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That screaming you hear? It's writers applying for NEA grants

February 28, 2013|By Hector Tobar
  • Writers are to get their NEA grant applications filed online.
Writers are to get their NEA grant applications filed online. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

All across America, a panic is spreading.

But you won’t hear the terrified multitudes and their pleas for help, their expletives shouted at the sky. Why? Because these suffering people are mostly fiction writers. And fiction writers almost always suffer alone.

The application deadline  for the fiction-writing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts is just hours away. (To be precise, the deadline is 11:59 p.m. EST, or 8:59 p.m. PST.) Fill out a few forms, submit a sample of your work, and you have a shot at winning $25,000 to write your next book.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. The notoriously involved process requires your average technophobic artist to do something he or she is loath to do: complete a series of feats involving computers, uploads and file formatting.

"Day 4, still trying to figure out how to download the NEA application," Whiting Award winner Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of "When Skateboards Will Be Free," tweeted last weekend.

Similarly, "A Fortunate Age" author Joanna Smith Rakoff tweeted, "Gah! After weeks of head-banging, managed to complete NEA grant app. They're seriously trying to thin the applicant pool."

The NEA warns you not to even consider applying less than 10 days before the deadline, “to give yourself ample time to resolve any problems that you might encounter.” That was a problem for me, since I first opened up the application materials Monday. Undaunted, I pressed on.

The application instructions are more than 3,000 words long — and don’t make for especially compelling reading.

The first part requires registering with the federal agency, which is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and which proudly boasts of distributing more than $500 billion in awards each year. Signing up with this money-dispensing behemoth turned out to be the easiest part of the whole process.

Next came the requirement to download a PDF form — which, at first, came up blank on my computer. It turned out to be a compilation of other forms, including “The Application for Federal Assistance, SF 424.” Beyond that, this master PDF form was itself a kind of dashboard that made other programs on other computers do other things that completed the application process.

Several times, I stared at this master PDF and just gave up, going back to the post-modern Chilean novel I was reading. The novel was, in its way, just as complicated, but somehow more fun to spend time with.

I let a couple of days pass, then went back to the instructions. They mentioned other forms, but I didn’t quite understand where these other forms were until I clicked on a little gray button on the master form. Presto!

These new forms had more challenges. For example, I had to say which congressional district I live in. I happen to know my congressman is Xavier Becerra, but I also know that his district shifted after the 2010 Census. (Lucky for me, I’m not just a fiction writer, but also a political geek.) It turns out there’s another government entity you can visit, virtually, to determine which district you live in —, a.k.a. the House of Representatives.

Having entered all the arcane facts the government requested of me, there was just the simple matter of attaching four supplemental documents to the master PDF form. I stared at the master form and perused the instructions back and forth several times to figure out how to do this, until I plucked up the courage to click on one of those gray buttons again. Presto! A new form appeared at the bottom of the master form.

After I attached four more forms and documents to the master form, I was ready to press the final, and biggest, gray button: “Save and Submit.” Magically, I was transported back to, where my virtual signature was said to be required (though it really wasn’t). But when I signed on to a new window nothing happened.

I panicked. I was trapped in a technical-administrative purgatory, with a completed form but no certainty that I’d actually filed it. I picked up the Chilean novel I was reading — a 700-page tome — and considered hurling it at my computer in protest. Then I double-checked my password. I’d forgotten the password I’d created just a few days earlier, and when I typed it correctly, my completed application swiftly entered the machinery.

In the end, I finished a day early! Still, I’m worried, wondering if there’s something buried in those 3,000 words of instructions that I forgot to do.


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