“In Fall 2010, I kept getting calls from an unknown number and refused to pick it up. I had assumed, as I imagine most young artists might, that it was a bill collector of some sort trying to track me down. When I finally got the guts to pick up the call, I was walking down a busy street in Philadelphia. I answered the phone, trying to use my most intimidating tones. 'Is this Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz?' the voice on the other end asked. 'Yeah! Who is this?!' I angrily barked back. 'The National Endowment for the Arts?' the voice kindly responded. I burst into tears right there in the street. The women at the NEA told me my experience wasn't unusual—both artists fearing their calls were coming from debt collectors, and the sobbing with shocked joy when the truth revealed itself. It's a fact that is as funny as it is sobering.

My NEA fellowship in poetry came at a transformative time in my career. I received it a few months into a yearlong ArtsEdge writing residency at the University of Pennsylvania, and winning my NEA fellowship allowed me the freedom to beg off returning to office work for even longer so that I might focus exclusively on my writing. During my NEA fellowship year, I was awarded another writing residency, this time at the Amy Clampitt House in Lenox, Massachusetts. This gave me another grateful year. Within this string of years, I was able to oversee the publication of six books of my work. I managed the reissue of my entire back catalogue of poetry books, four in total, including a 'memoir in verse' which has recently been optioned for a film. I was also able to write my latest collection of poetry, The Year of No Mistakes, which is my best-selling book to date and the winner of the Writers' League of Texas Book Award for poetry. And I was also able to fully research and write my second nonfiction book, Dr Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, which spent three months on the New York Times Best Seller List and was named a 'Best Book of the Year' by NPR's Science Friday, Amazon, the UK newspaper The Guardian and The Onion's AV Club, among others.

When I received my NEA fellowship, I thought I was being given the gift of a break from my life as an office worker. Instead, I was given the gift of a new livelihood as full-time writer. Today, 100% of my income comes from writing and lecture fees. I know that I am not alone in this as well. NEA fellowships have been stepping stones for so many artists, helping them translate aspirations into a career. And we do not forget. I don't know a single artist who has received an NEA fellowship and hasn't turned around to help their communities in their own ways. Hosting community events, working in their local schools, mentoring other writers, and bringing art into the most unlikeliest communities: mental hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and needle exchanges. We are so grateful for what we have been given, that is only seems right to give back and bring art into these spaces where it can be just transformative, healing and empowering as our fellowships have been to us. And in you see it through that lens, then you can see this situation like I do: how eradicating NEA fellowships is like damming a river which nourishes communities far past what your eyes can see.”

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

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