Hal Niedzviecki, one of the panel members for PWAC’s “Show me the Money!”

Last spring, the Toronto chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) held a development workshop for its members. While primarily an organization serving freelancing or full-time copywriters, technical writers and journalists, any writer is eligible for a low-cost membership as long as they have published at least one paid non-fiction piece. Benefits offered by PWAC include workshops and resources, as well as an affordable extended health insurance plan.

Filling out forms is one of the more utilitarian skills I acquired during grad school. I had already leveraged the ability to argue and to adhere somewhat strictly to deadlines in order to heave myself into a MA in the first place. But I bobbed about in the months after finishing my degree like a fisherman’s net in a sea of possible employment. But what fish were there were either too large or too tiny for my net, slipping its mesh or towing me out into a storm of competition.

And so grants become sandbars the freelancing adventurer, or “arts practitioner,” cling to. Our Canadian granting system is the envy of many, although it can be distant, with deadlines far in advance of disbursements. It is also mystifying and inscrutable—like the face of some minor deity. Phrases such as “jury of peers” and “project of merit” can send shudders through applicants’ nerves. The jargon used by these granting agencies is not transparent, nor is it meant to be–the Ontario Arts Council has even gone as far as formulating its own glossary. At least they admit their opacity.

While local, provincial and federal arts councils are generous, the application process can present a number of barriers for those without the time, resources and education to take advantage of these funds. In my first year after graduation, I received four separate grants from three different agencies. I wouldn’t have been able to do so without the many tips and tricks I picked up from other writers, often when they were too drunk to remember.

For those practicing their arts in rural areas, or without these networks, it can be difficult to find answers to simple inquiries such as, “does it count as a paid publication if I was offered drink tickets?” or “where do I live, actually?” Contacting the program officer can help, and when you’ve exhausted that avenue, professional associations, meet-ups and forums can also serve as guides to the process.

Diane Davy, Michael Schellenberg and Hal Niedziviecki, were invited to PWAC’s “Show me the Grant Money!” panel. While primarily geared towards non-fiction projects, their advice pertained to nearly all types of artists and writers.

As the part-time executive director of WorkinCulture as well as an arts marketing consultant, Davy works mainly with governmental and institutional grants. She advised writers to match their needs with funders’ goals, to read their mission statements carefully and to match their language. She also suggested telling a compelling story in the proposal, using humour, and having a trusted editor look over the proposal draft. She alerted that non-fiction writers are also subject field specialists, and to pursue grants relating to health, social justice, environment or other topics to fund research projects.

Schellenberg had, at that time, been barely two months on the job as the OAC’s Literature Officer, and soon after abruptly left the position. While he gave an interesting spiel on the current state of publishing, informed by his many years with Knopf Canada and Penguin Canada, he did not have much practical granting advice. Schellenberg did let us know that the OAC funds about 10% of applicants, although he hinted that previously ineligible genres could soon be funded. Many arts councils do not fund work that could be considered “marketable,” i.e. trade publications or textbooks. Instead, they seek to fund creative work that is unsellable, but deemed necessary to our cultural identity.

The blunt wit of Niedziviecki, founder of Broken Pencil, woke the audience up. The recent recipient of an Access Foundation grant, Niedziviecki told the audience to flip their ideas about the granting cycle. Rather than asking for funding to complete a project still in its inception or early stages, he urged writers to have their project well underway, and to treat the grant application like a practice book proposal. Writers must be invested in their project, and a project that appears likely to be completed will be more appealing to granting juries. Adopting the voice of a jury, he asked, “do you mean to say that you won’t complete the book if you don’t receive funding? You disgust me!” He also claimed the sample of work is the most significant part of an application, particularly since it is judged by fellow writers and peers. As a past juror, Niedziviecki looked for confidence and commitment in a writer’s work, asking “do I see a book in this?”

The attendees left the panel with a few more survival skills, which PWAC later summarized on its website. But Niedziviecki best described the murky seafloor of the grant process: “It’s the people who have the passion who get the grants.”

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