Apply for a Grant

Thunk! Her final arrow pierced the foam target across the gym, and my 11-year-old daughter smiled the smile of the just. Then she thanked the member of the local archery club who’d been giving her instruction. This was the end of her free lessons. It was time to join the club.

I didn’t know how tell her we couldn’t afford it.

It’s the familiar sob story of the “creative”: You choose a life of experiences over a life of disposable income, and woe betide those who are making the trip with you (i.e., your family and friends). The feast-or-famine cycle of the writing life was in full famine, and my contribution to the family income was microscopic. I had a bunch of solid ideas I believed had the potential for a nice back-end payoff, but they all required some seed money up front. And the cupboard was bare.

What a pain.

And then a plan popped to mind. A strategy not unlike shooting arrows at a distant target: part skill, part luck, part act of faith.

I’d apply for a writing grant.

Now, unlike a lot of artists, for whom grant-writing is a fine art in itself, I’ve never been much good at it. I find it a bit embarrassing. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” my father used to say. Even if the borrowing isn’t from a bank or your Uncle Herman, but from the state.

But these are lean times for the gig-economy tribe, and it didn’t take much self-convincing that a grant isn’t pity money. The state is making an investment in you, no less than a venture capitalist would. If your good idea pans out, everyone benefits. And for the applicant, it’s a far less risky venture than, say, trying to win over the sharks on Sand Hill Road.

The chances of getting a Canada Council “exploration” grant are around one in six each time you try. Them’s decent odds.

But here’s what everyone says about applying for a grant: You have to put your whole heart into it. It’s not enough to have a good idea; you have to be organized and clear in the telling, and meticulous in the follow-through. The one time I applied for a Canada Council Grant, a friend who gave it a last-minute proofread saved my bacon by pointing out a mistake: I’d accidentally applied in the category of “aboriginal dance.”  

All that said, a grant application is one of those thing you could just endlessly tweak. The process could stretch on for weeks if you let it. What’s the sweet spot, in terms of time investment? I’m saying it’s one day. One full, long, Big Day.


And so it began: to the writing desk by 9am. I’d carved out the morning to research strategy.

The cynic’s approach to grant-writing is to try to “crack the code,” to figure out what the funder wants to hear and give them that. There are plenty of books that enable this approach.

And since grant agencies typically list previous recipients online, you can always see what worked for others and then take that recipe and just … plug and play.

But I’ll never forget something Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz once said: “Recipes produce cooks; they don’t produce chefs.” The word “cook” makes me think of my nephew, in his first job, sporting a grease-stained apron, tending the grill at a family restaurant in Calgary, timing his hamburgers by singing the first movement of In a gadda da vida. That’s not sad, but it’s entry-level living. It feels undignified.

I decided to ignore the successfully funded examples. I’d stick with my vision and try to win points for originality. I’d just be achingly honest about my motivations, and about my hopes for the thing once it was done and released into the wild.

The next issue was money. How much to ask for? This is a huge tactical decision. Charging too little can de-value your idea in the eyes of the funder. (At least that’s how it works in behavioral psychology. Plus, if you ask for too little, you leave money on the table that would have been super-helpful to realizing your vision.

On the other hand, asking for too much might kill the deal outright. So, again: there’s a sweet spot. I spent the last hour of the morning trying to figure out what it might be.

By lunchtime I’d roughed out my elevator pitch for the project. Now it was just a matter of supplying the details.

And now I’m going to break the pattern of the posts on this site. There’ll be no blow-by-blow account of how the rest of the day unfolded. You can guess. It involved sitting with a laptop and refreshing my coffee. Projects like this one make excellent Big Days but lousy copy. Suffice to say I didn’t have to pull an all-nighter. By 9pm I had something I was relatively pleased with.

And then I pushed “send.” Just one twitch of a finger, like releasing a knocked arrow and launching it toward its target, on a wing and a prayer.

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