You learn to keep writing no matter what, to apply for everything, and to take each acceptance, each rejection in stride. Like this: the story I submitted with my NEA application had been rejected almost twenty times before American Short Fiction accepted it. Or this: I almost didn't apply for this fellowship because the odds seemed so long. Doubt and faith are both at work here. In large part, it's other writers who help with the faith. The reason I did apply, for instance, was because I thought of a friend who'd weathered many rejections and had just had a manuscript accepted. Her joy rippled out into many other lives.
It took a few weeks for the news that I received this fellowship to sink in. It means time to write when I least expected it. I'll use this time to start a book that I've been thinking about for years, a new kind of project for me, one I need to learn my way around. The space to do this is an extraordinary gift.
From the short story "Safe Enough"
Weasel keeps certain secrets from Ruthie. He must. He is, after all, interested and she is his Case Manager. But still, he betrays himself. It's an old habit, one he can't help. They meet every Thursday in a corner office on the eighth floor of the Liberty Building in downtown Oakland. Having observed that Ruthie is a woman who craves order but pretends to embrace chaos, Weasel is always on time for these appointments. To please her, he will do this. But he will not talk about his childhood, the fact that he is still using, or his HIV status. They do, however, discuss the merits of sobriety, his job search, and, because Ruthie was trained in a school of therapy that advises selective disclosure, her pending divorce.
If pushed, Weasel will say that his mother is a proud woman and, although it is not true, he will tell Ruthie that she was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. His father is a blank stare. When asked about his brother, a plumber named Lonny, Weasel laughs. Ruthie keeps a framed picture of her son on her desk; until three months ago, there was also a picture of her husband, a sunburned man with thinning blond hair. Based on the photo and the divorce, Weasel is pretty sure he's a fag.
Often during their sessions, things break. Walking into her office, Ruthie's shoulder will brush a framed diploma on the wall and it will crash to the floor, shattering. Reaching for a paper clip, she'll knock a lamp off her desk. Accidents find her, she will explain, the way mosquitoes seek out whomever in a group produces the most carbon dioxide. As evidence, she can point to the missing joint on her left index finger and a six-inch scar on her right shin.
You gotta be careful, Ruthie, Weasel will say as he leans down and brushes the shards of a broken light bulb onto a piece of paper. You're starting to look like a fighter. Like Ali's daughter--what's her name. I used to box, you know.
With that, he'll stand up and start shadowboxing, circling her desk, batting at the literacy poster on her wall of Shaquille O'Neal poring over a book in his Lakers uniform. Take that, big boy, he'll say, staring at Shaquille's massive, smiling face. Ruthie will push her chair back from her desk and laugh and Weasel will watch her and feel good.
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is a student at Harvard Divinity School and teaches writing at Grub Street. She recently completed a short story collection and her stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Harvard Review, Puerto del Sol, and other publications. A story of hers was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and listed as a notable story in Best American Short Stories, 2008. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Democratic Strategist, Alternet.org, and The Advocate. With this fellowship, she will begin work on a non-fiction book. She grew up in North Carolina and currently lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, with her wife, Meghann Burke.
Photo by Ryan Murdock