I still have not found the words—or the time to search very hard—to describe the sublime experience of my research and conference trip to the Midwest these past couple of weeks. I spent nearly five days in archival and secondary research at the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, IL. Cutting this research in two was my second trip to the 10th Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University in Upland, IN. I will to try to wrestle into place some of my thoughts about what made the Taylor conference so exceptionally good; for now, see Laura’s post here. Together, the conference and the research filled my heart with much needed refreshment.
During this exhausting and beautiful 10 days many of my digital friendships found their way into real life. I got to meet for the first time, or see once again after a long space in between, quite a number of my blog readers, teaching colleagues, writing and editing partners, twitter followers, Facebook friends, theologians in my field, and fellow literary hacks and sleuths. I have received so much from these “contacts.” It was a rich experience to be able to lean in on an idea together, to share a table, to walk together, to sing and dance and play, to reach for the same book on the same shelf.
Though rarely said out loud, I am struck by how many of my colleagues are walking around with great, life-giving dreams that are in some serious danger of death. During my trip I met emerging writers with manuscripts they can’t get out, artists working at call centres to pay the bills, scholars without a place to teach, archives with thinning budgets, researchers without grants, faculty members at schools on the verge of closure, and projects stalled within sight of their completion.
If you have been around to see a literary project come to life, you experience the joy of birth for all the writers, editors, publishers, and beta readers involved. When one of these projects dies in the womb, the artist experiences the defeat and loss in his or her own little world of loneliness.
And when it comes to making books and sharing ideas, it may be that miscarriages in this day are more common than healthy births. Our educators, artists, writers, and theologians—once valued and supported in culture—are often on their own.
Knowing that so many of these stories of threatened dreams exist, I thought it was time to Call for Literary Patrons. You are a real reader, or you would not have connected enough with the stories of literary loss to make it this far into this note. I do not know what capabilities you have to become a Patron or Patroness of words and ideas–really of creators and subcreators–but it is time to renew this grand tradition. Great lights from St. Paul to Shakespeare had people who decided to remove the burden of financial worry so that the genius could do his or her work. As Virginia Woolf so aptly reminds us,
“Give [the writer] a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own).
Doubtless there are readers here who count every penny or pound, and the idea of supporting someone else seems ridiculous. Yet there are other readers here who could, if they wanted, leverage enough money to change someone’s life–or at least to encourage them along the way.
Knowing the great diversity of readers, I decided to create a Call for Literary Patrons that includes most everyone. What would you like to do to help others give birth to books and ideas? Here are some basic ideas. Fill free to add your own in the comments. And share this piece in case it may spur someone on to do something great in a literary life.
Not everyone has money that they can give, but you might be amazed by what you can do as a Patron with your time and talents. Here are some ideas:
- Pipes and Tires: Scholars, writers, and artists all have things they do to help them process their work. That’s usually working in the garden, cutting grass, and cleaning the house. Don’t take these things away from them. But you may be able to support your local writer or independent scholar by doing mechanical work, plumbing, light construction, tech support, or something else within your own vocational comfort zone.
- Sundays with Students: If you are part of a family with the kind of dinner table where one more person would not stretch time or budget, why not invite a student to eat something that is no doubt far beyond their regular fare? It’s true, you might find yourself in a future book, but that can be fun too.
- Beta Reading: While Beta Readers really gain from the experience, they are necessary to the commercial author’s or academic’s project. These early impressions shape the project from inviting manuscript to viable book.
- Editing: If you have the skill, offer yourself for more detailed editing services.
- Street Team: This is an old album release idea that needs to find its way into the book world. Authors do not always make great event planners. As a book is coming toward its release date, you may be able to be part of the digital street team that launches a book to as wide an audience as possible.
- Graphic Design: I don’t know if you noticed, but many indie and small press book covers are horrid. If you have the gift, you may be able to find a new niche in helping beautiful writing and elegant ideas actually look beautiful and elegant to the reader.
- Reviews: Including indie books, emerging projects, and new books in your Amazon reviews or blogs can be part of that building energy that might help a book get sold or an artist signed.
