Breaking the rules to give a bit of hope in a desperate situation

Many years ago, I was given a literary award from the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation.  It was for $175 and was an encouragement to finish an American Indian novel I was then writing. “Not enough to quit your job,” I remember was a line from the letter I received from the foundation’s rep, Barbara.

And from thereafter, Barbara and I kept in touch for many years.   Mostly we wrote letters, and I once visited her in New York City in her high-ceilinged, spacious apartment in the Village.  It was an elegant place, and she loved it.  It was expensive, and she feared she could not afford the rent for much longer.   She no longer worked for the foundation, although she often spoke of how much she had enjoyed her position there. She was a victim of a series of cutbacks.

Barbara was a vibrant woman, bubbly and smiling and very upbeat with me, but I suspect she was that way with everyone.  She was herself a writer of short stories and novellas.   She told me that she had often tried to publish in the New Yorker, only collecting many rejection notes for her efforts, as did we all.  Still do.

By coincidence, Barbara and I published our longer fiction with the same small press in Boston.  For me, the short Indian novel led to good things.  First, it was a ten-thousand-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, followed several years later by a $25,000 writers award from a New York Foundation.  In those years, it was tax-free.  I was on a roll.

You had to be nominated for the $25,000 prize; you could not apply.  So you were left guessing as to who put your name up for consideration.

Barbara and I meanwhile continued our correspondents.  I knew she struggled mightily in expensive Manhattan.  She had several part-time jobs, secretarial in nature often, but nothing steady.  Yet she was always sunny in her letters.

I had my problems in Louisville, including a divorce, but they were small compared to those facing Barbara. She developed cancer in her kidneys.  I believe there was one surgery, but I presume the cancer could not be contained.  I didn’t get a lot of the particulars.

As a past recipient of this large New York award, I automatically became a nominator for future grantees.  I decided to nominate Barbara.  The way the deal works is, you obtain from the person you are considering for the award copies of their work (unpublished as they often were).  And you do this any way you can manage, but you are not allowed to reveal to a would-be recipient why you are collecting copies of their writings.   Not always an easy thing to do.

I knew the rules, but they did not keep me from telling Barbara what I was up to.

Her death, in my estimation, and from what others around her told me, was not far off, and I knew the nomination was for her an exciting development.   It gave her something to look forward to, or so I wanted to believe, anyway.  Immediately she forwarded me pages of a novella, a sample of her work.  I didn’t notice the manuscript was an original, or if I did, I thought nothing of it.  I assumed she kept a copy.  She did not.

When the awards were announced months later, she did not, regrettably, get one, and shortly thereafter, she contacted the foundation seeking a return of her manuscript, the original novella. The pages were immediately returned to her, and within days I had a strong letter from the foundation’s director.  He gave me hell for revealing what I had to the person I nominated, that being Barbara, of course. The man was pissed, and if he could have rescinded my earlier award, asked back the $25,000 I was given, I think he might have.  Under such circumstances, I would have felt duty-bound to refer him to my ex-wife Mary for collection, and with the admonition, “Best of luck!”

I waited what I viewed as a reasonable period of time and wrote back the foundation director, explaining how the lady I nominated was dying of cancer and learning from me that I had nominated her for the prestigious prize could, and probably did, improve her spirits, gave her a bit of hope in a desperate situation.  That was what I liked to believe.  And the quality of her writing, I reminded the man, was never in question. She was a pro.  I resisted telling him I would do it all over again if the circumstances were similar.  Perhaps he guessed as much.

I never heard back from the fellow.  Barbara was dead in about a year.  And I was not again asked to nominate another writer, but my guess is that you, the reader, already figured that out.

I know foundations cannot be expected to fund the dying, I understand that, but I myself would allow exceptions in a world where I make the rules.

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

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