WRITING LIFE: The Arc of Disappointment by Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

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The recipients of a major creative nonfiction writing grant I’d applied for had just been announced. I wasn’t among the winners of thousands of dollars. An email had recently thudded into my inbox. “…we regret to say that your application was not recommended for funding this cycle….”

I logged on to Twitter and squinted, as if the screen were the bright spring sun. I wasn’t ready to read the winners’ joyful tweets, not yet. I logged off.

I was disappointed, but this was progress. This was the first time I dared to apply for this grant. In the past I avoided applying, too afraid of the sharpness of my disappointment. Cowed by the towering level of talent required to win. I was also afraid of myself, of my inner narrative. The one that told me I was a failure if I didn’t get it. But if I didn’t apply, I’d never get the grant. Despite my disappointment, I’m glad I applied.

It’s said that a memoir is the story only I can tell. I have begun to think about my writing life the same way. It’s a path only I can take. I’d taken a brave step forward—for me—in applying for the grant. Did I want to quit, even though the loss was painful?

I didn’t.

I texted a mentor and shared the news of my email.

“That’s how it goes and it’s wonderful you put in an application,” she wrote. “Keep putting applications in. That is the thing.”

She’s right. And I will. When I’m ready. The disappointment will take a while to fade as I build myself up to reach for the next destination on my writing path.

Earlier this year this mentor and I had both applied for a different opportunity, a fellowship. Neither I nor my very accomplished mentor got the fellowship. I’d initially characterized it as a loss, but now I see it came with a gain. I got to practice applying for a fellowship, a skill writers need to learn.

She is more experienced than I am in filling out fellowship applications. She answered my questions as I put my application together. I’m grateful to have shared this experience with her. Completing fellowship applications is an art, one I’m slowly learning.

I was sad about not getting the nonfiction grant. Writers can apply only every other year. The next chance I’ll get to apply, who knows where I’ll be? My writing life is finite. Will I have the energy it takes to apply again? Will I be able to open myself to hope once more?

Perhaps by then, if I work hard, my chances will have improved. Perhaps not. While part of me is certain nothing will ever change, I also see that my path made a recent turn I hadn’t predicted.

This year I became a writing instructor. I couldn’t have imagined becoming one when I was a student in my writing program in 2016. At first, I didn’t even know I wanted to be an instructor. But the excitement I feel at the prospect of teaching this summer tells me this was the right step.

As I get older, I find I am more discerning about the narratives I choose to tell myself about being a writer, especially a writer who is disappointed. My feelings are more nuanced. They come from gaining experience. There is less room within me for self-pity, although at times I may indulge in it.

I’ve found there’s no perfect formula or guide for what to feel or how to respond to writerly disappointment. I get to decide, moment to moment.

I texted a friend who also did not get the grant. “I’m sad too,” she wrote. Maybe sharing our sadness is an important part of this process.

I don’t immediately want to leap to a place of optimism or a pose of dogged, cheerful persistence, my default setting. That seems to me like skipping a step. Maybe instead I’ll give myself the gift of space. The room to feel sad for what might have been, while I sit at my desk and work to create what might yet be.


Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is Hippocampus Magazine’s Writing Life Editor. She is querying her memoir. She’s excited to speak at HippoCamp. Her essay “Liza in 17 Fragments” will appear in the fall print issue of Solstice Literary Magazine. Kristen finally got to Paris with her niece and sister, after a two-year COVID-19 delay. Her happy selfie was taken in the Place des Vosges.




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