- Volunteer in Books: Privately run archives, libraries, charity book stores, and publishing firms often rely on volunteers to help them curate a literary experience of the past for a new generation.
If you have just a few dollars, here are some ideas that can give real encouragement:
- Coffee Cards: Some writers write with the door closed, only finding their way into public when they are editing. Others find inspiration in the noise of a local café or restaurant. While libraries fill this space for a while, most writers need the energy of the coffee shop. Preloading gift cards for your local starving artists and scruffy scholars can be a beautiful thing.
- Buy a Scholar a Book: Every independent researcher or advanced student has a list of books that he or she just cannot afford right now. Often that $82 scholarly book unavailable by inter-library loan creates a kind of academic mental pain. Slide up to a student some time and offer to pick up that expensive book tab. Note: Do not offer an independent academic or grad student a book that they “really must read.” Scholars are of two types: 1) the kind that will never read it and either feel guilt or ignore you; or 2) the kind that will read it instead of doing their real work.
- Contest Fees: It is increasingly the case for poets and short story writers that contests are an essential launch pad for their careers. Yet the contest fees run from $10-$100—fees that are often hard to justify to spouses and creditors. Pick up one of those fees so the poet or storyteller can focus on her art, rather than the risk she is taking.
- Buy Poetry: So few do any more.
These sorts of gifts are hard for most of us to give, but can make a big difference to the dreamer:
- Folio Edition: While some people collect books because of the sheer joy of it, scholars of literary history and biography often need folio copies, manuscript printings, and first editions to do their work. The digital world is helping here, but we are decades away from full access to the past. While not all of this can be done for less than $500, a lot of lower quality first editions of modern authors and folios of medieval manuscripts are in this price range.
- Conference Fees: Conferences can change lives and shape careers. They are essential for the writer trying to find an agent, the scholar trying to find a community, and the student trying to land a graduate placement.
- Software: While most software comes in free apps, the really good stuff typically costs money. You would be amazed at what starving students and desperate writers have done to beg, borrow, and (occasionally) steal the software they need. Relieve the burden: buy the license for them.
- Dental Work: It might look strange on this list, but artists, writers, independent scholars, and many graduate students are entirely without benefits. It has been years since some have seen a dentist. Give the gift of a gleaming smile.
- Graduation Fees: I can’t tell you how many students come to the end of their degree, but the slip of paper that says “M.A.” is miles away because they don’t have the hundreds of dollars needed to graduate. As an anonymous giver or close friend, you can help them finish well.
This is the kind of gift you put in a card or offer through a third party. In a generation that purchases cell phones in this range, it may not seem like a lot of money. When you see the income of the average writer, artist, adjunct professor, or graduate student, you’ll see how key this nanogrant is.
- Laptop: Literary workers need a computer that can run multiple programs and have a strong processing speed and video card. Laptops are key. One time my church’s small group had someone drop off a brand new laptop to me at work. It came at an absolutely essential time.
- Course Fee: This amount of money will pay for most professional and graduate level courses that creators need to upgrade their skills or learn new ones.
- Design Upgrades: This amount of money would allow an indie book producer to get significant design upgrades, making the work more professional looking (and thus more accessible).
- Travel: For my research as an independent (unpaid) scholar, I have traveled in Europe and North America, trying to access archives and libraries and conferences that are essential to my work. Even staying in hostels and eating microwave food, these are costly trips. Put some wind in these wings and you will see great things happen.
- Chapbook: Chapbooks have often been independently printed in history, and the trend is returning today. Small presses might help, but getting a collection of poetry to print is costly. You could give a poet you know—or novella writer or photographer—the chance to see his work in print.
At this level, you are writing cheques that are essential interventions in a writer’s or researcher’s life. I have received two $1000 grants, and each helped me do great things. At these higher levels you will want to find a foundation or charity that is able to help you leverage your donation dollars.
- The Full Trip: This level of grant will cover the full tab for a research trip, conference, or trip to New York or London to secure an agent or editor. It will not be lavish, but it will be essential.
