I’m reviewing applications for an artist residency program. I’m collecting my thoughts here as I go so others can benefit from my perspective for their own applications and for myself as I work on my own revisions. The most convincing case for ruthless editing is made by being a reader. Here goes:
-If you’re from a marginalized community, I am paying attention and want to score you highly. Just don’t Meek it up.
-If you’ve never been to a residency, I want to help you go.
-All I look for from a resume or CV is continual involvement, effort, and learning. Not publication in The New Yorker.
-That’s not totally true. Maybe that’s all I look for but I do notice if there are honors and publications I recognize. Too many of them and it does give me the feeling that this person is swimming along just fine and will do so with or without this residency. Too few and I wonder if it’s due to the quality of the writing.
-If your resume is full of sales and retail jobs, dates you attended universities but did not graduate, no universities at all, I give you serious consideration. I want to say yes to you even more than someone with an MFA.
-I switched to reading writing samples first. I was reading work plans and resumes first just because they appeared first in the package, but I think this it’s more impartial not to read those first.
-I’m not a grammatician or even a great copywriter, but if your grammar and spelling distract me – as in, I’m reading and thinking, “there should be a comma there,” or “that’s supposed to be plural,” then it’s hard to get past that and into the story.
-A writing sample is great if it can make me forget that I’m judging 43 applications and reading about 430 pages today and makes me want to keep reading this one.
-Less is more. Five adjectives to describe a thing and you’re killing me, Smalls. Pick the sharpest one. A building can be low-ceilinged, wood-framed, decrepit, newly-built, etc. but which one is the one the reader must absolutely know? Which one, if you leave it out will leave a hole in the reader’s understanding?
-Long descriptions of the setting, arbitrarily placed, make me aware that you’re world-building. Why here, why now, when it comes to descriptions of setting. If the character is getting from one physical place to another, I think that’s a good spot to slip in the setting. Or if they’re waiting. It does double-duty by marking the passage of time. Triple-duty would be if what’s being described is crucial to the plot or an understanding of the character.
Tangent: A good place to describe a doctor’s office would be as the characters are waiting to be called. Not when they go in to see the doctor about their test results. A patient who is a fashion editor will notice the Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Cosmo on the side table. She’ll notice the receptionist’s billowy chiffon blouse in last season’s emerald green. A physical trainer would notice the bit of jiggle in the receptionist’s arms through her sheer sleeves that he’d have her do shoulder presses for. He might notice the slimness of the white chairs, like something out of The Jetsons, and doubt the strength of the skinny chrome legs against his 275lbs body. He might notice the gray carpeting as he slides his gym bag under his seat. An electrician might notice the nest of cords in the corner. He might notice the receptionist’s desk where he would cut a hole no bigger than the bottom of a bottle of Heineken and use those tiny clamps he pocketed off the job site to run the cords through. A visual artist might notice the uninspired choice of Monet’s water lilies on the wall, the abundance of morning light coming through the windows, the museum white walls in this office. Now, if the receptionist plugs her cell phone in a power strip and a spark jumps and catches on her blouse…way better ways to do this, but you get the idea. I could have chosen instead to describe the flat screen blaring CNN, the white bookcases with no books, the decorative teal baskets on the shelves, the philodendron on the window sill. I chose not to because those details don’t do the double and triple-duty I want my sentences to do.
Another tangent. There’s something they teach in pro-wrestling. If an opponent has been “working” your knee for a minute, you can’t just get up on both feet as if you weren’t just getting hit. You limp. You scurry away to a corner of the ring to gather yourself. Later in the match, you wince when your leg is hit. Wrestlers have to remember their injuries for the story of the match. Same in fiction. If a henchman just came to collect a payment a character is short on and lets them off with a warning, the sense of worry and pressure can’t disappear when he leaves or another person enters. It has to keep pressing. Even as the next thing happens, that concern must lurk. The injury must be remembered.
-I’ve read 5 pages in an hour. My husband is randomly singing, asking if I want coffee, wondering aloud if we should get an under the door draft stopper. (We should.) I’m also getting hungry and would like to stop reading. There’s a TV on in the background with Italians singing Jesus Christ Superstar. You’re not competing with other writers, you’re competing with the real world around the reviewer.
-There’s nothing better than a character backed into a corner who makes a move to get out of it that turns out to be the wrong move. That shit never gets old.
-Actually, the only thing better is a character that makes a “bad” decision involving money.
-As a reviewer, I completely ignore reference letters and references.
-The question I grapple with when looking at something with a great premise and uneven execution is: can they make something good great? Not even this piece in particular. Can they become the type of writer that can do that? Catch where their story is weak and strengthen it. (I’m still learning that myself.)
-A great artist statement tells a story. Themes and theories and contextualizing and synthesizing…oh sorry. Fell asleep. Because it’s deadly boring.
-A great work plan is plain and direct. It says this is what I’m working on, this is where I am right now, this is where I want it to go, and this is what I need from you to keep working on it. Boom. The more quantifiable, the more I believe you got this. Of course, there are some things you’re not sure about. Maybe you have some ideas and you need time to try them out, toss them out, try others. That’s fine. Tell me. And of course, even if you have a plan it could completely change. Mine has at every residency. That’s fine too. Rarely are artists asked for deliverables. My responsibility as a reviewer is to make suggestions on who I believe would best make use of the gift of a month of time to write based on their intent. Have strong intention.
-Writing samples from people with MFAs are like the super perky kids that sit in the front row, not a hair outta place, pencils sharpened to even lengths. Like alright, I get it. Relax, b.
-Writing samples from people without MFAs are like that kid that wows with great, fresh ideas, but then their term papers look like they were in Saw 15, there’s so much red scribbled across it. And you’re like dammit, Kenneth, you know what? Go sit with Margaret in the front row and learn how she doesn’t do these things you do. (Full disclosure: I am a Kenneth.)
-If I look up to check what page I’m on, I stop reading. No matter how much I’d like to read everyone’s full sample. #wastehertime was a 2016 hashtag, thanks.
-I wonder how shocked this White lady lawyer who lives in Harlem now whose application is the first one I rated “superior” as opposed to “competent” would be if I met her. I don’t say this as a reflection of her, maybe she wouldn’t be shocked at all. It’s a reflection of how everything I do, even this, is affected by my race, class, ethnicity. By how those things are interpreted.
-The more submissions I read, the quicker I can tell if the submission has “it.” As Nas only needs one mic, I only need one page.
-I forgot how hard this can be. To make the best decisions for the writers and the organization. Also, how many hours this can take. I’m always glad to have contributed my time at the end, but I always forget how much time will be required when I begin.