Rhode Island Writers Connect
In November 2021, as the wave of COVID infections temporarily receded, before the Omicron variant came roaring in, Poets & Writers welcomed two writers from Rhode Island to New York City for a round of meetings with agents, editors, publishers, and authors.
The all-expenses-paid trip is the prize offered to winners of the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award, which aims to provide promising writers a network for professional advancement and is generously supported by Maureen Mahon Egen, a member of Poets & Writers’ Emeritus Board.
Each year Poets & Writers selects one state (or Washington, D.C.) and invites writers from that location to apply for the Writers Exchange Award. In 2021 the state was Rhode Island. The contest was judged by Madeleine Thien in fiction and Prageeta Sharma in poetry, who selected fiction writer Courtney Denelle and poet Jodie Noel Vinson as the winners. Once selected, Denelle and Vinson worked with Bonnie Rose Marcus, Poets & Writers’ director of Readings & Workshops (East) and the Writers Exchange, to identify members of the literary and publishing communities they would like to meet. Working from these wish lists, Marcus arranged a series of meetings and planned the winners’ trip to New York City, which included a stay at the Library Hotel in Manhattan.
Because of the pandemic, this year’s meetings were a mix of video calls, coffee dates, and lunches held at outdoor dining spots around New York City. Editors Brigid Hughes and Jeff Shotts, literary agent Nicole Aragi, and authors Emily St. John Mandel, Meg Wolitzer, and Hannah Tinti were among the professionals who met with Denelle and Vinson. A few months later we asked the two winners to reflect on the experience.
“I was taken aback by the warmth and generosity of the writers, editors, and publishing professionals we met, all of them asking outright, ‘How can I help?’” says Denelle. Vinson echoes this sentiment. “I received so much valuable advice about the process of bringing a book into the world, as well as insights into the rapidly changing world of publishing. The highlight of this experience was meeting writers and editors willing to dive deep into my book project, allowing me to envision what was possible, as well as the work I needed to do to get it there. Winning the award helped me redefine the distance between the work I’m doing now and my goal of publishing a book and gave me the confidence to devote more time and resources to accomplishing that goal.”
“So much of the world does not affirm the time and space given over to the creative act,” Vinson adds, “so to be bolstered by conversation after conversation that affirmed my process motivated me to make more space in my daily life for my writing practice—to keep the work close, as one writer advised, ‘like mittens clipped to a snowsuit.’”
The distinctive award reflects Poets & Writers’ understanding that a supportive community is vital to the success of most writers. “As a debut novelist entering into the prepublication juggernaut,” says Denelle, whose first novel, It’s Not Nothing, will be published by the Santa Fe Writers Project later this year, “I’ve been caught up in a kind of existential crisis, feeling overwhelmed and undeserving. But the meetings were good medicine, dispelling my doubts and fears—or, if not dispelling, then validating my experience as one common among debut authors. That sense of mutual support has firmed up the ground beneath my feet.”
To date, 108 writers from forty-two states and the District of Columbia have received the Writers Exchange Award; as a direct result of winning, over the years many writers have had their books published, received fellowships, secured teaching positions, and laid the groundwork for their professional lives as writers. The award has helped to launch the careers of Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings, The Secret Life of Bees) and Lidia Yuknavitch (The Chronology of Water, The Small Backs of Children), among others.
“The support and encouragement of the Poets & Writers staff was another unexpected treasure,” says Vinson. “The pandemic has scaled down opportunities to build relationships within the literary community, which was one of the greatest gifts of this award. I was reminded how much we lose when not intimately connected to other writers and how essential community is to the work, which is, in the end, always a collaborative process.”
Winners of the 2022 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for writers in Nebraska will be announced this summer. The state for the 2023 contest will be announced in the fall, with a deadline next spring. Learn more at pw.org/WEX.