Photo by U.S. Air Force
I hit “submit” on an NEA grant application this week—an annual exercise in optimism.
I like to picture myself with a big wad of cash—specifically that $25,000 literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. What would I do with it? I vacillate. It’s roughly what I make as an adjunct, so maybe I’d just take a year off from teaching. Or maybe instead I’d pay off my bills—a move that would be joylessly practical. Or maybe I’d go to Europe, buy a boat, remodel the bathroom, learn to fly. The practical ideas are satisfying; the impractical dreams are sustaining.
It was hard to do the work of submitting this year, for a couple of reasons.
First, the website for applying, grants.gov, has implemented a new system called Workbench, and most writers I’ve talked to found it less than intuitive. Workbench is used for grants all across the federal government, and it exists mainly for those organizations that have multiple people working on a complex application. So your average poet—the most solitary of solitaries—is not the user they had in mind.
The collaboration features of Workbench are ill suited for NEA literature fellowship applicants, as I discovered after mucking around in it. But then I noticed that for this transitional grant year, the NEA offered its classic environment as an option—the same platform that was available in years past. The old, familiar version was easy for me to fill out, although it still took a couple of hours to get everything just right—the right sample, an updated publication record, an accurate cover page, the required supplemental info, all formatted as required.
It was also hard to submit because of the gloomy future prospects of the NEA under President ICANTBRINGMYSELFTOWRITEHISNAME. This figure has proposed cutting the budget entirely, perhaps to begin to cover the staggering costs of his weekly Florida golf vacations.
The NEA’s 2016 budget was $148 million—a quarter of the cost of manufacturing a B-21 bomber. (Northrup Grumman is currently at work manufacturing a hundred of those for the Department of Defense, which had a $1.1 trillion budget in 2016.)
But the pen remains both cheaper and mightier than the bomber. After all, it was a bunch of writers who founded our nation—they stood up for liberty and even happiness as our enduring values, and they penned a system of government that is a model (on paper) for the world. The U.S. wouldn’t exist without writers, and what our founders put down with quill on paper remains one of the greatest contributions ever offered to humanity.
The amount of money given to writers by the NEA is grand to someone like me, but it is a pittance to the federal government. I think the way conservatives sway us against essential programs like arts funding is by throwing large numbers at us—and $148 million is a very big number to me. But I’m used to dealing with a household budget: a $425 car payment, a $1,200 house payment, a few monthly credit card bills. As staggering as the NEA funding amount seems, it’s only .012 percent of federal discretionary spending. The amount of money it takes to run the ship of stage is immense, and people who make $40K per year have a very hard time wrapping their minds around it.
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Washington to be born?” That would be my grant application—a study in hope not just for me, but for our nation, which ought to be about higher values than raining down destruction from the sky.