Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Chutzpah and Guile: Great Grants with Marnie Woodrow

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Chutzpah and Guile: Great Grants with Marnie Woodrow

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

Marnie Woodrow led a Tuesday night workshop at the Toronto Writers' Centre entitled "Great Grants,” which focused on teaching participants the steps to writing a successful grant application. The workshop was geared to people new to grants and those trying develop their grant writing abilities.

Woodrow is the author of two short story collections, Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss and In The Spice House, as well as a novel, Spelling Mississippi. She is also a seasoned grant juror and recipient, and her workshop drew upon both of these perspectives to offer insights and practical advice on how to approach the grant process. Her teaching style was very relaxed and humorous, which made for an interactive and comfortable workshop environment.

The workshop was held in a small classroom in the Toronto Writers' Centre, a centre in the Annex that offers writers a quiet and professional working environment. Now in it's third year, the centre features work spaces and facilities for its members, as well as public programming. Sixteen writers attended Tuesday's workshop, armed for three hours of note-taking with notepads and coffee. After introducing herself to the group, Marnie gave a brief overview of the different levels of funding available through the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA), Ontario Arts Council (OAC), Toronto Arts Council (TAC) and the Writer's Reserve, discussing their deadlines as she went. Due to the approaching October deadline for an OAC grant, she handed out copies of the lengthy application to use as a sample for the workshop. Before offering advice on how to prepare the application, she explained the the process of being a jury member, which includes months of reading applicants' work, several stage of reviews and then impassioned debates with other jury members to decide who will receive funding. She briefly touched on the problem of biases toward poetry and certain genres of fiction, but explained that jury members are asked to set aside any overt biases and judge works on their merit. When thoughtfully discussing the many benefits of a grant, Marnie explained that a grant is not only a gift of money, but of time. For many writers, being able to take a leave of absence from a full-time job allows for the realization of their writing goals. She also described the validation of being selected from a jury of peers, "...the 'yes' means that a group of your peers saw something something sparkly in your work and said 'yes, let's give them money.'"  

A quick show of hands revealed that most people in the room had never applied for a grant, and Marnie introduced the process, taking care to point out the key sections of the grant application - the synopsis of your proposed work and, most importantly, the writing sample. Marnie led the group through several short exercises, which were extremely funny, yet confidence-building. The first exercise taught the group how to write a synopsis and began with writing a one-sentence description of a project we would like funding for. This was followed by writing a sentence about our project from the perspective of a New York Times book reviewer (e.g. "While Mathew's writing is at once heart-rending and poignant, it is her sheer mastery of language that has become the hallmark of her work...").

After playing the literary critic, we were then asked to write a 40-word project description for a TAC grant application, which came quite naturally after the warm-up exercises. She suggested keeping the tone of a synopsis a cross between a commercial and an unemotional description of the form and themes of your work. After getting a grasp on the synopses, we were then given helpful advice on how to prepare our writing sample. Marnie stressed that selecting your very best work is key, even if it means slicing out weak portions of a work and adding bridging notes to guide the reader through your edits. She also warned against hurriedly writing new work for a grant application, advising that writing needs a cooling off period before editing to avoid perceivable "wobbly bits" in your work. Other great suggestions included having someone else edit your work prior to submission, using a classic font (sorry, comic sans fans!) and adhering to the length guidelines. Having your writing sample stop at a place that leaves readers wanting more is also ideal, it could lead to jurors funding you in the hopes that they will one day read your finished work.

We closed with the final exercise of writing author bios for a book jacket, complete with the titles of our many published works, a list of the awards we have received (she encouraged us pick the awards we felt were impossible or were embarrassed to secretly covet, e.g. Housekeeper's Guide's Best Romantic Pick 2009, Nobel Prize, etc.). We then ended with a flourish, choosing where we will end up living to conclude the bio ("Monique divides her time between Barcelona, Bangkok, New York and Toronto.)" Marnie jokingly told the group to shed our Canadian restraint and modesty and show some chutzpah when describing our writing. Several participants volunteered to read their author bios and the results were comical - some writers described their record-breaking bestsellers (published in over 60 languages in 57 countries, etc) while others won the Nobel Peace Prize and liaised with world leaders. She described the process of submitting work that you are genuinely proud of for a grant as a powerful and important experience. She offered advice on determining whether you are ready to submit a grant application, but her final advice was that there is nothing to be lost in trying - you develop the thick skin necessary to be a professional writer and from your failures, learn how to better prepare for your success.  

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