Unemployed human cannonballs, robot kisses and disappearing girls are just some of the things you might encounter in a Meghan Phillips story.
Earlier today, the National Endowment for the Arts — the federal government agency that supports the arts — released its list of 36 writers who will receive a 2020 Creative Writing Fellowship award of $25,000. Among the recipients is Manheim-based writer Meghan Phillips.
Phillips is the editor of the locally-focused literary magazine “Third Point Press,” as well as an associate editor for “Smokelong Quarterly.” Her debut chapbook of flash fiction, titled “Abstinence Only,” is due out later this year from Barrelhouse Books.
“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support our nation’s writers, including Meghan Phillips, and the artistry, creativity, and dedication that go into their work,” Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a press release.
Phillips says she was encouraged by the writing community on Twitter, especially a series of tweets by R.O. Kwon, author of “The Incendiaries,” to apply for the grant.
“I’m grateful (the NEA) exists,” says Phillips. “This is something that’s there for people. You can just be a person who writes and tries and works. You don’t have to be someone with a fancy degree or a book contract."
Phillips, who was selected for the award from nearly 1,700 applicants, applied for the fellowship in early 2019 and received the news a couple of months ago.
“I’ve been sitting with it for like two months,” says Phillips, 33. “I’ve had some time to process it and now that initial feeling is coming back again.”
Getting the call
Phillips, who works in the administrative and circulation department of the Elizabethtown Public Library, was filling in at the library’s coffee shop when she first got the call. She wasn’t able to answer it and was surprised by a voicemail from a woman from the NEA.
“When I finally did get her back on the line, I was like laughing and crying and shaking,” says Phillips. “It was one of the most memorable phone calls of my life.”
Phillips joins an esteemed group of writers, including one of Phillips' favorite authors, the short story writer Kelly Link, to be recognized by the NEA.
“Kelly Link is one of my favorite writers in the world,” says Phillips. “When I found out when I got this I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, me and Kelly Link!’ I love her. She writes short stories and they are hugely, hugely influential on how I write.”
Phillips is able to request payouts of her award to the NEA to help offset child care costs and pay for supplies, research and travel.
“It’s not like Publisher’s Clearing House, where they show up at my door with a giant check,” says Phillips. “I wish that was what it was. We make giant checks here at work sometimes, so maybe I’ll just make myself a fake one.”
Phillips, who has an 18-month old son, plans to use some of the money for a new desk — she currently writes at her kitchen table — and is also considering online novel-writing classes.
“I would like to write a novel, but it’s one of those things that feels impenetrable to me,” says Phillips. “I still read novels with complete sense of wonder, like how did they do that. So, part of what I’ve been thinking about with my grant money is taking some classes online about novel structuring to see how I would approach it.”
Phillips main mode of literary output is flash fiction — short pieces that usually come in under 1,000 words.
“It tends to be more lyrical or image-based and less like a traditional plot-structured (story),” says Phillips. “There’s a lot of room for experimenting in flash fiction that you don’t usually get to see in traditional longer short fiction.”
She began writing seriously about five years ago.
"I started as like a secret writer," Phillips said. "I took a class at the Lancaster Literary Guild about writing flash fiction and I met Tyler Barton in that class. He pulled me in to the lit community here in Lancaster. I don't think I would have kept going without it and without the support of these people."
Tyler Barton, Lancaster-based author of the short story chapbook "The Quiet Part Loud," recalls meeting Phillips in that class and in the years that followed learning from Phillips' work.
"I was blown away by this person who was writing tiny stories about kids eating lipstick and cut-in-half cows," Barton said in an email. "I remember being like 'I have so much to learn from this person.' And in the last five years reading her stories, working with her on literary magazine and interviewing her for podcasts, I have learned a lot. Mostly write what feels weird, scary, gross or odd."
Phillips describes her process as long periods of gestation followed by intense bursts of writing.
“I have to think about things for a really long time,” says Phillips. “The best way I can describe it is that sometimes I feel like I’m a rock tumbler. I get ideas and the ideas are just like lumpy stones and I have to let them roll around in my brain for a while until they get nice and polished.
"Once I have that, then the actual drafting stage of writing is actually pretty fast," she says. "But I will think about ideas for years until I hear or see something that unlocks the idea for me and then I know how to get into the story.”
Her debut collection, “Abstinence Only,” features flash stories about the teenage girl experience.
“My chapbook is all like Sex Ed stuff,” says Phillips. “What it means to be a young woman — especially going through puberty.”
It’s a subject that is perfect for literary fiction.
"All of us at Barrelhouse are huge fans of Meghan and her writing," Chris Gonzalez, fiction editor at Barrelhouse said in an email. "She writes with tenderness toward her characters, and she does it without sacrificing humor. There is levity in Meghan's teenage wasteland. Teenagers are awkward and horny and confused about what it means to be alive, and sometimes it's difficult and heartbreaking, and other times there is reason to laugh at how absurd that time in our lives is – Meghan understands all of this. We couldn't be happier for Meghan. This grant is for sure only the beginning of many accolades to come.”
Phillips is drawn to the new sensations and heightened emotions that go hand-in-hand with that particular stage of life.
“I like transitional phases. I’m drawn to that place where one thing is becoming something else and you’re in the smushy middle part,” says Phillips. “I like sort of digging into that place where you are just feeling everything at once and not wanting to feel everything at once.
"I guess I like the contradiction of it as well," she says. "And intentionally or not, it has been a way for me to deal with some of the things that I struggle with in our culture and to address some of the ways that we do a disservice to young women in particular.”
Some of Phillips' other favorite themes include ghosts, games and pop music.
“Some of the first stories I remember hearing are Bruce Springsteen songs,” says Phillips. “I like the way he sort of captures small moments and makes them really big. I love Meat Loaf, too. I think it’s that same thing. It’s that bigness — of just like falling in love for the first time. Or riding in a really fast car. Or working. It makes it feel really important.”
Read Phillip’s flash pieces “Rules” and "Now That the Circus Has Shut Down, the Human Cannonball Looks for Work.”