words // Liz Cantrell | charcoal illustration // Amanda Vella
It’s a ferociously windy September Saturday in downtown Burlington, and the Main Street Landing is abuzz with admirers of the written word.Hundreds of writers, readers, poetry dreamers and fiction believers have gathered at the Burlington Book Festival to attend readings, browse new works and engage with fellow bibliophiles.
It is a welcomed sight. The printed word is a kind of intellectual pleasure, meant to be perched awkwardly in one hand between thumb and pinkie while holding a cup of coffee. It is, in these modern times, an unordinary joy to focus on simply one thing, one text — rather than aimlessly scrolling blogs or news headlines on a tablet in mind-numbing succession.
Any casual observer of the Digital Age will acknowledge the intimidating volume of content that gets thrown around. Gone are the days when a handful of publishing houses decided what was fit to print and boozy parties for the literary elite ran wild at George Plimpton’s New York City residence. Today, “telling your truth” is easier than ever, and the sheer space available for writing and sharing one’s words is admirably egalitarian.
Yet, beneath all this verbiage, is anything really there? Are we too content to force words for mass online consumption that we have unintentionally distilled the craft of writing into an anonymous session of stringing words together behind a screen, hoping that something we write resonates with someone, somewhere? What’s a writer to do when craving serious improvement, when pursuing her craft relentlessly?
Well, that writer should consider moving to Burlington, because this out-of-the-way corner of the world boasts a healthy sampling of serious writing groups, workshops, and collaboratives that serve all of Vermont. As evident at the rich and talented company at the book festival, this town is a writer’s world, and we’re all living in it.
League of Vermont Writers
To break into the Burlington writing circuit, a logical place to start is with the League of Vermont Writers, a group that has penned words to paper for eight decades. Yes, that’s right — these guys and gals have been around since Vermont-born Calvin Coolidge was president. The League was founded in 1929 under the stewardship of Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Helen Hartness Flanders, both pioneering Vermont women in the arts of writing and folk music, respectively.
With a steady membership of over 200 writers and 501 (c) 3 non-profit status to boot, The League is the only statewide writer’s organization and will be celebrating its 85th year in 2014.
“Longevity alone will not ensure the on-going success of an organization,” says president Deb Fennell. “What stands the test of time is a commitment to helping writers develop their skills, promoting responsible and ethical writing and writing practices, increasing communication between professional writers and publishers, and promoting an enduring appreciation for the power of the word.”
The League offers less frequent programs than its other Burlington writing compatriots, but the options are by no means less impressive. With an annual membership fee of $30 — a reasonable increase from the original $1 charge in 1929 — members receive discounts on workshops and publishing conferences, subscription to a quarterly newsletter, access to a manuscript critique service and even eligibility for group health insurance via the Lake Champaign Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Although we certainly have some focus on the craft of writing, for many of us, the League is who we depend on for the ‘business’ side of writing,” Fennell shares. That means paid workshop leaders and speakers who know the publishing, editing, and freelance worlds. “The biggest change on a global scale for all writers has definitely been the changes in publishing, [like] e-publishing, and as an organization, these same changes happening, moving from a paper-based organization to one embracing technology.”
The League has the street cred to back up its techniques. Robert Frost, a friend of both Fisher and Flanders, was a member in his pre-technology day. In the past decade, the League’s membership has included well-known figures like New York Times bestseller and Chris Bojahlian.
In the way that the League seeks to professionalize its writers, the Wind Ridge Books of Vermont strives to provide a la carte services to writers who are looking for edits, publishing services or the know-how to do it themselves. WRB is the name of the group’s publishing house umbrella company, which publishes four or five books a year that fit its mission to “do a world of good through good reading.”
“We tried to think creatively about how we could be helpful and say ‘yes!’ to as many people as possible without jeopardizing WRB standards or sustainability,” explains director Lin Stone. Striking the balance between open access for all versus a free-for-all is met, Stone adds, by “having our writing workshops led by experienced, successful, published writers who also enjoy teaching, which is a slightly different paradigm and emphasis than it would be if we primarily engaged English teachers.”
WRB partners with Vermont authors to publish and market their books and then donates 10 percent of net profits from book sales to a nonprofit organization of the author’s choice. Red Barn Books is a second and separate imprint, which serves independent local authors and offers custom professional publishing services for a fee. Writers can choose to have their own book published using RBB’s products and services: editorial, graphic design, production, printing, online distribution, website presence or author videos.
