from the cemetery where the family that has inspired me lies buried.
I saw it first one steamy summer afternoon in 1995. It’s folded over a rod and is neither fully visible nor accessible. My Katherine was widowed in 1899. Could George’s name be on the quilt? I asked the person on duty that day about the names, and learned that there was no documentation, just the quilt. I asked if I could someday look at it . No one seemed enthusiastic.
So I crafted a proposal that said the money would facilitate the removal of the quilt for study. That means I would pay somebody to climb up there, take it down, spread it out, have a textile preservation specialist look at it, and a professional photograph it. I’d compile a data base of the names, and write a monograph of the quilt’s history, which would then be made available to the various historical groups and genealogical societies that would have an interest in it. Thus the project would have value beyond my own needs as a fiction writer.
By the time I had the proposal written I was so enthusiastic about the project I decided to go ahead with it anyway. I busied myself in January and February with research and character development, not intending to do anything about the quilt idea until spring, when the weather and people’s schedules are more amenable to such a thing.
And I pretty much forgot about the grant application until last week. I knew that selection would be made by March 15. I did not consider seriously the possibility that I might actually be selected. The process had served its purpose in getting me moving and thinking and actually working on the novel.
I didn’t even notice that the envelope I picked up today was not my own SASE with the requested list of winners but an official one from the National League of American Pen Women.
This organization was founded in 1897, when Marian Longfellow O’Donoghue and some of her colleagues sought to end the “men only” policy of the Washington, D.C. Press Club. No longer limited to women of the press, the NLAPW promotes the development of creative talent among professional women. Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Clare Boothe Luce are among past Pen Women. Current membership includes novelist Anne Tyler, White House correspondent Helen Thomas, and Hillary Clinton.
The presentation of the award will be made at a luncheon at the National Press Club on April 7, during the NLAPW’s biennial convention.
This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me professionally.
In 1963 I decided that I wanted to win a Pulitzer.
This is close enough.