Laine Cunningham


Down the Rabbit Hole: The Weird World of Literary Awards
Guest Blog Post on Deckle-Edged 


The lifestyle of an author has peaks and valleys particular to this pathway we have chosen. Certain experiences along the way ought to be grand events accompanied by trumpets and elephants or at least a little confetti and cake served up by your bestie. Like the beginning of your career. Or winning an award or some other recognition.
Not always true.
My career as an author kicked off with a two-week-long depressive episode spent curled up beneath my dining room table. That two weeks had been preceded by nearly ten months struggling in a new position my company had offered me 3,000 miles away from where I’d spent the previous ten years. The job ended when I dropped a resignation letter on the department head’s desk and was rapidly escorted out by human resources. Two weeks to hit the rest button after that kind of experience wasn’t, I think, too terribly long.
So, a less than illustrious beginning. But once I rose from that dusty space beneath the table, I really threw myself into this writing thing. Creating books and stories and following alongside other lives was what I had always wanted to do, after all. After everything else in the employment realm turned to crap, why not cash in that retirement account and work fourteen-hour days on this forever dream?
Things started looking up about a year later when my first manuscript, a memoir of the six months I’d spent camping alone in the Australian outback, won a minor award. I know, I know, writing a memoir as a first effort is so very cliché. But it won…well, something—a certificate, a few accolades—which certainly wasn’t a discouraging kind of thing. This time also should have been one of joy but what happened next sent me down a very strange rabbit hole.
There was this writer’s group I was in. I was actually in four at the time, which indicates the level of abuse I was willing to inflict on myself in order to learn everything I could about craft. In one of these groups was a guy who had, for nearly a year, never spoken to me. On this day, however, the day the award was announced to the group, he suddenly seemed overbearingly eager to speak with me. He said he wanted to join the critique group I was in and asked when and where our next meeting would be. Which was a bit presumptive, perhaps, but I wrote it off to authorial passion.
It turns out this guy was the Mad Hatter.
The critique group I was in, one of many operating in this club, had recently closed to new members. Makes sense, right? Enough warm bodies, enough inquiring minds and all that. We’d be busy for years.
When Monsieur Hatter heard that, he practically exploded. He took me apart for being elitist. He mentioned the award and accused me of being part of the “literati” (his term), and of trying to keep other writers down to reduce competition.
Hey, buddy, the award didn’t bestow cash. No trophy, dig? Just a piece of paper and a sweaty handshake at the podium. But for him, that looked like fame.
Fast-forward a few years. By that point I’d applied to a ton of contests, residencies and awards, watched the judging process for my own and other artists’ grants, and sat on administrative and review boards for writing contests and residency programs. I’d won a few small awards, received two prestigious fellowships, been selected for one small grant, and attended two residency programs.
Then came the big one, a national award with a substantial cash payout. OK, so $6,000 wasn’t going to fund a significant amount of time for writing, nor would it pay off the debt that had accrued while I had paid my living expenses with credit cards so I could write the award-winning novel. But it was significantly more than most other cash awards.
One of the first places I shared the news with was inside my family. That seems normal and well-adjusted, right? Who wouldn’t want their parents and siblings to partake of this wondrous news, to celebrate with them in this singular achievement? Particularly if your parents don’t really read (discounting, of course, the Washington Post newspaper, which my father apparently finds too liberal even though he subscribes) and your brother primarily reads a genre that does not match that of your own novels. Because there, at last, was a noteworthy award. It was something everyone could recognize as valid, as valuable (exactly $6,000 worth of value), as an achievement in a career choice that had been viewed quite narrowly as “not a real job” because how in the world were you supposed to make money writing fiction?
The first thing my mother asked about this terrific, cash-granting award was, “Are you sure it’s not a scam?”
There. The Red Queen decapitated joy.
Let us skim past my attempts to sew the bloody head back onto the ragged neck with convoluted efforts to convince them of the validity of the award, the reams of paper I printed off the internet (technology my parents still considered a shadowy, untrustworthy realm full of scammers and pornographers and pedophiles), and repeated explanations that the money would be paid with no strings, no “prepayment” required, and no bank account information passing hands.
Instead, let us zip forward to the moment when I signed with my first literary agent. Huzzah! Sound the angelic trumpets! Sing, the crystalline choir! For what other moment except the offer of a first publishing contract can match this in a writer’s life?
This moment, at least, I knew to enjoy first and foremost with fellow authors, those who understood the depth of its meaning and who would celebrate with me. Then, after a bit, I shared it with my parents.
“Oh, good!” my mother said. “Your dad and I were talking about hiring an agent for you. How much will it cost?”
I had steeled myself before sharing this news but still felt a pang of frustration at the utter lack of understanding for how these things work. Especially because, out of the goodness of their hearts, they had offered to “pay for an agent” numerous times before.
“Nothing,” I said. “Authors don’t pay agents until the book is sold.”
Blank look. “Then how do you know this one is real?”
Long explanation—again—of how agents work. Blank look persists but is now tinged with worry. Long discourse on the literary histories of my agent’s other clients, which included Norman Mailer, Raymond Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke but, seeing as how my parents didn’t read fiction, the blank look continued and the anxiety compounded.
“Remember that movie 2001?” I asked out of sheer desperation because of course they went to the movies now and then but of course mostly to watch Nicolas Sparks-type flicks so of course that didn’t work.
The mention of a movie, in fact, was bad. Very bad. Now she really thought I was being suckered (Casting couches! Naked models! Sex for empty promises of fame!), and her expression bordered on panic.  
“Is this guy even in New York?” she asked, which should have been a moment of personal vindication because something I’d shared over the years had sunk in and she was at least aware that New York City was the center of the literary universe but which instead marked the pinnacle of my frustration.
“Yes!” I threw up my hands and, unable to wipe away the dripping sarcasm (bad daughter), said, “He’s on Park Avenue!”
“Oh! Then he’s a real agent! Congratulations, honey!”
She beamed happily. I, however, was in danger of joining Alice in “going out altogether.”
Then there were the times when I was applying for grants and needed letters of recommendation from fellow professionals. Stay in the arts business long enough and you’ll become very familiar with how to garner favors from others and repay them in kind. Not always to the same person but into the same pool of fellow authors. Pay it forward, as they say.
So begging for letters is a common enough occurrence. I try to spread out my requests among various individuals. I also take care to match the background of each reference to the mission of the grant. One year I approached an associate I’d known for over a decade, a person I’d helped in various ways and with whom I’d celebrated when she had won prestigious awards.
“I’ll write the letter for you,” she said slowly, “but Laine, how many awards do you really need?”
My turn to stare blankly.
More the fool I for believing my associate’s assurance that she would submit the letter. She didn’t, and the application was never considered because her letter was missing. Worse, a second individual who had submitted a letter of reference had their time wasted, too. Tweedeldee had decided to do battle without telling me I was to play Tweedledum.
You would think that I would have learned my lesson. You would think that when I later applied for a very large grant, a fellowship that would have given me an entire year of time to write, that I would have read the signals from a different person I asked for a recommendation. The fellowship required five letters and, while I could have used other people for that final reference, this woman’s background provided better support.
She was very encouraging and bubbly and bright whenever we discussed the letter. She emailed me updates to say she hadn’t written it yet but she was aware of the deadline and would submit. Then another update and another, all saying, Not yet but soon. And then, the day after the deadline had passed, she emailed a final time. So sorry, so sorry, said the Gryphon, who was not a bit sorry.
Beware awards, my friends. Therein might lurk the Jabberwocky.

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