I’ve done what I love doing most of my life. I’ve been very fortunate in this way. When I worked as a journo and photographer, I found my calling working with NGOs. I could work without a translator as I speak at least four languages fluently, and I had great connections, also known as ‘fixers’, who took me where I wanted to go without having to worry about who was picking up the tab.
Like most journos, finding time to apply for funding is hard, to say the least. Although grant applications to fund journalistic work aren’t as complicated as for applying for funding an editing process in fiction, I find it difficult to not spend hours on end trying to make a strong case for myself. I mean, how do you convince the people who you want to give you money, that using the dodgiest fixer so-and-so will return the most important story on the displaced people of such-and-such? That I should be more important than other applicants seems almost impossible. Not only do I struggle to describe my idea in a way that those people will easily comprehend—as my work methods in the field are mostly improvised and somewhat dubious—but I also fear I won’t be able to convince them that the outcome is somehow vital to their overall funding goals.
‘Just make it fit so it sounds as if that’s what we want.’
Basically learn how to lie, I was told on one hotline. Usually the ‘goals’ are in italics and incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo to the majority of applicants who have no other choice but to rewrite them to sound as if the application presented actually has anything to do with them. The better the wording, obviously the higher the chance of getting the funding approved. This is the most heinous part of the grant application process. Everyone knows it’s all about money but the applicants are sometimes asked to pretend they are trying to save the world.
This is not limited to grants: fellowship applications and writer-in-residence applications, whether requiring convincing explicitly or implicitly, are very similar in that one must propose a project, and make it sound important as well as communicating clearly. And sometimes what one wants is really not that complicated: a bit of money to hire an editor, a graphic designer or any of the peripheral professions that are so crucial to a long-form writer or a novelist. I’m not an English speaker, and quite frankly I think that does matter, because even native English speakers raise their eyebrows at how complicated applications have become. I often wonder if there is a TAFE certificate for learning how to write grant applications. Someone once told me to pay to get someone else to write me an application. Seriously, am I the chicken or the egg? I recalled the time I was struck by a sudden case of irritable bowel syndrome and wondered whether research into an Egyptian bidet, known as the Shattafa, and its health benefits for the rectum would constitute a satisfying topic to secure some desperately needed money.
I become anxious that my work is not all that interesting for the Australian literary scene. After all, it’s such a predominantly white scene, and making it as a foreign writer with the first name Mohammed is as hard as applying for any type of work more qualified than flipping burgers at Macca’s. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about, if not—trust me—count your blessings. Australia has a long way to go.
There also appears to be a pecking order in terms of who are the most successful applicants. The same names turn up over and over again to receive even bigger and bigger pieces of what is without a doubt, a diminishing cake for the arts and literature scene. I once had a dream that I applied to the department of defence to erect a giant shiny submarine, upright. I described it as an allegory for freedom and democracy and all that great stuff the West stands for. And guess what—the bastards funded the damned thing.
I think in Arabic and sometimes in Danish, and then I put the words down in English. I’ve had editors that have scratched their heads and called me up across the world, trying to work out what I mean. I work hard to make a grant proposal sound as if it’s more important than it is, just to have a fighting chance. It is an absolute horror, and I end up procrastinating for days on end. I tell myself that I am ‘waiting to be in the right sort of creative, intellectual mental state’, but I know that is rubbish. I have trauma. Two decades of watching people killing each other or dying on the streets means you don’t dream about Bugs Bunny, let alone creative ways to land a grant. I can’t put that in a grant application, or call up the assistance hotline and ask them to pick up the left-over sane pieces of my mind. I can’t count how many times refugees have told me they get depressed or suffer panic attacks when told they have to apply for funding through start-up grants that even native speakers find too complicated to bother with.
