Bryn Chancellor was selected as the 2014 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction. Her story collection When Are You Coming Home? won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere, and her current projects include two novels. She has received a Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, a fellowship and a project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Conference and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program in fiction, she lives in Montevallo, Alabama, where she is an assistant professor at the University of Montevallo. A native of California who was raised in Arizona, Chancellor is married to artist Timothy Winkler.
The official WEX award letter from Poets & Writers arrived two weeks before I could tell anyone. For two weeks, I carried the letter, folded in quarters, in an inner zipped pocket of my purse, safe from rogue paper shredders or spontaneous toaster fires. I would take it out from the pocket in the mornings, as the Alabama sun snuck through the blinds, and I’d run my fingers over the words to make myself believe that it wasn’t some feverish insomniac dream. Then I folded the paper and tucked it away, as the world around me grew brighter.
Like most writers, I’m more familiar with another kind of letter, those with words such as: however, unfortunately, we’re sorry to inform you, please try us again. This letter, with its astonishing words—congratulations!, all-expenses-paid trip to New York City, a public reading, an honorarium, and a one-month residency at Jentel Artist Residency—well, no wonder I had to keep it close. Who could believe it? Not me. Certainly not my inner critic, who has all the charm of a paper cut: Oh, they must have made a mistake. It couldn’t be you; weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman tapping out those stories. Puh-leese.
Believe it or not, I indeed went to New York City. I went with my carefully packed bag full of sales-rack clothes and one nice pair of shoes, my stomach tied in knots over a mostly finished novel that I wasn’t sure how to talk about, and terrified that everyone would take one look at me and voice my deepest writer fears: You? Ha! Hahahahahahaha!
Instead, I found kindness and generosity as luminous as the starry Grand Central ceiling. I found honest-to-God readers (many of whom are also writers or editors), toiling long hours and fighting the good fight, taking the time to talk with me about my work and the publishing world and the writing life. I crisscrossed the city by subway, by cab, and by foot, trying not to be gauche and gawp at the skyscrapers, at the everything. I shared great meals and coffee with great people, and I filled two tote bags with great books. I gave a reading at McNally Jackson, and I didn’t pass out at all. I found friendship and kinship with the wonderful poet Harry Moore, my fellow winner. I shared the stories with my husband at the end of day, up in my lovely hotel room, because once I said it aloud I could maybe make myself believe it. Then I folded those stories up and tucked them away into all of the weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged pockets of mine.
No wonder I’m bursting at the seams with gratitude. To those instrumental in my WEX award—especially Maureen Egen, Victor LaValle, Elliot Figman, Lynne Connor, and the wondrous Bonnie Rose Marcus—and to all of those who offered up their time, words, wit, and wisdom, along with my ever-supportive family and friends: Thank you to the tip tops of the Alabama pines.
So much of the writing life centers on belief: making readers believe the magic on the page, making the publishing world believe in the work, and, perhaps the hardest, first believing in ourselves. Alas, my magic WEX experience can’t wave a wand and—poof!—solve such struggles, yet I know that I will always carry this award close. I will fold it away in the secret pocket of my writer’s heart, where I can pull it out when I need to remember: This is real. Someone once believed in you. Now it’s your turn.
Photo: (top) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Christy Whitney.
Photo (bottom) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Timothy Winkler.