- Professional Fees: A microgrant can take an important work of literature or bit of research and provide the editing, design, and legal team needed to launch the end product.
- The Discovery Grant: So much of our research these days is driven toward the final goal. Our research needs to be justified. You may be able to give the right curious mind a space to simply explore a problem without the pressure of knowing there must be a solution.
- Estate Fees: Researchers and writers who are in dialogue with a figure of the recent past will need to provide fees to estate and copyright holders—even when the end result will not make money (like an academic book or a church outreach). Sometimes these fees are small, but they can easily cost thousands of dollars. Here in Prince Edward Island, for example, we are in constant dialogue with the estate of L.M. Montgomery for things connected to Anne of Green Gables. The same is true of existentialist philosophers, postmodern writers, modern American and English greats, and the Inklings. If you believe in a work being done on a 20th century thinker, then help get that work to print.
- Regional Book Tour: A microgrant can cover the cost of a small but significant book tour—especially one filled visits with friends the author has met along the way.
Many philanthropists are involved in providing grants to artists, activists, journalists, writers, and researchers. Here’s where you could fit if you can leverage this amount of money.
- MA/MFA: While this amount of money would not pay for every degree, it will pay the tuition cost of most Masters of Arts and Masters of Fine Arts in North America, Australia, and Britain. As national grants are increasingly difficult to find, and bursaries increasingly focussed on certain kinds of students, you will see a need in the graduate-bound students in your life.
- Full Trunk and Open Road: This level of grant would allow an author to fill up the trunk of his car with books and blankets and hit the road. Many an author has been signed with a big publisher after selling her wares in the conference and bookstore circuit (especially in the U.S.). Sometimes the old fashioned approach works.
- The Next Level: A grant can create a professional placement for the right book project, securing not just the front-end design needs but also the distribution contacts and review lists that can make or break a book.
- 6 Months that Makes a Writer: I once heard a writer on the CBC describe how she was tired and frustrated one day, sitting at a park bench trying to write her book between shifts. A gentleman sat and talked with her for a while, finally asking the question, “what would it take to get your career started?” “Six months,” she answered. “I think I could get my work out in six months.” So this stranger gave her the money to take work off for six months, and it gave her the head start she needed. Who in your world would this be true of?
This upper level grant can be done anonymously, or in someone’s name. It is an opportunity to shape in significant ways the kind of work you want to see happen—really, the kind of educational and literary world you want to see around you. This might be a single donation or an annual contribution.
- The Patron: You may feel like it is important to take an artist or writer you believe in and stipend him or her full time until their work monetizes (if it ever does). There are a lot of businesses that could bring on a “staff” member without sacrificing the work of the firm. I would encourage you to give them the freedom to do their work, leaving the message and medium to them.
- The Chair: Increasingly schools are having their government subsidies shrink. Literature and Arts departments are feeling the pain of those cuts in very tangible ways. If you have the means, consider creating the space where someone can do something amazing for a whole generation of students. This might be the simple task of ensuring there is a poet in the faculty, or it might mean the creation of a new thing (like a Fellowship in Theology and Speculative Literature, for example). Universities at this stage would even be open to smaller classroom-driven donations that allow part-time and sessional professors to teach new courses in their fields and out of their research.
- PhD: Not including lost wages during the study period, and outside of the Tier 1 American and Canadian schools that fund their students (an increasing trend in parts of Europe), a PhD typically costs $50,000-$150,000. Yes, that’s a lot. If you have the means, consider giving the right student with the right project a lifetime gift.
- Literary Matchmaker: Even with the right amount of money, not everyone can play this role. Still, if you have the ability and the connections, I would encourage you to become a kind of “vocational whisperer”—someone who makes sure that emerging artists find the right mentors, new authors find the right agents and publishers, and freshly minted PhDs get to schools, charities, and publishing firms that need them. This is a huge project, and yet so very necessary in an age where the study of literature is slipping way, and there are so many eager scholars and writers looking for a space for their voice in culture.