Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Dear Essayists Applying for an NEA

Amidst all our #midwessaying happening on Essay Daily these days, my calendar reminded me today that the deadline for the NEA Fellowship in Literature is coming up quickly. This means that if I get around to it (I usually do), I'll ready my app, brave their byzantine technical process, and shoot my shot again this year. So far I'm 0 for 12 in NEA apps, batting a competitive .000, so maybe I'm not the best person to offer advice about the process, and if I learned nothing else from playing Little League, I don't let not hitting any pitches stop me from taking my turn at bat. Occasionally I might get walked or beaned, and that also helps the team. If nothing else I learned how to make sports metaphors.

So having apparently failed to successfully click the final button to submit my application for the last prose cycle in 2019, I was asked by the NEA to be a final judge. It was an honor and a pleasure to serve in that role, and I got to help award NEAs to 36 excellent writers of fiction and nonfiction, which was a good feeling.

However, what I realized is that creative nonfiction occupies a weird space in this particular process, and is, I think, at a significant disadvantage. At least it seemed so in my experience. Of the 6 or 7 judges, I was the only one with an actual specialty in nonfiction (much less in the essay), and I came away from that process with some advice for how it might be improved internally that I relayed on to the good folks who shepherd all these hopeful applications through each year and help give money to writers. 

I hope they make some changes in response to my suggestions, but I also know that this is a government agency, and government agencies move very slowly.

So this week I found myself articulating some advice privately to a few cnf writers I know who are applying. And since I'm doing that I thought I'd share it with our essay-and-cnf-loving community to help make your NEA apps more strategic and competitive (and hopefully get more CNF applications awarded this time around).

A couple quick points about the NEA fellowship process:

  • Creative nonfiction is lumped in with fiction, and there is no way (as of 2019-2020) for judges to see if your sample is nonfiction or fiction, so they just kind of read it all as "prose."

  • That also means that if your nonfiction depends on its nonfictionness to really hit as hard as you hope it will, that's not something they can read.

  • In fact judges can't read anything other than the anonymized manuscript sample (so the judges can't see what your project is, thus they don't have any context for your manuscript at all).

  • The final judges only read something like 100 manuscripts of the 1000+ fellowship applications forwarded by the initial screeners; I don't know what criteria those screeners are given for forwarding submissions, but I am guessing they also don't read anything but anonymized manuscripts without regard for genre or context.

  • Probably nearly all of the screeners are primarily fiction writers or readers.

  • When I judged the finalist manuscripts, at least 80%—maybe more; I didn't count—were fiction (as near as I could tell without context or genre labels anyhow).

  • It was also a significant problem that judges are asked to recuse themselves from judging any manuscripts of people they had worked with professionally or personally. Or: it's a significant problem when you only have one cnf judge. From reading the manuscripts, I knew at least half of the finalist cnf applicants in a way that I felt I had to recuse myself from offering an evaluation. So that left none of the judges with a specialty in cnf/the essay able to advocate for those writers or their often-awesome projects. (This is one of the absolutely essential—and very easy—changes I think the NEA has to make: get more CNF writers/readers as judges next time around.)

Reading isolated manuscripts without any sense of context or genre, given the choice between narrative and less narrative samples, narrative ones are going to win most of the time for most readers

It's not how I feel personally (probably this is obvious), but it was definitely my experience on the panel of judges. 

This doesn't mean that all the fellowship awardees are going to be narrative writers, but when comparing samples, story matters. Or it mattered in 2019-2020 to our group of judges.

So that's my primary advice to you, as a writer considering applying for an NEA Fellowship in Literature: think about how your manuscript may read against a field of excellent fiction writers who know how to tell stories. 

That is, more narrative manuscripts are probably going to be more competitive, at least under their current rules. 

What I also mean is that cnf manuscripts need to do more than tell true stories, because we're probably not going to beat most fiction writers at their own game, especially if it's not obvious to the judges what's "true" and what's not, and why that matters anyhow.

Having said that, if your manuscript isn't interested in story, fly that flag as high and as obviously as possible so at least it'll feel like it stands out against the field and isn't trying to play the story game.

Standing out against the field is always a plus in my view. Fly your flag high, whatever it is, even if it's story.

I was happy to see that the NEA did manage to award fellowships to a number of great cnf writers anyhow, many of whom don't operate in primarily narrative modes. You'll see some names on that list above that are familiar to Essay Daily readers. That's great! But I also watched a lot of non-narrative work and a lot of great essays get lost in a process that doesn't play to essayists' advantage, and I wanted at least to let you know how things worked—and that I am trying to change them.

And also don't put too much effort into a process as byzantine and involved as this one is. Just take your shot and maybe you can win the sports metaphor game better than I learned how to do.


  1. Hey Ander — thanks for this, even if it’s depressing. Were you able to give feedback to the NEA on the problems with their system?

  2. I had a good conversation with them, yes, and in doing so understood better some of the limitations of their system (which is after all a very large government system and very complicated to change), and put forward a number of ideas that I think may help. It'll help if 1> the genre of the submission is made visible to the judges, which they told me it would (but that only works if the writers actually follow instructions to include the genre in the manuscript), 2> if the preliminary judges are better chosen with an eye toward nonfiction that is not primarily narrative, and if 3> at least a couple of the final judges are those who have some background in that work. Really #2 is the most important one, because that's where the submissions are first screened, and for those initial readers, they're only forwarding a handful out of every hundred, so if those readers get a little more guidance and/or are selected to come from a wider variety of backgrounds, that would help. And something as simple as having more CNF opposed to fiction first-round readers would help a lot, which they seemed open to. The larger things I'd like to see the NEA do to make things a little more balanced are probably going to be impossible given the strictures of the system as it's setup. I mean, imagine if cnf just got its own cycle rather than being lumped in with fiction? Stuff at that scale is almost certainly impossible, given the amount of work already involved in doing this work on behalf of writers, which all of the folks at the NEA are doing and for the most part doing very well, and without sufficient appreciation. But if non-narrative CNF writers are more aware of the process going in and how it works, I think they'll be better able to angle their submissions to be more competitive, so at least that's something. As they said in GI Joe cartoons growing up, knowing is half the battle.

  3. This is goooollllddd; thank you.