Department of English faculty member Micah Dean Hicks has been named a 2020 NEA Creative Writing fellow, joining the likes of Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich, Tyehimba Jess, Jennifer Egan and English alumnus Jaroslav Kalfař ‘11. Hicks gained critical acclaim with his second novel, Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, in 2019.
The National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships program awards $25,000 grants to published creative writers, enabling them to set aside time for writing, research, travel and career advancement. Fellowships alternate each year between poetry and prose, with this year’s fellowships supporting prose, or works of fiction and creative nonfiction, such as memoirs and personal essays. The Arts Endowment received nearly 1,700 eligible applications, reviewed anonymously by a panel solely on the artistic excellence of the writing sample submitted. Hicks is one of only 36 fellows out of those 1,700 applicants.
“This fellowship is an enormous validation of the work that I’m doing and the kinds of stories that I care about.”– Micah Dean Hicks, UCF faculty member
How does he feel to be selected? “Awestruck, humbled, and deeply grateful,” he says. “As an author who writes horror, fantasy and other genres that blur the boundaries of literary and popular fiction, this fellowship is an enormous validation of the work that I’m doing and the kinds of stories that I care about.”
Hicks’ last novel, Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, took six years, three major rewrites and numerous small revisions to write, but quickly gathered glowing reviews after its publication.
“It means so much that the NEA’s panel of judges was moved by my writing,” says Hicks.
Do you have an idea of what you want to work on next? Anything related to Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones?
I’m finishing a new book of short stories right now. They don’t have an explicit connection to Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, but I find myself circling back to familiar themes. The stories take place in a mythologized version of the rural south, full of poverty, heartbreak and wonder. This book is also heavily in conversation with fairy tales, especially stories of animal transformation. During the period of my fellowship, I’m hoping to finish revisions and begin submitting the collection to publishers.
Do you think this fellowship will change your writing process at all? How so?
I don’t think receiving this fellowship will change my process, but it does come at a time when how I work is already changing. I’m much slower and more deliberate now, much less satisfied with my own work than I used to be. I’ve become brutal in throwing away an entire draft and rewriting it start to finish, not keeping a single sentence, as many times as it takes to get the story right. Whereas I used to write a story a week, now I spend weeks rewriting the same story. It feels like I’m getting less done, but my work is much better now.
What is it like working with student writers, and how does that inform your own work?
Working with UCF creative writers is such a privilege. I’m constantly knocked out by how brave and inventive their stories are, especially the work by our graduate students.
“I’m constantly knocked out by how brave and inventive their stories are, especially the work by our graduate students.”– Micah Dean Hicks, UCF faculty member
My own writing benefits from teaching, helping students think through problems of craft that I might have never thought about before. As an example, a few years ago it seemed like everyone in one of my undergraduate fiction classes was writing love stories. And they were all failing for similar reasons. The narrative told me that these two people needed to be together, but it hadn’t done the work to convince me that they had to be. So even though I hadn’t written many romance stories myself, I prepared a whole lesson on love stories and romance. I asked students to think of their own crushes and heartbreaks and to try to articulate what it was that made a person really need someone else at a deep, emotional level. We looked at successful love stories from amazing authors. Together, we came up with a sort of structural analysis of romantic desire, breaking it down into very specific needs and how a love interest might satisfy those needs. It ended up making their stories much more persuasive and affecting. Today when I write a love story, the work I did for that lesson is helpful as I’m working through my own draft.
You shared in a previous article that your goal is to make the world better through literature. What is the importance of that goal in 2020, and in an increasingly fast-paced future?
Storytelling can feel so small in the face of rampant bigotry, the eve of a climate apocalypse and growing economic inequality. Maybe art is what is worth defending, the reason we get out of bed in the morning and try to make the world a little better.
Stories make me feel exultant, alive and grateful for humanity. I don’t know if my writing makes people feel that way, but I do know that the work I do as a teacher — helping students imagine worlds of their own and refine them into art that can connect with others — makes the world a larger and more amazing place at least for some people and at least for a little while.
Do you have any advice for other writers looking to score grants, win awards or fellowships, and/or publish? What does literary success look like to you?
Professional success is never guaranteed. The world of publishing is incredibly competitive, and the only thing you have control over is the work that you do. So my advice is always that the work itself must be enough. Write the kinds of things that you crave to see in the world, the kind of work that you need. Want your writing to be the best it can for its own sake, and take joy in the act of making something that is important to you. For most of the things you write this is all you get, so it has to be enough.
“It can be hard to look back on a piece you’ve written, something you thought was already done, and ask yourself how it might be better.”– Micah Dean Hicks, UCF faculty member
Obviously everyone does want their work to connect with readers and be celebrated. Aside from reading a lot and writing a lot, I think learning to be dissatisfied with your work is important. It’s so easy to write something and assume it’s probably fine. It can be hard to look back on a piece you’ve written, something you thought was already done, and ask yourself how it might be better. If you don’t know, feedback from other writers is crucial. But another way to trick yourself into improving a story is just to ask how you might have written it differently. What other decisions might you have made? In imagining alternate versions, I often come upon something more interesting and brave and new than my original idea. It’s a great way to trick myself into being excited to keep working on a piece I’ve already invested a lot of time into.