Leslie Haynsworth - Philanthropy

Ben and Michelle Hawthorne have an arrangement, a careful and longstanding division of the labors that allow the Hawthorne household to thrive:  he makes money and she gives it away.  That is to say, he rakes it in at his commercial real estate firm, and then she doles out chunks of it as she sees fit in support of various philanthropic organizations that are hard, hard at work dreaming big dreams about how to make the world a better place. 

You might imagine, if you’ve never yourself stood in the shoes of people like Ben and Michelle, that Ben has the less pleasant end of this bargain.  After all, while he sweats and toils at his labors day after day, she has as her chief responsibility the rather more enviable task simply of being beneficent.  Who wouldn’t, given the chance, want to hand out truckloads of money to worthy causes, to be the object of so much grateful adulation?  It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, though, as things so often are when you really look into them.  Michelle’s work is altruistic, sure, you bet, but it’s also a means to another and in some respects even more important end, namely the management—and ideally the significant improvement—of the Hawthornean reputation and social standing.  The key to success is thus to donate very strategically, so as to achieve maximum accrual of social standing for a minimum investment.  It’s a tricky balancing act, but on the whole, I have to tell you that Michelle’s done pretty well with it so far.

Still, it must be admitted that she’s also made some blunders.  Just a couple years ago, for example, when she found out from Martha, her cleaning lady, what a hard time Martha’s daughter was having paying for college, she got a little carried away in the moment and ended up giving $50,000 to the United Negro College Fund.  I can still remember how strained things were between the Hawthornes for some time afterwards.  Not that you’d have seen it on the surface, of course.  But if you knew them as well as I did, you couldn’t mistake seeing that underneath the general Hawthornian bonhomie lurked a tense and anxious grimness.  It came through in only the most fleeting of glimpses:  Ben’s eyes, in unguarded moments when he thought no one was looking, would telegraph a kind of sorrowful distress, and there was a funny tightness around Michelle’s mouth, which might have simply been a Botox injection gone a little bit awry but could equally well have signified a not-quite-all-the-way-suppressed mood of defiance. 

So you have to imagine it, really, it’s just too delicious, what it was like when she first told him.  There’s Ben, having his customary breakfast, two eggs, scrambled with a little skim milk, one slice of whole wheat toast, lightly buttered, half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee, the exact same breakfast he eats every morning, except on Sundays when he allows himself to add bacon to it as well.  Martha, having cooked the breakfast, will now have disappeared back up to her little flat over the garage to do whatever it is she does in the hour she has off between fixing Ben’s breakfast and starting in on her other household duties.  Michelle doesn’t eat breakfast, but she likes to keep Ben company during his when she can manage it, which isn’t always easy, since Ben eats breakfast very early, usually between 6 and 6:30, and if they’ve been to any kind of a gala or even a latish dinner date the night before, rising at that hour has unfortunate effects on Michelle’s complexion that tend to linger throughout the day.  Still, this particular morning she has managed it, and so there she sits, perched on the front edge of her chair at the breakfast room table, sipping at a glass of cold water and watching Ben fondly as he plunges his fork lustily into his eggs.  He’s reading the paper, the Wall Street Journal, speeding through it as he does every morning, soaking up everything he ought to know as fast as he can.  And then an article about a pharmaceutical company that’s on the verge of winning approval for a new blood pressure drug catches his eye, and he grunts and points at the paper and says, “Mmm, honey, that reminds me, I saw Buck Osgood at lunch yesterday and told him we’d sponsor a table at the Heart Center benefit next month.  It’s $5000 but we can bring up to 15 people.  Can you give him a call and set that up this morning?”

Michelle frowns and regards him sternly.  “Ben, please put your fork down when you’re talking,” she says.  “I really wish I didn’t have to worry so much about your table manners all the time—it makes it so hard for me to relax when we’re out in company, you know.”

