“Listen. If you want to understand anything about me, know that I was raised on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic—of cheap grocery-store novels and tabloid magazines, of overcrowded and sometimes violent public schools, of a working-class Kentucky that had a lot more faith in the ability of a hammer to earn a living than a pen. With the exception of the family King James, we didn't even keep books in the house, and I was the first in my family to get through high school, much less go on to pursue graduate studies in something as unheard of as creative writing. Matter of fact, my grandmother—who had more than her hand in raising me—never formally learned to read and write, and it was her story that I set out to get on the page when I applied for an NEA Literature Fellowship back in 2008. That book, a biography in poems called Fanny Says, was completed because of that grant and was later published by BOA Editions in 2015.

But it wasn't merely my second book that came out of that gift, no. What resulted was the life I have now, and have no doubt—I would never be where I am without that chance given to me during a time in which I needed it most.

You see, at first, I can’t imagine my request was much different than anyone else’s—I needed time to write, desperately needed time to write, just a little time, pure and simple. This was true, but what I received—freedom, validation, recognition, confidence—amounted to much more than a mere sabbatical. What resulted was nothing short of a complete life change: in addition to having a spell to work on my poems, I also gained enough courage to move away from ten years in a highly rewarding but demanding job in independent publishing. This was a terrifying and bittersweet change, but I realized that it was time for me to grow, and more importantly, to take myself absolutely serious as a writer.

Although the amount granted to me at the time might not seem like a lot of money to some, I was able to sustain myself on it for three years, and unexpectedly, the boost had a cumulative effect, bringing more teaching and reading engagements than I could have ever have acquired on my own. Since then, I've managed to find a way to sustain myself, working mostly full-time as a writer, and there's absolutely no way I would have been able to do that if not for the generosity shared with me all those years ago.

When I first was granted that fellowship, I received a lot of notes from friends and family, but the one I truly remember came from the fiction writer Mary Ann Taylor-Hall. Like the rest, she wrote to congratulate me, but specifically, she said my life had finally 'busted out of the dark.' I don’t think I could have possibly understood what she meant at the time, but looking back, I get it—the NEA forced me out into the light, to a place where I had to see myself as legitimate, as a voice lifting up among the chorus of so many voices who had received the NEA's assistance before me. That honor meant the world to me, and my world was changed. ”

Nickole Brown

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