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Meehan Crist Wins Rona Jaffe Award

John R. Tibbetts - November 20, 2015

Type: Artist News, Artist Profiles, Fellowships

Writer Meehan Crist in Phi Beta Studio in 2013.

Writer Meehan Crist in Phi Beta Studio in 2013.

MacDowell Fellow secures Jaffe Award for work on head injury inquiry

Meehan Crist was in Fiji, traveling with a conservation research team for a freelance writing project, when she learned she won a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Apparently, the foundation had been trying to contact the MacDowell Colony Fellow (’09, ’13), but her U.S. phone did not work in the tropics. When she found the time, electricity, and a place that had Wi-Fi to collect her e-mail, Crist discovered a backlog of messages from the foundation saying they had been trying to reach her.

But instead of letting the meaning of the award sink in, with e-mail successfully collected, Crist had to immediately jump into a taxi to conduct an interview in a remote village. As the taxi took her along the edge of the harbor, passing stacks of shipping crates towering above the palm trees, she thought “What is this life?” The question described the surreal circumstances she found herself in, writing about paradise threatened as she headed back to where the project was focused on the island’s troubled fisheries and fishermen. She was traveling with Dr. Joshua Drew and his conservation biology research team from Columbia University, with the support of a grant from the Mindlin Foundation. The trip led to two short pieces for the online magazine Nautilus as well as a longer piece yet to be published.

“I was astonished by the pace of development and what is rather euphemistically called ‘resource extraction’ in Fiji, and by how deeply interconnected these seemingly remote islands are to the rest of our shrinking planet,” said Crist. “I could stand on a deserted beach and watch the Chinese fishing trawlers sweeping the deep ocean for tuna. In one fishing village with fewer than 200 people, the wife of the man we stayed with had done a tour of military duty in Iraq.” She found Fiji to be a metaphor for the environmental and political issues that the entire world is facing.

Crist, who is the writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University and editor-at-large of Nautilus, an online magazine dedicated to the topic of science and culture, is also at work on a book about brain trauma. It is a fusion of memoir and neuroscience focusing on a brain injury her mother suffered during Crist’s childhood. The book is an extension of her writings about science and its intersection with culture and politics. That focus helped identify her as a woman writer of “exceptional talent,” according to the Jaffe Foundation. Crist, who earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University in non-fiction writing, was originally unsure of what she wanted to write about, but developed a curiosity about the brain while hanging around friends who studied neuroscience. She discovered that writing about the subject would help her understand and answer some long-held questions.

“When I came to MacDowell in 2009, I had been researching and reporting on neuroscience for a few years, and had recently become more interested in the history of neuroscience,” said Crist. “With a bit of hindsight, you can more clearly see how culture, politics, and the idiosyncrasies of individual scientists affect what we know and how we know it.”

Aside from providing her the time to zero in on her book, her MacDowell experience also led Crist to befriend a small group of Fellows who decided to live and work together in a Brooklyn townhouse and emulate the MacDowell experience to support one another’s creative processes.

“We all happened to come to MacDowell at transitional moments in our lives,” she said. “I had recently finished as a writer-in-residence at Colgate University, another woman had just graduated from RISD, and another was moving to New York but didn't yet have an apartment. There were five of us, total, and it was sort of an experiment to all move-in together. We lived and worked in that house for two years.”

Now, because of the $30,000 Rona Jaffe Award, Crist won’t have to grab every freelance job that comes along. Instead, she can now focus on completing her longer projects. It’s a prospect she looks forward to.

“The way my life is set up, I’ve been able to write in short stints,” she said. “But this award will let me cut back on editing and teaching so I can focus on longer projects that require more sustained attention.”

When Crist attended the Rona Jaffe Award ceremony, she said she felt lucky to be among a group of women writers. “It’s a strange thing to be offered this sort of support, because there are so many talented writers out there doing such good work. Tracy K. Smith, who received the award a few years back, gave a beautiful speech that made the event feel like an induction into a sisterhood of writers facing down a lot of the same demons in order to do their work.”