Ben smiles a little sheepishly and lays the fork carefully across one edge of the plate.  He does have a few deficiencies in the etiquette department, and he’s not sure why he can’t do a better job of remembering these few basic rules more consistently, but he’s awfully glad to have Michelle around to keep him straight.  “Sorry, dear,” he mumbles, and then he’s about to pick up the fork and get back to his eggs when he remembers the Heart Center thing again.  If it gets put off any longer, the best tables will be taken, and the benefit’s being held at The Georgia Club, which is on the 22nd floor of Wedgewood’s tallest building and has floor-to-ceiling windows, so that if you end up in the back of the room, it’s almost as if you weren’t even there at all; people have a tendency to stare right over your head at the view.

He tries again then.  “So you’ll call Buck today?”  he suggests.  He knows he’s sort of stepping onto her territory here, that his signing them on for the Heart Center Benefit is more or less akin to her marching into his office and telling him and his partner Rick which office buildings they should and shouldn’t manage.  But the Heart Center bebefit is a good opportunity:  Dr. Yee, who’s head of cardiology at Wedgewood General, is married to Peter McDunnough, whose sister is the governor’s chief of staff.  He’s not sure Michelle always remembers these things quite as much as she should.

“Um, well,” she says.  “Of course, if you think this benefit is very important, I’ll be happy to arrange it.  But we’d, um, have to work something out, because it’ll take us a little over budget.”

“It will?”  Ben stares at her in surprise.  This year’s philanthropic budget is $60,000, and it’s only February.  There should be lots of money left. 

“Yes, well, you see,” says Michelle, “I wrote rather a big check just yesterday.  I probably should have mentioned it already, but …”  She bites her lip.  Suddenly, seeing what it’s now going to mean in terms of other opportunities that will have to be foregone, she understands that in making what she’d until just now thought was her most splendid charitable gift yet, she had in fact allowed herself to get a little bit carried away.  The $50,000 donation to the United Negro College Fund will yield $2500 a year in perpetuity and the donation’s been set up so that each year that $2500 will go to an African-American female student from South Wedgewood who has at least a 3.2 GPA and whose financial status might otherwise preclude her going to college.  The idea of all those college educations being funded by Ben and herself for years and years to come, of all those girls who might otherwise have ended up like poor Martha, having to get up at 5:30 every morning to cook eggs and slice grapefruit for someone like Ben, but who will now have a chance to become teachers or nurses instead, and maybe even, if they’re particularly quick studies, marry Ben-like men of their own, had so excited her when she’d first thought of it—what a tremendous impact she and Ben were going to have!  Now, though, it’s clear that they’ll have to make some choices:  if they want to go to the Heart Center Benefit, for example, she might need to hold off on buying that new rug for the sitting room.

“I thought, you see, that it was an opportunity to do something really significant,” she explains.  “And you can’t quite do that with $5000 here and $10,000 there.”  That, at least, was how the development officer from the United Negro College Fund had explained it to her.  And as she’d sat there taking in the possibilities, excitement had quickened within her in almost the same way as it had that night more than 30 years ago when, after his spring fraternity formal, Ben had gotten the two of them a room at the Holiday Inn, and then suddenly there they’d been, alone in the elevator, slowly rising, and what it meant was that it was about to happen between them for the very first time.  The development officer’s name was Stephen Boland, and he himself had been just another poor black boy in the projects in Atlanta until a whole passel of scholarship money had made it possible for him to go to Emory University and major in English.  And just look at him now, in a Brooks Brothers suit and the snowy-white cuffs of a perfectly starched Oxford shirt thrown into such crisp relief by the smooth darkness of the long, slim-fingered hands with which he was laying out his case for Michelle—he was beautiful, just wonderful.  And now she and Ben could make that kind of beauty too.

