I was wait-listed for a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in 2004, but then someone—perhaps two people—turned down a fellowship and I gladly took the spot. Seven months of freedom to write, with my own room and a very small stipend. I was relatively young and didn’t have a mortgage or a child, so I could afford to live in moderate poverty. I set off with grand ambitions. Famous, prizewinning writers had emerged from FAWC, and I was confident that I could finish my story collection during the seven months and become a famous prizewinner. The first two or three months were great. Then came insomnia; several months of winter, which was a shock to my Californian self; a well-known visiting writer’s withering assessment of my work; rejections; and becoming mired in many drafts of a story that I could not figure out. I ended the year with one small triumph—a story picked by Best New American Voices—but a greater sense of despair at realizing how wildly I had overestimated my talents. This was not FAWC’s fault but my own. Instead of becoming instantly successful I embarked on another decade of struggling with my writing. FAWC was not the end of learning how to write but only the end of a beginning. I was not defeated by my time at FAWC. Instead I found the will to persist past the months of disappointment, which would help me immeasurably in enduring the years of disappointment to follow. Eventually I finished that story collection, The Refugees, and published it in 2017—thirteen years after my time at FAWC and twenty years after I first began writing it. FAWC and other writers residencies provided the time and space to wrestle with the book, along with the recognition that there was something important in what I was doing. They encouraged me, and a writer needs encouragement. The rest of it—the writing—was up to me.
Three Points of Productivity:
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of four books, including the story collection The Refugees, published by Grove Press in 2017.