To round out this comprehensive platter, there is also The Writers’ Barn, which offers a community space for events and writing workshops where writers can learn or develop their craft. In addition to workshops and readings, the Writer’s.
Barn offers a monthly membership for use of a studio space where writers can workbetween 9 am and 2 pm.
Renegade Writers’ Collective
But hey, why stop with self-publishing when one can attend targeted, genre-specific workshops? Renegade Writers’ Collective grew out of the desire to take a quality writing class at a place like Boston’s Grub Street or The Loft in Minneapolis.
That didn’t exist in Vermont, so we built it,” according co-founder Angie Palm. She and co-founder Jessica Nelson sought to form a place for what they call “literary citizens.”
“A literary citizen shows up,” Palm says. “They attend readings, they buy books, they do the work that writing requires and are not afraid to keep learning, even after they’ve found some success.”
With literary citizenship as their guiding philosophy, Palm and Nelson nurtured the idea for their writers’ organization with laser-sharp focus.
“Our private classes for small groups is one of the new offerings that we don’t see at other writing centers,” Palm says. “Groups tell us what they’d like to learn, practice, and discuss, and we match them with the best instructor for the job, who will then design a course specifically for them. The class is a private session between the group and the instructor at a discounted rate. In addition to giving tailored instruction to a range of people, this also allows us to bring RWC components to places like Montpelier and Shelburne, to groups who may not be able to travel to Burlington for a class.”
In June 2013, Palm and Nelson formed the business and scouted locations.
“We were up and running in a matter of weeks,” Palm adds.
This summer, the group held a retreat in the mountains of Lincoln, Vt. Twenty-five writers from Vermont and New York gathered to write for a weekend, attend craft sessions, and share their work with their peers. Palm says she is proud of the turnout.
“The writers went home creatively exhausted, their pockets stuffed with inspiration. We couldn’t have been more thrilled with the weekend.”
Burlington Writers’ Workshop
If those three highly-organized, professional writing collaboratives are not enough to satisfy the emerging, or even the seasoned writer’s needs, there is the blossoming Burlington Writers’ Workshop. The group has received considerable press attention in the past months, including pieces in Seven Days and Burlington Free Press. Peter Biello, founder and leader of the group, attributes the group’s growing success to the interest and commitment of its members.
Burlington Writers’ Collective meeting in City Hall Park.
“We have high expectations,” Biello explains, “We want participants to read each piece carefully, write thoughtful comments on the margins and type — yes, type — a response to each piece. This is the kind of thing that MFA students at universities do. We hold each other to the highest possible standard.”
If that sounds fussy or formal, trust Biello, it’s not.
“We’re serious writers, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Biello says. “We can laugh, make jokes, and have a glass of wine or a pint as we discuss anything without being afraid of ‘sounding stupid.’”
The BWW currently has a semi-permanent space at the Young Writers Project on North Street in Burlington for Wednesday meetings. Biello has been hosting meetings at Half Lounge on Church Street on other days of the week for years.
“Half Lounge has been great, but they’re not open during the day, and we’d like to have daytime workshops someday,” Biello says. “A permanent space would help.”
In April of this year, the BWW published its first anthology, The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013.
“We had a wonderful time reading from and celebrating the production of this book at Burlington City Arts,” Biello recalls. “Great food, great art surrounding us, and a large turnout—I was touched to see so many people show up. The love for the workshop became apparent to me that night.”
* * *
Despite the eyerolls and sharp comments from naysayers, maybe the craft and community of writing hasn’t entirely disappeared with the advent of digital platforms. Perhaps it has even strengthened. As writers struggle to orient themselves in an over-saturated world, they move into smaller, local groups.
They reach out with pen in hand, looking for a quick edit, a weekend-long novel workshop, or simply someone to share a beer with and commiserate about writers’ block.
In the Queen City, at least, the craft of writing is realized through sweat, stress, revisions and eventual reprieve. Be it at a gathering of the established League of Vermont Writers, in a moment of perfect prose in the Writers’ Barn, in the solitude of a Renegade retreat or in the lamp light of the Half Lounge with the Burlington Writers’ Workshop, words will always find a way. In the end, each of these groups lives up to Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s observation —
“The Vermont tradition grapples energetically with the basic problem of human conduct —how to reconcile the needs of the group, of which every man or woman is a member — with the craving for individual freedom to be what he really is.”