Stephen Boland … she wishes now that Ben could have seen him, because the sight of him would make the whole thing so much easier for Ben to understand, and now instead she’s going to have to explain it all on her own.  “Well, you see,” she says, “it started with Martha’s daughter.  You know, Harmony?”  Ben nods encouragingly, yes, he does, at least vaguely, know Harmony.  But there’s a touch of impatience gathering around his eyes; it’s closing in on 6:45, time to leave for his squash game, and still he’s no closer to knowing what any of this has to do with why they might not be able to attend the Heart Center Benefit.

So she cuts to the chase, getting it all out as quickly as she can.  And poor Ben:  he’s just taken kind of a big gulp of coffee right when she gets to the part about the actual sum involved, and when he hears it—fifty thousand dollars!—it’s all he can do not to spit the coffee out onto his eggs.  And then, as he thinks about it some more, it only gets worse.  She’s given fifty thousand dollars, almost their entire philanthropic budget for the year, to a bunch of poor Negroes.  Who could use it, no doubt, and may well even put it to very good use—but what can they possibly do for Ben and Michelle in return?

Still, what’s done is done.  Ben puts down his coffee cup and puts on a good front.  “Let’s just wait a few days, then, to make a decision about the Heart Center Benefit,” he says, as steadily as he can.  Buck Osgood had promised to put him at a table with Peter McDunnough.  Peter McDunnough, brother of the governor’s chief of staff!  The things Hawthorne & McKelvey could accomplish if only Suzanne McDunnough was in their camp!  The money will just have to be found somewhere else.  Maybe he can talk Rick McKelvey out of the golf trip to St. Andrews they were planning for August.  Summers are bound to be crowded in Scotland anyway.

And yet somehow, so great is the empathetic bond between them that, even despite the staunch façade of nonchalance that Ben has so resolutely erected against his mounting dismay, Michelle knows.  She just knows.  Fifty thousand dollars was too much to give to the Negroes, and although not a word of reproach would ever pass his lips, Ben is distressed by it.  “You know, I could,” she says, “always just ask for the check back.  They surely won’t have cashed it yet.”  The thought of having to tell handsome young Stephen Boland that she is, at this eleventh hour, rescinding her gift is excruciating.  And yet can she possibly, in good conscience, leave Ben to suffer so much?

"No, no, dear,” says Ben, bravely maintaining the façade to the end.  “I wouldn’t hear of it.  In fact, I’m delighted to know that we’re going to be able to make such a difference in so many lives.” 

But the thought of the fifty thousand dollars, gone, just like that, is like a punch to the gut, and then there are his eggs, all slippery and shiny, and when he looks at them he knows he’s not going to be able to eat them, and he has to ask Michelle to pour him a bowl of Raisin Bran instead.

It might all have ended there had it not been for Ben’s tendency to be a little bit passive-aggressive.  He doesn’t do it on purpose, or even consciously, really.  But when things don’t work out the way he wants them to, he has a way of stewing over them, and the stewing sometimes interferes with his ability to concentrate quite as hard as he should on those little social niceties that show he wishes those around him well.  When Michelle’s birthday rolls around a few weeks after the United Negro College Fund debacle, for example, he’s still pretty distracted, and as a result doesn’t have the wherewithal to buy her the sorts of gifts she’d really appreciate.  Instead, he gives her a Cadillac Escalade and tickets to the ACC men’s basketball tournament. 

The Cadillac is staggeringly huge and an aggressively glossy black, and she visibly cringes at the sight of it but can hardly vocalize her discontent with such a lavish gift.  She’s been driving a Toyota Avalon but has, as Ben would know if he’d been paying any kind of attention, been thinking of trading it in for a Prius.  Now she has the biggest and least fuel-efficient car of anyone in the senior leadership of the Wedgewood Junior League.

She’s less than thrilled about the basketball tickets too, although she tells Ben it will be delightful to get away for the weekend, just the two of them, and she’s heard Greensboro is a lovely place.  Truth be told, and even Ben, if he really thought about it, would have to admit it, the trip to the tournament is more a present for himself than for her; he’s always liked basketball and was probably watching a game even as he tried to think of what to get for her birthday this year.  But that, of course, is hardly atypical of husbands, and she’s not going to complain.  Betsy Crosswell’s husband gave her a gas grill for Christmas not long back, and Sara Ainge’s once bought her a fishing shack.

