The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard To Master

April 11, 2013, 11:26 am

alfred_e_neumanThe final results are in for grants filed by Tenured Radical last fall:  of four requests for funding to support my sabbatical, exactly none succeeded. Over the last few weeks I have been fielding communications from various foundations that express profound regret at this situation.

I would like to point out that this regret, unlike so many other forms of regret, was avoidable. But that said, I want everyone who spent the time reading my grants and discarding them to know: I forgive you! And to everyone whose grants were chosen when mine was not? I forgive you too!

To the thousands of people who have been opening the same form letters as I have opened in the past few weeks: take it from a fellow loser, you did good to even try. I know you feel like the Whack -A-Mole. So do I. However, need I point out that you will only ever have a chance of success of you are willing to risk being a loser? As Elizabeth Bishop so thoughtfully pointed out in her poem One Art, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

This describes grant writing to a tee. My guess is that Bishop wrote a lot of failed grants before she started knocking them out of the park with a Guggenheim in 1947. Mary McCarthy, who outed Bishop as the mysterious Lakey in The Group (1963), didn’t win a Googs until 1949. Revenge? Enquiring minds (which are no longer busy checking their mail boxes eight times a day) want to know.

Bishop advises, “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster.” Indeed. Each rejection letter has thoughtfully pointed out the massive forces that have been arrayed against my poor little grant all along. So many deserving projects, so little money available; despite (blah, blah) we were unable to (blah.) The most recent rejection arrived by email last night (all right, it was the Guggenheim) as I was walking to the subway after drinks with a friend.


But why let rejection spoil what was otherwise a lovely evening? “The art of losing is not hard to master,” I thought as I closed my email app. How the iPhone has changed the experience of losing! I imagined howls of joy on other streets, other places, as people checked their own phones at 8:00 on a Wednesday night.

Here are my closing thoughts for the losers of 2012-2013: following Bishop: “Then practice losing farther, losing faster!” So think about it:

  • A new grant cycle is beginning. The NEH deadline is May 1: never give up.
  • I mean seriously, never give up.
  • Never.
  • Ever. Because:

“It’s evident/ the art of losing’s not too hard to master,” Bishop reminds us, “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

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