From visual artists to writers, creative people appear to be in unanimous agreement that grant applications are 99% pure sweat. I have never heard anyone claim that the remaining 1% inspiration or creativity is an effective strategy to get what I want. Besides, this creative inspiration has an uncanny habit of materialising exactly on the night before a proposal deadline, usually at three in the morning, such that if it came just a tiny bit later, I wouldn’t be able to make the deadline. And then I finish, satisfied that the result sounds important, and could have been brilliant if only I had started a bit earlier and made a dozen more rewrites. It reminds me of my days as a young photographer and journo, when life and death seemed to dance in tandem—literally on tables in Beirut’s nightlife, swinging with hashish and high heels—as Laura Branigan’s hit ‘Self Control’ and a four a.m. features deadline pounded in the back of my head.
Let me be honest with you: I still haven’t reached the level of maturity that’s often mentioned when it comes to applications. I have applied for so many grants and never been successful. I might suffer from trauma, but I certainly have no fear of rejection. I’m told that’s a good thing, followed by, ‘keep applying!’
I do think I do a good job of at least communicating my ideas clearly, and that I have a good chance of achieving the goals I have outlined. Seriously, they’re ridiculously simple: Can I please have some money to pay an editor? Can I please have some money to finish this book so I don’t have to work two jobs? But so are the rejections and with them, the ultimate inspiration: that I somehow find a way to scrape together the money, even if it means having oats for breakfast, lunch and dinner for as long as it takes. However, at the end of it, I must face the envy of watching those who are much better at the obscurity art of writing grant applications show off what a bit of money can do to make a writer’s life so much easier.
At this point, you might think I must be doing something desperately wrong, that I perhaps need another approach, or even that I need to change my mindset. That last argument is all the rage these days. You might be right but let’s face it, applying for grants has to be one of the most soul-draining experiences. I don’t kid myself either. I mean, I’ve dealt some shady deals in my life but grant applications seem to take the prize. It’s like trying to be a modern day gangsta but in God-mode. The damned things resemble initiation rituals to a Freemasons lodge where no-one has the slightest idea why they have to perform the perverse acts forced upon them.
Why can’t we writers, at least those of us who never see a dime, reach out to those who design these grant systems? Why not see if we can’t come up with something that’s a little bit easier and fairer across the board? I did a bit of research and apparently Australia has one of the lowest success rates of grant applications in the world. Can this be true? I’m still confumbled (slang for confused because I suck at English) after a decade in this country. The amount of red tape, the sheer volume of bureaucracy in everyday life is flabbergasting for a democratic society. Even the pay-offs are above league for most mortals, which tends to explain why the country appears to be run by the oil and gas sector. Anyway, don’t get me started.
Indeed, there are grants available, but the process is arduous and ridiculously time consuming in the just-in-time world we live in. I’m a single father, barely keeping up with the rent and working as a writer, freelance journo and photographer. If you’re in this field, which you most likely are if you’re reading this rant, you’ll nod approvingly to the fact that 2020 was one of the worst years in living memory for writers and artists. It was bad enough last year, but with ScoMo as our prime minister, it’s clear we really need to look like a shiny hard-on submarine to receive any funding in 2021.
To be honest, I’m tired of applying. I’m looking into a crowdfunding campaign instead. It will take a fraction of the time of a grant application, and I am a firm believer in the good of humanity. I love seeing a great idea take shape and helping fellow writers or artists when I can. I’m counting that enough people have read my work to consider writing and writers worthwhile supporting whilst we battle the mental challenges Covid has brought to us all. You would think that grant applications in such times would be greatly simplified and the contribution of writers and artists recognised, far outweighing those who do the bidding of deadly ideas. I’ll bet you, if you took some of those diggers and put them through the process of applying for a grant in Australia, most of them would say: Argit!
Mohammed Massoud Morsi is an Egyptian-Danish-Australian photographer, journalist and writer. His work has been published in all three of his traditional languages. Morsi has a talent for reaching to the heart of existence in a complex world and looks to important questions, finding that which is quintessentially human within much broader struggles. His work is enriched by his photographer’s eye for detail and a passion for speaking out for those suppressed.