The Conundrum of Opportunities 🕸️ - Issue 7
A note on the conundrum many emerging (African) writers face, and what to do about it.
The ironic world that we live in often demands that, in order to qualify for funding to create art, or to qualify for certain scholarships, or even merely to qualify as a student of a certain craft, one must already be creating that art, already be doing the thing one would have done with that scholarship, or already be a good enough practitioner of the craft that one is applying to be trained in.
To some extent, I understand why this is so. People who are “giving out” money or giving their time and talents to teaching, want some sort of guarantee that their beneficiaries won’t waste their resources. But that puts creators in a very tough spot.
Emerging writers typically have some, but not much, writing out in the world. They typically do not have a single, solo-authored book to their name. The path from emerging to established writer often has much to do with receiving funds, scholarships and mentorships, and training. But these are often hard, or impossible to come by, without the work itself. Most of these steppingstones require some level of application, meaning, at the very least, that the writer must have written work that is readily available to be read, even if only by the people to whom one is applying. Just as an impressive CV is an asset in the corporate world, a portfolio of good, published work is a big asset in the writing world. These are the sorts of things, as far as I can tell, that boost your credibility when they are included in your bio or applications. But sometimes, the bar is even higher than merely having a solid writer’s portfolio.
For instance, the most coveted and well-funded scholarships that I know of for African writers is the Miles Morland Writing Fellowship. One of their criteria for eligibility is that the applicant must have written work to their name that has been published and offered for sale. What this means is that you could have a laundry list of online literary magazine publications and bylines to your name, but if none of these publications require readers to pay before they can access your work (we’re talking buying books, paying for print or online subscriptions to magazines, paywalls that need to be bypassed before your work can be read, etc.), you are ineligible for this fellowship.
Conundrum Level 1: How does an emerging writer, without the funding/training they need to produce work, still produce the work that will qualify them to receive funding/training so that they can produce work?
Now, believe me, I hate the answer to this question as much as I hate saying it, but I genuinely, unfortunately believe it to be true: you just have to find a way to make the work anyway. You just have to find a way to write and keep writing, with all the money and training you do not have. You may have to scrounge for time and energy to sit down and create words and create stories in the midst of a hectic life that pushes back on your every attempt to do so. You may have to sacrifice moments of rest, hangouts with friends. You may have to divert earnings from your day job to fund your time in a conducive workspace, like a café or library or coworking office. You may have to make yourself sick from lack of sleep, or write between part-time jobs and full-time classes. I hate these conditions passionately, especially for marginalized writers, writers without comfortable income, writers with physical and mental ailments and disabilities and so on—but really and truly, having readily available, written work to your name is one of the very lowest baselines. Even opportunities for marginalized and emerging writers would typically require that you show some of your work for consideration. Someway, somehow, you must make your work exist.
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Conundrum level 2: How can an emerging writer, without funding/training, create a portfolio good enough to qualify for funding/training opportunities where the eligibility bar is high?
Here’s an answer that might seem obvious and is still true: you have to keep submitting your work to the places where you want it to be published.
Given how valuable it can be to have your work in a place where people must pay to read it, one of my strongest recommendations is to submit to writing prizes. Particularly if you are strapped for money, I would recommend submitting to writing prizes that have no entry fees. Many of these prizes have monetary rewards for their winners and runners-up, which is a very valuable bonus—getting money as part of your journey to qualifying for money—but what is even better is the opportunity to be published in a book that will be for sale. Many literature prizes come with the opportunity for longlisted or shortlisted stories to be published in an anthology. Examples include the Caine Prize, the Writivism Prizes, and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. So if you submit a story to a prize that ends up being selected for inclusion in an anthology with a price tag, boom—you’ve been published for sale. You’re in an elite category of eligibility.
There is a condition, however—one that may also seem obvious: the publications that include your work actually have to come out. They have to be made available in the world so that people can actually buy and read them. Without that, all you have is a longlist or shortlist inclusion to add to your bio or literary CV. When the work isn’t actually available, it’s a bit hard to make it do anything useful for you.
Emerging writers, and especially emerging African writers who submit to Africa-based prizes, may struggle because of the way the independent literary industry is set up. Independent literary magazines, prizes, and organizations rely heavily on volunteerism. Because these things are people’s side gigs and passion projects, it is so easy for the people on the back end to get swamped by the demands of their regular lives, for organizational affairs to get so tangled or quiet that the platforms take long, sometimes unannounced and unexplained hiatuses, or even fold altogether before you have a chance to hear back from them.
I can tell you from experience that there have been a handful of times I have submitted to something, or have been informed that a literary project meant to include my work is underway, and then been faced with months or years of radio silence, or sporadic communications full of “soon”s that turn out to be quite far from soon.
As we speak, I have at least three pieces of writing that were scheduled for publication ranging from one year ago to four years ago, all from independent literary platforms/organizations. Al of these are opportunities to be published for sale and hold the potential to improve my prospects for getting funding or training. But I am often in doubt as to when or if these pieces of writing will ever see the light of day.
I am sure I am not the only emerging African writer who ever has, or ever will, face this conundrum. The question, of course, becomes what to do about it.
Conundrum Level 3: What does an emerging writer do when they have put themselves and their work in a position that would make them eligible for funding/training opportunities with high eligibility bars, but the release of their work is out of their control?
There are some instances when a writer is within their rights to recall their work from whomever is holding it, in order to have it published elsewhere. Personally, this is not an option I’ve ever really considered or executed. I might have written a piece for a competition, or submitted to a platform or for a commission according to the specific theme outlined in their call for submissions, making my work almost uniquely suitable to wherever I submitted it. This makes me reluctant to try and turn it in somewhere else.
So, what does one do when one can’t or won’t recall their work? I’m afraid the answer to this one is yet another grit-and-determination-themed one: you just keep writing new things, and submitting them to more places.
A writer’s path to attaining funding or training, as far as I can see, continues to be dependent on the existence and the availability of the writer’s work. One of my old blog posts comes to mind: “Keep Pumping Debris into That Vacuum,” and its accompanying poem, “These Are Not Questions.” I fear the only way to get where we’re trying to go is to keep doing the things we would be doing if we had the opportunities we are seeking. The irony, I fear, is not easily overcome.
Until next time,
The Spider Kid. 🕸️
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I'm not a writer, but this still resonates as a digital creative person. Conundrum 1 is truly so aggravating and exhausting! (and honestly, the reason why I take so many indefinite breaks from creating)