NEA Literature Fellowships

Jane Armstrong

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Jane Armstrong

Photo by Don Sherwood Olson

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from "New Book"

I bought this new book. With its purchase came a commitment to read it. Beyond that, faith in the power of the book to engage my imagination, expand my intellect, and add to my store of knowledge, to increase the collection of references upon which I may draw and the connections to other books (very many, not enough) I have read. I hope that this new book, taken together with those other books, and informed by my personal experiences and observations might even lead me to... an original thought! I have high expectations for this book. I am excited about this book. The stylish cover, the clever jacket copy, and the slightly-smiling-yet-pensive author in the photo fill me with a sensation similar to new, distracting, undeniable love. I mean, I am into this book.

I will sit with this book for days, perhaps weeks, and turn its pages, pin down black marks jumping off paper and translate them into letters, words, phrases, and concepts and slowly stitch them together to create meaning and attach that meaning to other meanings vaguely recalled. Exhausted by this work, I will struggle to keep my consciousness from slipping into the white spaces between paragraphs, fight to hold my head up as it drops toward my chest, pulling my eyelids closed, jaw slack.

If observed in congress with this book, I will appear as someone engaged in the act of reading, but as soon as I reach the blankness beyond the last line, close the cover, and turn my attention to something else, anything else, the small matters of the day or the tragedies of the planet, I will completely forget this book and everything in it. When I see it again on one of the crowded shelves on one of my many bookcases, it will appear to me as if brand new and I will think, "That book looks really good. I should read that book."

And yet, by some somatic process that I do not understand, the forgotten book will stay with me, will have written itself into me, subtly repaying the faith I had in it at that optimistic point of acquisition, and I will hear myself speak with simultaneous confidence and confusion unattributed words the origins of which are unknown to me, a thick paraphrase of the forgotten book, and I will perform, without awareness of the action, this question: Is amnesia a form of theft or is theft, properly executed, amnesia fully expressed?

Jane Armstrong's stories and essays have appeared in many venues including The North American Review, Mississippi Review, New World Writing, River Teeth, Newsweek, Brevity and Airplane Reading. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.  She won, with painter Christopher Kane Taylor, the 2016 Viola Award for Excellence in Storytelling from the Flagstaff Arts Council for the collaborative exhibit, Aphasia: Neurological Disorder in Text and Image. She is a past recipient of an Artist's Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Her current projects are a novel, Our Stories in the Dark, and Pedigree: An Ancestral Autobiography, a collection of speculative essays that use genealogy to explore identity. She teaches at Northern Arizona University.

The first time I applied for an NEA grant, I was in my twenties. I was certain I was going to be the next hot young literary star. I was wrong. The second time I applied was this time, three decades later. It took me thirty years to figure out what to say and how to say it. I'm still not sure if I'm getting it right, but I believe in the work and sitting down every day to do the work and making space for interesting things to happen on the page. Sometimes I send stuff out. It's usually rejected. I'm OK with that. However, after so many years of writing in obscurity, having the value of my work recognized by a distinguished panel of complete strangers has been life-changing. Now, when I sit to write, I endeavor to be worthy of the encouragement I've been given through this award. My gratitude is beyond expression.