As it turns out, though, the trip has unexpected results.  Ben’s appetite for basketball turns out to be kind of finite, for one thing:  eleven games squeezed into three and a half days leave him feeling dazed and almost physically battered.  On the Saturday night, right after the two semifinal games have been played, he falls thankfully into his bed at the Greensboro Hilton only to keep dreaming that large black young men are dribbling balls on his head.  Michelle, meanwhile, has found the whole experience unexpectedly delightful.  On Saturday night, in between bouts of dreaming of repeatedly taking a basketball to the head, Ben hears her in their suite’s living room, talking animatedly on the phone to her friend Alicia back in Wedgewood.  “Oh, honey,” she says at one point,  “if you could have seen the way that point guard’s calf muscles clenched and unclenched when he ran, I swear …” Her voice trails away, and then she laughs in a way he’s never heard her laugh before. 

          And then … and then … Oh, I wish you could have known the Hawthornes back before they watched that final game of that year’s ACC season, before Michelle had her big revelation and everything changed.  I’ve done my very best to recreate them for you, those pre-ACC-Tournament Hawthornes, but even as their memory fades from my mind, I can remember enough of them to see that Hawthornes I’ve drawn for you are inadequate and incomplete, cardboard cutouts of their real, living and breathing selves.  They can never be recaptured; they’re gone now, and it’s impossible to get them back.  Michelle’s big revelation just changed everything, including, in quite significant ways, the Hawthornes themselves.

          It starts off innocuously enough:  Michelle’s watching the basketball game, the championship game between Clemson and the University of North Carolina, and although she doesn’t know much about basketball, this game’s one heck of a competitive contest, a real nailbiter between two tremendously talented teams and Michelle’s completely engrossed and finds herself wishing she’d realized what an appreciation she has for basketball a lot sooner.

And then, right near the end, it happens—90 seconds to go, the championship on the line and the Tarheels up by 2, there’s an almighty collision:  the Clemson point guard throws the ball in to his power forward, who’s standing right by the basket, and who, when he catches it, staggers back half a step, just as the Carolina center, who’s right behind him, guarding him, if truth be told, much too close, lunges forward to try to get a steal.  The result is like a head-on car crash, two bodies accelerating toward each other, boom, down they go, and they’re huge guys, both of them, one minute towering over everyone else, the next minute sprawled on the floor.  It’s the Carolina guy’s fault, no doubt about it, Michelle and all the refs agree.  And Carolina’s got the lead, and now, instead of getting what should have been an easy basket, the Clemson power forward is going to have to shoot free throws, and he’s the second-worst free throw shooter in the whole ACC, and it’s the Carolina guy’s fault he’s lying here now, sprawled out on his backside … so what does he do?  He hauls himself up, this huge angry guy who’s just been knocked on his ass by this other huge arrogant guy, star player for the number one team in the country, and then he, the Clemson guy, reaches down, extends his hand, and hauls the Carolina guy up to his feet too.

It takes Michelle’s breath away, the sportsmanship of it, the pure, instinctive goodness of it.  So what that this is the guy whose overzealous defense just knocked me on my ass, and so what if he just cost me my chance to tie the game, and so what if his smug white-boy face has been smirking at me all season from the cover of all those sports magazines?  The guy needs a hand right now, and it’s my hand that’s closest.  It almost makes her want to cry, it’s so beautiful.  And in that instant, an inchoate idea rises up from the back of her brain and rushes forward to meet with the sight she’s just seen, and idea and vision slam into each other just as those two boys just did, and just like that, there it is.  She’s going to need to have a little chat with Ben on the way home.

