Five months pregnant and living off post-traumatic stress disorder disability checks at her home in Echo Park, Cynthia Bond entered PEN Center USA's Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2005 with only a first draft of a novel.
When she finished the program, she had a newborn, an agent and a second draft of her novel, "Ruby." Drawing from her experience with human trafficking as a child, the novel was published last spring, and its sales, along with part-time work teaching therapeutic writing at a rehabilitation center, support Bond and her 9-year-old.
Run out of the Beverly Hills office of the nonprofit PEN Center USA, the program is a unique resource in Los Angeles, offering support to fledgling writers such as Bond who don't have easy access to master's programs or the professional world of creative writing.
Bond says that without the fellowship, she wouldn't have finished the book. More than that, "I wanted to kill myself and was hospitalized a couple of times, but what kept bringing me back was working on this book," said Bond, who now lives in Sherman Oaks. "When I finished that second draft, it was a real victory for me."
Libby Flores, a former Emerging Voices participant, is the program manager. Flores said the competition increases every year for the handful of slots. A few hundred applications are expected for the five fellows next year. The nonprofit has launched a Kickstarter campaign (ending Aug. 30) to help fund Emerging Writers and its $1,000 per writer stipend. The program hopes to be able to start covering travel and living expenses for fellows coming from outside of Los Angeles.
Since the program started in 1996, 119 fellows have published 34 books and many more articles and journal entries.
"People were able to say, 'I'm a writer,'" said Flores. "It seems like a small thing … but it's really a big thing for a person to take the risk and do that."
Originally intended as a mentoring resource for immigrant writers, Emerging Voices' mission has expanded. "[It] has evolved to include people not only of minorities but who are coming at writing in untraditional ways," said Flores. "And I think that is what we see more and more: people who went on different paths and weren't able to invest the time into it that they wanted."
Although Emerging Voices offers writers help with their craft, the unique part of the program is the professional training it provides to up-and-comers, who often struggle to navigate the book world. By introducing fellows to successful authors and agents, taking professional photographs of them, providing voice lessons for public readings and teaching classes in query letter writing and submissions, it equips fellows with practical, career-launching tools.
"[The program] teaches you how to focus and know what to expect," said 2010 fellow Natashia Deón. She had not done an MFA or workshopped her writing; this program, she said, "helped me to focus on the pieces I had, put them together and focus on what's next — getting an agent and the next steps for the publishing process. Before I'd been to readings with four people in the audience, and they put you in these audiences where you are celebrated as a writer. You feel encouraged by that moment."
When applying, each fellow provides a writing sample. The work then usually becomes part of a longer project, like a novel or collection of short stories, which each fellow works on with an experienced and published writing mentor over the course of the eight-month program. Mentors have included Sherman Alexie, Jerry Stahl and Aimee Bender. In addition, fellows attend weekly meetings with authors.
One of the most successful fellows, Reyna Grande — known for her 2006 novel "Across a Hundred Mountains" and the 2012 memoir "The Distance Between Us" — graduated from Emerging Voices in 2003. She credits the program with helping her find an agent and a way forward.
"I felt really lost when I graduated from school. All of a sudden, I didn't have a support system and people looking at my work," said Grande, who balanced teaching middle school in South Central L.A. and raising a 1-year-old as a single parent while participating in the program. "They are the ones who opened the door for me."