Room for Something New: Apply for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship

Anna Clark, author, freelance journalist and 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow, used her time at the University of Michigan to do research for her book “The Poisoned City.” U.S. applications are due February 1, 2019.

Anna Clark and her fellow Fellows tour a Korean open-air history museum (photo: Birgit Rieck)

My path to journalism was a strange one. It cuts through a graduate program in fiction, an intentional community in Boston, and an enthusiastic blog named after a writer that had few readers (much like my blog). But by the time I was 31 years old, I was a full-time, self-supporting freelance journalist. I reported all kinds of stories for both national and local media, but I wrote most often about Detroit, where I lived, and places like it: disinvested legacy cities that held great beauty and possibility, but were also showcases for how decades of poor urban policies undercut the common good. I felt purposeful about being based outside the usual media hubs, where I could be closer to the kind of stories I cared about and useful in chronicling what might otherwise by overlooked.

But after many years, I’d become brittle. Work was the first thing I did each day, and the last. If ever there was a moment I was not productive, I feared I wouldn’t have enough money for groceries the next month. There was little space or opportunity to be forward-thinking about my writing life — or about anything at all in my life, really. I was exhausted. I despaired about how I could possibly support myself as a journalist in the years to come. And it was alienating, working from home all the time. Even my closest longtime editors I only saw in person once every few years or so — if I happened to be in New York.

It was time for a change. Around the time I began reporting on a citywide drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, I also poured my heart into an application for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. After it was submitted, the articles I’d written about Flint led to a book deal. Then I found out I’d been accepted as a Knight-Wallace Fellow in Ann Arbor.

Each promised to be a life-changing experience. With both before me at once, I worried that one would take away from the other. The leaders of the Fellowship were clear that the program was definitely not a book fellowship, intended for journalists who wanted to hole up by themselves and write all day — and I didn’t want that either. But it turned out that the book and the Fellowship blended perfectly. I packed in a great deal of on-the-ground reporting in Flint up front, and by the time I moved to Ann Arbor (which may as well be a million miles from Detroit), I’d left all other projects, commitments, and deadlines behind. It created a rare intellectual space to enjoy the fellowship experience. There was room for something new.

I took classes in the law school about water rights and environmental policy, and an urban planning class on metropolitan structures. I also took a class on pre-World War II blues music and, accordingly, listened to a lot of heart-opening voices and guitars. On Friday afternoons, a group of us met at Wallace House, home-base for the Fellowship, to talk about short stories. I read so many books, like Silent Spring, Toms River, Shirley Jackson’s short stories, Henrik Ibsen’s play about, well, a citywide drinking water crisis, and, of all things, The Making of the President 1960. The remarkable resources of the public university opened up access to archives and hard-to-find books, not least those that were at the university’s Flint campus — a huge boon for my own book, which at this point was still just a slowly materializing picture in my mind. I did some writing, but not a whole lot.

My fellowship class was full of bright, curious, searching people who came from all over the country and world. They worked for daily newspapers, magazines, trade publications, and broadcasters. Several were freelancers. Some were editors, a few were also thinking about writing books, and one was building a brand-new journalism nonprofit. Together, we traveled to South Korea and Brazil. We wandered through Seoul and São Paolo, we experienced the Buddhist temples of Gyeongju and the theater collectives of the favelas, and we explored the strangeness of the DMZ and the surreal modernism of Brasilia. Assumptions I didn’t even know I had about cities, and how places are made, cracked apart. My sense of wonder grew larger.

And there were the things that happened in between. There were endless shared meals and long evenings at the picnic tables of Bill’s Beer Garden. I found a new running buddy, and we trained together for a half-marathon by jogging through Gallup Park on snowy Sunday mornings. I hosted Thanksgiving dinner at Wallace House, which brought together some of my fellow Fellows and also family members who drove in from across the state. There, my eight-year-old niece was so riveted by the piano-playing of another Fellow, she began taking lessons, which continue to this day. Our Knight-Wallace group also taught each other about website design, podcasting, and how collaborative journalism can make something as extraordinary as the Panama Papers possible. Some of us would meet up in the Hopwood Room in Angell Hall to page together through a tremendous wealth of literary journals. I took naps and watched movies. We drank cups of coffee. I played many rounds of hide and seek with the children who were part of our community. There was a lot of laughter.

After the Fellowship ended, I spent 14 months writing a book about Flint’s water crisis and all that it revealed about what makes cities vulnerable. This intense, difficult, thrilling time would have been significantly less feasible — maybe impossible? — had I not saved a big chunk of my fellowship stipend to support it. Emotionally, it took everything I had, and had I begun in that place of brittleness, I don’t know how I would’ve made it through. Several people from our group were early readers of the manuscript, providing critique and encouragement. Sources from my classes and archive excursions make direct appearances in the text. It all came together.

And now The Poisoned City is out in the world. For it to exist in three-dimensions, a thing I can hold in my hands, takes my breath away. When I do book events, I often give a visual presentation that features illustrations by one of my fellow Fellows, a comics journalist with whom I collaborated on a story about Flint. In between, I’m beginning to write articles again, but I’m moving slowly. For once, I can take my time.

The Knight-Wallace year replenished my spirit at the time I needed it most. It loosened me up. It heartened me. Most importantly, perhaps, it gave me practice at living the kind of life I want — one that is rich with both creative purpose and community, and where overheated productivity is not the sole measure of my days.

It’s not an easy thing to replicate once you’re outside the nurturing realm of the Fellowship, I’m finding. But I know where to aim.

Make room for something new in your life and career. Apply for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship.