Jul 20

With No Way Out, I Find a Way Out

My back was against the wall: a beautifully conceived project, unique but entirely do-able, and do-able only by me (among all the people on earth) except there wasn't the money.

Because of a technicality -- they had my letters of rec but had lost my application and proposal -- I didn't get the $1500 fellowship I thought was a sure thing. (No academic should ever count on "a sure thing.") "Apply again next year," they said. Except I don't wait until next year for anything anymore.

That same evening I put my proposal up on Indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding site that's like the better-known Kickstarter. Understand that I never do things like this. But I was so annoyed, it was so unfair, and -- most of all -- the project was so important and it wouldn't get done unless I did it. Within 12 hours I was fully funded. By campaign's end, thanks to some very kind and believing people, I'd raised $500 more than my goal. Of course Indiegogo takes 9 percent, and taxes on the funding are around 20-25 percent, but there was enough money for lodging for eight working days. That's how long I think it'll take me to page through 696 letters and 158 books in the Sylvia Plath archive at the University of Indiana-Bloomington.

What am I doing there? The archive was purchased from Aurelia Plath in 1977. Aurelia of course kept all of Sylvia's letters, and her personal library, art projects, and more from 1940 until Sylvia left the U.S. for good in 1959. Aurelia, a professor of business in the College of Practical Arts and Letters at Boston University, knew and taught Gregg shorthand, and wrote Gregg shorthand notes on the letters and their envelopes, and in the books. I first visited the archive last fall and saw these markings, which the archive called "unreadable," although they weren't to anybody like me, who had been forced to learn shorthand before it became obsolete. Despite the hundreds of scholars who have dug into this archive, no one had ever transcribed the shorthand. I believe Aurelia's remarks might reveal new facts and patterns.  So I was determined to go there and do this systematically.

There's a prayer that simply says "Make a way." A way was made because this one time I wasn't ashamed to ask for something I needed. I would have been more ashamed to give up.