 

If you want to make an impact, Stephen Boland said, you have to think big.  What Michelle’s thinking, as she watches North Carolina go on to beat Clemson for the third time that season, is that if more people behaved like the Clemson power forward, the world would surely be a much better place.  And that if you want people to behave more nicely, maybe all you really need to do is offer them an incentive to give it a try.  That’s where her idea comes in.  She thinks it’s got the potential to be a doozy. 

 

The Ben Hawthorne All-Metro-Wedgewood-Area Good Sportsmanship Award is launched the very next fall.  And already, in the very first season of its existence, it’s proving to be one humdinger of an attention-getter, as how could it not be, with all the media attention it’s gotten, said media attention being the result of the extreme generosity of the prize on offer, namely a $50,000 scholarship to the college of the winner’s choice.  All just for being visibly, conspicuously nice.  And if coughing up 50k a year, every year, to send some kid to college sounds, in light of his reaction to Michelle’s onetime donation to the United Negro College Fund, like the kind of thing Ben would be disinclined to do, think again, because the publicity on this particular thing is, as Ben foresaw from the moment Michelle first told it all to him, just absolutely tremendous, far beyond anything the Hawthorne & McKelvey commercial real estate company could ever hope to buy in the way of attention to themselves with $50,000 of their advertising dollars.  And the beauty of it is, it’s all for a truly great cause and it’s got his name all over it.  Who doesn’t believe in good sportsmanship?  Ben wishes Michelle had thought of it years earlier. 

Because just look:  only four months into the school year, and you wouldn’t believe it:  everywhere you look, there’s yet another example of just how kind and good a boy can be when you give him a reason to want to do it.  The Ben Hawthorne All-Metro-Wedgewood-Area Good Sportsmanship Award works like this:  every varsity athlete at every high school in the Wedgewood metro area is eligible, and all you have to do to win is be really conspicuously and consistently nice.  If you’re the nicest, most thoughtful and considerate-of-others athlete in the city of Wedgewood, then there you go, just like that, you’re $50,000 better off.  But what you have to keep in mind is that all told there are some 6,652 varsity athletes in the greater Wedgewood metro region.  If you want to win the BHAMWAGSA, your niceness is going to really have to stand out. 

The brilliance of what Michelle has done, then, is that she’s harnessed all that aggressive, competitive young male energy and turned it right back against itself, co-opted that desire to win at all costs and pressed it into the service of her own desire that everyone in the world (or at least in Wedgewood, Georgia) will start trying harder to act nicer.  And it goes beyond just incentivizing the high school athletes to be nice of course; it’s going to have, she’s sure of it, a trickle-down effect, just like Reaganomics, about which she knows quite a bit since Ben has always been such a fan.  Once the alpha-male high school boys start acting nicer, all the other boys, the younger ones especially, will follow, and before you know it, niceness will just be everywhere in Wedgewood.

Because just look at them, there on the soccer field:  West Wedgewood against their bitterest rival, South Wedgewood, and when the South Wedgewood goalie takes a ball hard in the groin and can’t stand up even halfway straight from the pain, not one but four of the West Wedgewood players rush to support him as he staggers off the field.  And then on the cross-country course:  when a runner from Wedgewood Prep trips over a root and falls, skinning his knee and ripping a hole in his sneaker, the next guy right behind him, who happens to be from St. Marks Academy, not only uses his very own shirt to wipe the blood off the other guy’s knee, he even trades shoes with him, so as, he says, to level the playing field since now they each have one disadvantage, one sore knee versus one holey shoe.  Which might well, in the eyes of the St. Marks cross country coach, be taking good sportsmanship just a little too far, but which earns the selfless runner a spot on the short list for the BHAMWAGSA. 

