Featured Fellow: Jonathan King
Applying For And Winning A Fellowship:
Jonathan King on the Javits Fellowship
FELLOWSHIP I WON AND WHEN: It was a sunny day at the end of March, two weeks after the good news was supposed to appear. Not a word from the Jacob K. Javits fellowship committee. After a grueling (and enlightening) six months of writing for graduate school applications and writing with Dr. Viveros for the fellowship, graduate schools began calling with interview dates, acceptance letters were rolling in, but no word from the treasurers of the Javits fund. I was confronted by the realities of debt that graduate school would guarantee, a reality that I had become very familiar while getting my undergraduate degree. I walked out of Joy’s office in tears that day. She reminded me that the fellowship could not determine whether or not I move forward with my life, towards my dreams of becoming a filmmaker or going to film school. Our meeting ran late. On the way out of the advising center, I checked my email at one of the computers. One line in the body of an email: Please call Carmen Gordon ASAP, Department of Education, Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Committee. The snow in the capitol had held up paperwork that has since changed my life. I won! I ran back to Joy’s office and rudely interrupted a meeting.
MY MAJORS AND AREAS OF ACADEMIC INTEREST: While attending San Francisco State University for my undergraduate degree, I studied Geography and Cinema with a focus on documentary. I am currently attending UCLA’s School of Film, Theater, and Television. The first year of this program is primarily focused on fiction with the option of switching the focus to documentary in the second year. I love telling stories and as of now I cannot imagine limiting myself to a genre. Currently, I am examining my roots through film and honoring the family and the life that made me who I am by writing and directing films about personal experience and a collective family history. I’m thrilled with discovery everyday.
THE SUBSTANCE OF MY FELLOWSHIP PROPOSAL: The Jacob K. Javits fellowship proposal was made of up a personal statement, samples of artistic work, letters of recommendations, and university transcripts. The statement itself was required to be two pages. But as you’ll learn, they were required to be two perfect pages (the essence of your life) by the wonderful S.F. State fellowship advisor, Dr. Joy Viveros. My statement was very personal and revealing in ways that I had never learned to express before working with Joy. I wrote about my socioeconomic and religious background—a journey away from three generations of coalmining and an escape from a fundamentalist religion. The difficulty of this experience and the sensitivity resulting from its peculiarities informs a unique worldview. This is explicit in the statement. By truly exposing who I am I was able to reveal what touches me as an artist, topics I would like to investigate, and discoveries I need to make.
I submitted two film samples with the proposal as well. The statement spoke of my experience with marginalized groups and my experience as a marginalized person leaving a seemingly predestined life. The film samples were as much a part of my personal statement as the statement itself. One of the samples was a trailer for a potential feature documentary about Mor Applebaum, a San Francisco resident and Israeli immigrant who has chosen to leave society for the mountains, to pursue his dream of designing, building and flying his flight machines. The other was a trailer for my first documentary and thesis project at S.F. State, Race to the Bottom. It explores the personal stories of three of truck drivers and reveals the deregulated, broken system that keeps them from earning a living wage. I chose these two samples because I felt they were revealing of my range as a filmmaker and because they enveloped subject matter that is close to my experience.
LOW POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: I had some real lows in the process. I was nearing graduation and did not feel that I had the tools or the confidence to tell stories as a filmmaker, despite the fact that the stories exist within me. Graduate school seemed like an unattainable dream and having a fellowship that would pay the way was certainly not possible. This self-doubt eroded while working with Dr. Viveros. It still can creep up, but it does so less often now and I credit it to the process that she put me through. Besides not believing in myself, writing about your life is difficult. There was so much that I had buried that I had to confront while writing, events that I did not want to think about, unresolved relationships to my personal history, and difficulties that were persisting. This combination made me want to walk away, move to the forest, and forget what I had started. Dr. Viveros would not permit this.
