Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Vientiane

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm


 Photo taken from Kickstarter campaign for The Rocket Festival.

Sometimes, you think you can do anything.

In this case, I thought I could fund a trip to Laos.

Most people have heard my crazy sales pitch: Laos is the most heavily bombed country on Earth… children are still maimed by unexploded cluster bombs… nobody can identify Laos on a blank political map… I want to write a book about it… etc., etc.

I know in my heart that this is a mind-blowing project, and when it is realized, people will read The Rocket Festival (its prospective title), and say, Oh, I get it! THAT’s what he was raving about! Now it all makes sense. I have faith in this project because I already succeeded with The Archipelago, which was almost the exact same project with the exact same mission — explore a region that has suffered major national trauma and meet the people who live there, then write about their lives. If the rest of the world doesn’t care about Laos, maybe one enthusiastic visitor will make a difference.

But I was ambitious: Because I’d “proven myself” with The Archipelago, I wouldn’t have to fund this trip on my own. I could find some kind of grant or donation or fellowship or eccentric billionaire or something that would finance the journey.

The budget: $1,500. That’s it. That’s all I needed for airfare. The rest (food, lodging, ground transport, whatever) would all be funded by me. Great deal, right?

I would love to say this was mere daydreaming, and I’ve spent the last six months drinking PBR and watching “Friends” reruns. The wonky part of this story is that I have been hurling myself at potential backers. I have applied for a Guggenheim and Fulbright. I have investigated the Pittsburgh Foundation, The Sprout Fund, Heinz Opportunity Grants, every listing in Writer’s Market. I have pitched untold numbers of publishers. I have tried to apply for every journalism grant imaginable. Most incredibly, I have written to the organization Stop Cluster Munitions (an activist group that is trying to make cluster bombs illegal), and the Dalai Lama Foundation (the vast majority of Laotians are Buddhist). These last two organizations didn’t even respond, by any method, even to tell me to piss off, though I wrote multiple members.

Granted, I still admire these organizations, even if I slipped through every bureaucratic crack. They are all magnificent nonprofits, and I would do almost anything to work with them. But for one reason or another, my project was renderred ineligible before I even applied. For example, the Heinz Opportunity Grant does not fund “the creation of art.” If I wanted to audition for a Paul Rudd movie in L.A., I could apply for a Heinz Opportunity Grant, but because I want to write about the effects of nine years of secret carpet-bombing in Southeast Asia, well, too bad for Laos. Other organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Foundation and Sprout Fund, are too local and focus on Western Pennsylvania — which is, of course, why they were established, not to fund freelance writers’ far-flung vacations.

I couldn’t submit my Fulbright application because I don’t speak fluent Laotian, or any Laotian. Never mind that I could seek a translator, or learn the basics along the way, or help passersby with their English skills. More damningly, I couldn’t find any “local contacts.” I found this bitterly funny, since I wrote every relevant Laotian bureau and office I could find, but you can’t expect much when the country suffers from frequent power-outages. There was no way to explain this to the Fulbright people. At the end of a long proposal-writing process, my application was killed at the last minute.

In a last-ditch effort, I created a Kickstarter account. I mean surely, surely Kickstarter could work. If Kickstarter could raise $2,000 to put intermittent haiku poems on a public road sign, didn’t it stand to reason that I could muster $1,500 to investigate maimed children in Asia’s poorest country?

Nice try.

As many know, Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing deal. Either you meet your financial goal through donations, or you receive nothing at all. I had 30 days to meet my goal, or else I would receive nothing. At the time of writing, I have 30 hours before my time expires. I have raised $60 — pledged by some really wonderful friends and colleagues, Randy Laxton (a terrific dramatist and friend for 13 years), Kate Showalter (who runs the rockin’ blog Yinzpiration), and Lucas McNelly (a filmmaker who raised an ungodly sum of money to take an extended filmmaking roadtrip).

I swallowed my pride a while ago, and now I can laugh all this off. If anything, I am astounded that the idea (which has stunned and inspired everyone I’ve described it to) does not, on paper, merit the measley sum of $1,500.

The dream will persist, and sometime I will make this journey happen. And a guy like me, living a year like this, has no room to complain about a minor setback. I only wish there was someone I could appeal to. What this world needs is more eccentric billionaires.