          And so it goes, and goes and goes, and before you know it, on the playing fields of Wedgewood, Georgia, niceness really is just everywhere.  And if the first winner of the BHAMWAGSA, a nose tackle (whatever that is) for the East Wedgewood football team who not only picks up every guy he knocks down but also goes to visit every guy he puts in the hospital every day until they get out, also turns out to be the only guy on his team to get a full athletic scholarship to college and so doesn’t need the BHAMWAGSA after all, so be it.  His sportsmanship has still set a splendid example for all and the fact that he’s now a second-string nose tackle for the University of South Carolina Fighting Gamecocks just makes him that much more of a visible role model.  And if the second winner of the BHAMWAGSA, a lacrosse player for St. Marks Academy who saved the life of an opposing player by performing the Heimlich Maneuver on him after he’d brained him with his lacrosse stick and caused him to swallow his gum, gets arrested two years later when he’s a sophomore at Vanderbilt for selling cocaine to his fraternity brothers, well, you just have to look at it this way:  if even a lowlife drug dealer can be motivated by it to perform selfless act of great humanity, then the BHAMWAGSA is doing even more good in the world than Michelle ever hoped to imagine. 

          And more good for Ben and Michelle Hawthorne too.  It’s not every day that a nice, matronly Junior Leaguer from a small Southern city like Wedgewood manages to launch such a sweeping, and high-profile, social revolution as the BHAMWAGSA has achieved.  And when you do big things, the world takes notice.  Within a year of getting the BHAMWAGSA up and running, Michelle is, after hoping in vain for more than fifteen years, finally asked to join the Board of the Wedgewood United Way.  Six months later, she’s invited to join the Governor’s Task Force on Building Stronger Communities.  Nine months after that, Oprah magazine profiles her for a special feature on Women Who Are Making a Difference, and after that the invitations to join boards or speak at Chambers of Commerce meetings come so thick and fast she has to hire a secretary to help her keep track of it all.  She and Ben ride up to Atlanta in the Escalade several times a year now to dine with the governor, with whom they’ve become quite good friends.  Next summer, Ben and the governor and the secretary of commerce are all going golfing at St. Andrews together.

          It changes you.  Not all at once, boom, there’s a whole new Michelle or anything, but incrementally you do change. When you get invited to the White House for a Celebration of America’s True Heroes and one of those heroes is you; when the President of the University of Georgia, the very school you almost flunked out of when you mistakenly tried to major in business, calls to ask your advice about how to get students more engaged with the community; when teachers all around the country, after the Oprah thing, have their students write you letters thanking you for your inspirational work making the world a better place, you do, day by day, begin to feel different about yourself.  You see that you have come to take up more space in the world, and that the world has noticed.

What the world is less quick to notice, though, is the actual, quantifiable results of Michelle’s big initiative, which, truth be told, are sort of different from what she had hoped.  But if, over time, the playing fields of Wedgewood start to get kind of choked up with goodness, to the point where kids are spending more time looking for opportunities to perform good deeds than they are looking for the ball; and if, as a result, the quality of competitive athletics in metro-Wedgewood starts to sort of decline, so that in time the total volume of athletic scholarship money won by Wedgewood’s student-athletes drops from about $700,000 a year to more like $70k a year, most of it in sports like golf and swimming where it turns out that there just aren’t all that many opportunities to be really conspicuously sportsmanlike; and if, in the end, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of crossover, nicenesswise, from the playing fields to what boys do in the rest of their lives, if, in fact, it could be argued that working so hard to be nice on the playing field, the one socially-sanctioned place where they can let loose with all their innate boy-style aggression, makes lots of boys sort of less nice the rest of the time, so that juvenile delinquency rates in Wedgewood actually begin a slow but steady rise right around the time the BHAMWAGSA is launched, while membership in the Wedgewood Junior League goes into a slow but steady decline as a result of the way more and more mamas of boys just find themselves too tired to do much volunteer work any more, well, you know, just so be it.  You can’t, when performing great feats of social engineering, possibly control for every variable, and if you think you can, you’re just hopelessly and helplessly naïve.

