The Hat Will Be Passed

Some thirty-plus years ago, I was a totally broke playwright in New York. One June weekend I went to a wedding in the far reaches of the Catskills and caught a ride back to Manhattan with a young Princeton professor of African Religion. Somewhere along the Taconic Parkway, he asked me what I did, and I spent a half hour telling him about the one-acts I'd been putting on in various churches and street theaters in East Harlem.

Two weeks later he called and asked if he could nominate me for an award. What award is that, I wanted to know. It's an award for promising young writers and scholars, he said. I certainly was unknown and whether or not I was promising was open to debate, but I spent a weekend filling out the application form he sent me.

To my utter astonishment, I somehow ended up winning a Hodder Fellowship. I moved to Princeton for the year and all that was required of me was one public reading; I had nine free months to devote totally to my writing. I worked hard, but I was scarcely a monk. I played volleyball with students in the afternoon, drank sherry with the faculty, played pool very badly after dinner every night.

At the end of the year, as a way of saying thank you, I took a week to write a one-act with a joke title, "The Seeing Eye Dog With An Eye for Women." The students and I built a small stage in the basement of a dining hall, put it on, and, at the risk of sounding like I'm tooting my own horn, it was a raging success.

In May, as I was packing to go back to New York, Walt Litz, the director of the Humanities Council, handed me a letter that said that they were renewing my fellowship. I ended up spending four years at Princeton, writing eight new plays and producing them with students and faculty, as well as finishing my first publishable novel.

The generosity that I was shown still seems miraculous to me. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the gift of those four years was what made me a writer.

Recently someone said to me, half-joking, that the Michener Center bought writers. It seemed like an odd and ill-willed comment, but it helped clarify something for me. I realized that through James Michener's remarkable largesse, I am allowed to do for other young writers what was done for me, which is to set them free for a time. There are classes certainly, but there is no teaching required of our fellows, and the stipend is significant enough that students don't have to work waiting tables in the evenings.

All that sudden freedom can be frightening. It can become the freedom to flounder, the freedom to tear your hair out five hours a day, but it can also become the chance to catch fire, to get into that deep, sustained groove where all the best writing comes from.