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Darlene Bassett

Darlene Bassett in her Placitas home.

Bassett helps writers to blossom

—KEIKO OHNUMA

Grieving from the death of a mother to whom she had always been “uniquely connected,” Darlene Chandler Bassett found herself utterly determined to attend a workshop she had signed up for at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu.

It was July 2000, and the retired executive from Los Angeles was still making the transition to an early retirement after a lifetime on the go. “I didn’t know why, but I was compelled to go,” she says of the gathering, which she notes with a roll of the eyes, was for “women in midlife.”

Yet, it was in the haunting landscape of Abiquiu, in the safe company of women, that Bassett encountered the next major influence in her life, someone whose previous twenty years had been the polar opposite of her own.

Whereas Bassett had worked eighty-hour weeks for financier and arts patron Eli Broad, while also serving as board chairman for the California Abortion Rights League, Mary Johnson had been a nun in the order of Mother Teresa. She had not wanted to come to the workshop. And she told the women her greatest need was to write a memoir of her work in India, which her current circumstances made impossible.

Bassett, who had a copy of Virginia Woolf’s artistic manifesto A Room of One’s Own under her chair, had a life-changing moment. “It was kind of like a visitation,” she says. “I immediately knew I could do that for her.”

She didn’t even know Mary Johnson then, but together they created an organization—A Room of Her Own Foundation—that has remained very nearly as it was conceived after that workshop eight years ago. The group gives just one $50,000 grant to one writer. More significantly, it is open to anyone, eschewing patronage, introductions, or letters of reference. The only requirement is the application process—an arduous multiple-essay crucible that also has never changed its wording.

Bassett explains that the award was created to fit the needs of a particular woman, according to Woolf’s tenet that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” That’s why multiple, smaller awards are not given: “Give her just a little bit,” Bassett says of writers like Johnson, “and she’s right back where she was a year from now.”

She offers the example of award winner Meredith Hall, who wrote the bestselling memoir Without a Map under the grant. Like most of the grant recipients, she was already an award-winning writer when she applied. Yet she was teaching five classes and working in construction to make ends meet. After the grant, she had her teaching load reduced and her pay tripled. “Now you can say she’s in the writing world,” Bassett says emphatically. “It emboldened her, because of how we handle our relationship with recipients.”

The organization’s Gift of Freedom draws on corporate ideas of benchmarks and accountability, requiring of applicants a “moral contract” to produce a specific work—a modified commission, Bassett calls it—which must be outlined in a proposal that takes a good full-time month to complete.

“The application is how we change the world, the gift we can give to an unlimited number of women,” Bassett says of the eight-hundred-some entries they nonetheless received in the last round. “It takes tremendous courage—the way the application is worded, they have to face all their demons and ask, is this the time?”

Often it is not, Bassett says, once women consider what it means to take a year off and write. “At certain times, women are up for it—that’s why we call it ‘the audacious act.’ But when our objective and someone’s willingness come together, it’s powerful.”

At turns exuberant, playful, steely, or disgusted, Bassett makes an unlikely Placitas retiree. A self-proclaimed “LA girl” who moved to the high desert in 1992 with Emmy Award-winning husband Steve Bassett—it is one of their three homes—she counts a lifetime of audacious acts herself.

The only child of working-class parents, she describes her mother as a role model who worked her way through Rice University during the Depression to become an accountant. “She taught me to be independent and love your work,” Bassett says proudly. “I saw that if you’re going to work, make something of it.”

Studying at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the 1960s, Bassett graduated with a degree in classics when most of her classmates were tuning in and dropping out. Relentless effort and long hours took her to the top of the corporate ladder by the age of forty. And while she never set out to be a feminist crusader, Bassett firmly believes women and artists need to master the world of commerce.

“But what do I know?” she shrugs. “I just know my work is to help women find out if they’re writers. And whatever the answer is, it’s OK. Because we’re too hard on ourselves, don’t you think?” she muses. “If not this year, maybe next year.”

For more information about the foundation and its vision, visit the group’s website at www.aroomofherownfoundation.org.


 

 

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