Which I for one certainly am not any more.  At first, when I saw how it was all going wrong, I was inclined to be somewhat distressed about it, and to feel that perhaps if no one else was going to do so, I should step in and suggest calling the whole thing off.  But then I thought of them, the old, pre-BHAMWAGSA Ben and Michelle, those poor, aspiring, pretentious, social-climbing middle-aged nobodies, silly people, really, and even sort of pathetic, with their constant concern about what everyone would think of them if they did this or if they did that.  And I saw that while you could laugh at them, or maybe even despise them, that Ben and Michelle, those hardworking, anxious wannabes, had actually created something rather grand.  By which I don’t mean the BHAMWAGSA itself, but rather the idea of it—the boldness of the thought of it, the scale of it, and the ambition of it.  You have to think big, Stephen Boland said, if you want to achieve anything of real note.

And because of the BHAMWAGSA, Ben and Michelle now have the capacity both to think and to act much bigger than they ever could before.  Business at Hawthorne & McKelvey has, for one thing, more than doubled since the BHAMWAGSA was launched, so there’s lots more money to be had to make big things happen.  And Michelle, lionized by Oprah and George Bush alike, has been held up to the entire nation as just the right kind of person to look to when you need to get big things done.

So no, I don’t fault myself for keeping the BHAMWAGSA going even if it has made everything worse that it was supposed to make better.  I am, for one thing, not interested in going back to being that old Michelle, the one who spent so much of her time so carefully parsing out the intricacies of the intersection between philanthropy and high society, the one who seemed at first to have precipitated a disaster simply by giving $50,000 to the United Negro College Fund.  I like my new self so much better.  Oprah likes me too.  After the story in her magazine, she personally called me to tell me how much she admired what I’d done, and we got to talking and we really hit it off, so much so that we’re planning on getting together for a shopping trip in New York next spring.

More importantly, though, what I’ve learned from the whole BMAMWAGSA experience is that philanthropy is not, as I once supposed, a science, a practice that can be mastered through diligent study of immutable facts or measurable data.  It is instead an art.  One of the creative arts.  Philanthropists are, when you really consider it, quite a lot like writers or musicians.  The most significant of them are always going to create something bold and new, which most of the rest will spend much of their time carefully trying to imitate or emulate.

And as everyone knows, great artists have got to be given latitude to experiment, and you have to expect that some of their experiments are going to be failures.  What great novelist hasn’t turned out at least one clunker?  What brilliant new film director hasn’t hit a sophomore slump?  These things just happen.  Creativity is a tricky business:  you sally forth boldly into the unknown, and you just don’t know what will happen as a result.  But the point is, once the artist has been recognized as having the capacity for creative genius, once the mantle of greatness has fallen around her shoulders, the world will grant her that latitude to try and see what happens in a way that it never did before.  And given that latitude, and some time in which to put it to use, she has a much greater chance of creating a true masterpiece than she ever otherwise would have.

So, no, I don’t in any way regret the BHAMWAGSA.  The old Michelle would have regretted it, it’s true; she would have worried that if nothing else it was a waste of good money to fund an award that so signally was failing to achieve the desired effect.  But I am not the old Michelle any longer, and I never can be again.  My new self understands things that were entirely beyond the old Michelle’s ken.  Armed with that knowledge, I now sally boldly forth into the unknown.  It’s a very depressing time in the world right now, what with rising food prices and the collapsing mortgage market and all those poor boys coming back from Iraq having lost their limbs or their minds.  It seems to me that in these trying times people like me are needed more than ever.  And, well, here I am.  You will, I’m confident of it, be hearing from me again pretty soon.  And when you do, you’ll be amazed and astonished.  I’m certain that you will.

 

Leslie Haynsworth’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth GenreCrossRoads:  A Southern Culture Annual, The Common Review, JuiceBox, Up The Staircase, Marie Claire, The Denver Post, and elsewhere.  She is co-author with David Toomey of Amelia Earhart’s Daughters:  The Wild and Glorious Story of American Women Aviators from World War II to the Dawn of the Space Age, and is fiction editor for Yemassee, the literary magazine of the University of South Carolina.

Posted on December 7, 2013 .