Getting letters of recommendation for my application was indeed a misadventure. I had a number of recommenders who volunteered before the application process began that did not show up on the day of need. In the future, I will start this process first, ask for the letters well in advance, and have a thorough discussion about the content of the letter. Some recommenders will not appreciate this, but the ones who really want to send you soaring should. Fortunately my some of my recommenders let me have a look at the letter, and even wanted me to, before the submitting the sealed letter. It was revealing and disturbing in a couple of ways. One letter came in the final hours before running off to the post office. It had been written in those final hours and reflected the rush. The recommender’s knowledge of me was barely articulated. Very upsetting. It seems that some recommenders have a standard letter with blanks for your name. If you have spent six months on a beautiful application package, you do not want your name in these blanks.
HIGH POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: I unearthed a new love while applying for the fellowship. I love to write. One of the many reasons it took me years to pursue a higher education is because I feared writing. I thought that I would be made a fool if anyone had to read my work. Partly because of the region I was born to and partly because of religious circumstance, I was never given the opportunity to develop writing skills—it just was not part of my childhood. There are so many discoveries to be made while writing, and the fellowship application process lends itself especially to this. I feel like I was permitted to dig in, talk out loud, spit on a page, and to finally remember or understand my value as a person. Writing about my history was especially fun as a filmmaker. I’m not necessarily interested in retelling stories as they occurred but the details and texture discovered in the writing process decorate my films and ideas. I love it.
MISADVENTURE(S) DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: It is hard to think of any of this as a “misadventure.” I would say that dealing with the bureaucratic end of universities and government entities was the most painful, but forgotten easily. Forgotten.
BEST MOMENT DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: This will seem silly, but even after being awarded the fellowship, I did not know the actual scale of it. I think that this information slipped past me because I did not think I was qualified for a prestigious fellowship. I must have ignored all of the reassurance that Dr. Viveros gave me. And then I won. So what exactly is this thing? What? A full ride through four years of graduate school with a generous yearly stipend? Some folks out there in the world decided that I was worth investing in. Unreal feelings. Another fun moment and an exhausting one was telling my family who don’t really know exactly what college is. I was able to convince them that this is progress.
ADVICE TO APPLICANTS: Don’t back down. Give yourself over to the process. Surround yourself with people who want to see you live big, people who understand that you want give your fullest even if you don’t understand what that is. You will with this experience. The writing is exhausting and can seem impossible. Before writing for graduate school and the Javits fellowship I had written many essays, proofread them, revised, and maybe done a rewrite or two. You have to understand that in the beginning you are not writing a personal statement or an artist statement, you are just writing, getting your life story out on paper. In the process of writing without the specific goal of the statement, you will make discoveries with Dr. Viveros and you will begin to understand what you need to say, what you need to scream out, and then the real writing begins—version after version until it is a piece of literature about you. The real story.
WHY I’D DO IT AGAIN: I have actually craved the process since the award was granted. No writing assignment, even a personal writing assignment, will make you suffer and reward you like the process of writing for a fellowship does. I mentioned it was life changing. It was life changing because my entire four-year graduate education is being paid for, with a quarterly living stipend, but that is not it. You will discover buried talents, ideas, and perceptions that only a process like this can extract. It is an exploration of who you are and what you can give because of it. I would do it again because it is meditative. If it is important to have a voice as an artist; this voice cannot be muddled. I speak clearly now and honestly. I know what I need and what I want to say as an artist because I looked under all the stones in the process of writing for the fellowship. I will do it again.
WHAT I’M DOING NOW: I am having the time of my life. Really. I’m attending one of the best film schools in the world and have finally permitted myself to drown in what I love, story telling. I will never forget the moments of dread at S.F. State, waiting in lines to borrow more money from the government, and feeling that the education was somehow in vain because of the impeding debt. Needless to say, part of what I am doing now is enjoying the hell out of my fellowship. I’m writing, producing, and directing my second student film at UCLA. It is about a woman who has married late in life into a mini-dynasty in a small town, only to find that her husband’s prestige and well-known generosity exist alongside exploitation and sexual deviance in relation to the local underclass of women. Extracted directly from my ridiculous personal history, and claimed. This would have never happened without the process that I went through with Joy Viveros in the fellowship office. I am collaborating with other artists daily. I meet in offices with professors who have won Oscars, with scholars who have interviewed my favorite filmmakers, and with other students who share an uncompromised vision. That is what I am doing now.