Literary Trivia Night with Redbud Writing Project
Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh
The dominant narrative around Making It As A Writer has long involved a couple of standard tracks: You might move to a windowless hovel in New York City, for one, in order to be more proximate to the publishing industry. Or you might follow in the steps of many storied writers and pursue a creative writing MFA—and, potentially, a stack of debt.
This narrative is so embedded that a whole book, NYC. vs. MFA by Chad Harbach, is devoted to emphasizing, in the most polarizing terms, a dichotomy that’s unavailable to most. These options—or a trust fund—notwithstanding, popular culture suggests that you might as well shove your novel in a desk drawer and truck along in a practical career choice, resigning yourself to thumbing longingly through a Raymond Carver collection once in a blue moon.
This narrative is changing, though, thanks to the rise of the adult writing education communities that have sprung up around the country in the past decade—programs and centers that operate outside of the academy but go beyond introductory courses and informal kitchen-table writing groups. Often found in bigger urban centers, programs like GrubStreet in Boston and Sackett Street in New York City are reimagining the literary landscape with intensive writing programs for adults with day jobs.
This August, the Triangle gets its own community model in the form of the Redbud Writing Project, a series of rigorous six-week classes taught by recent N.C. State MFA graduates Arshia Simkin and Emily Cataneo. To kick off the year, five fiction and nonfiction classes will meet in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham.
For Simkin and Cataneo, an MFA was the right step to take. Both had forged other careers before applying to graduate programs: Cataneo had worked as a journalist in Boston for several years, while Simkin worked as a lawyer in Ithaca, New York.
“During my lunch break, I would Google MFA programs,” she says. “I’d only learned about them in my second year as a lawyer and became sort of obsessed with them. But before then, I’d Google things like ‘sad lawyer’ and ‘leave the law.’”
Both women were accepted into N.C. State’s fiction MFA, an intimate, competitive program with a national reputation. The experience was positive for both, but switching careers was still a big risk.
“It meant leaving something that had a very set path and traditional marker of success, which, coming from an immigrant background, was important to me and my family,” Simkin says, “It was quite a leap.”
While in the program, both Cataneo and Simkin discovered a passion for teaching writing and, with graduation on the horizon this past spring, began exploring how to translate that passion to the Triangle.
“I was talking to some friends about how people can make their own opportunities outside the structure of a university,” Cataneo says. Soon, she learned about writing schools like GrubStreet and the Gotham Writers Workshop.
“I thought about it and I was like, ‘We don’t have anything like that here, why don’t we have anything like that?’ I read that GrubStreet was started by two MFA grads who wanted to teach and put up a flyer, and now it’s this beloved institution in Boston. I thought, ‘I could be that MFA grad!’”
The Redbud Writing Project launches in August with those five core classes, but the pair hopes to expand to include different genres like poetry and science fiction as well as more scholarships. Classes will be held for both beginner and intermediate writers, with “principles of empathy, compassion and candor” guiding both.
This fall, classes will be held in both the morning and evening; the daytime offerings cater to retirees and stay-at-home parents, while evening classes are accessible to people with nine-to-fives. According to Simkin, classes will be a hybrid of craft instruction and exercises, with a workshop portion modeled after a traditional Iowa-style roundtable. Several three-day workshops begin in July, while the first section of six-week classes roll-out in August.
“I think it’s really hard to find rigor, and that’s what we want to provide—an MFA level of craft and workshop rigor, and encouragement to produce and learn from each other, without requiring people to sequester themselves in a university for two or three years, because that’s not realistic for everyone,” Cataneo says. Ultimately, they hope to help break down some of the traditional barriers of entry around serious writing and the publishing industry, as well as to help make writing less of a solo activity and the Triangle more of a literary hub.
One of the evening classes is set to meet at So & So Books in Raleigh. Shop co-owner (as well as poet and small-press editor) Chris Tonelli says that he’s excited to see a new model introduced into the area, especially one that may potentially help connect the writing communities spread out between the Triangle, which can often have different resources and literary flavors.
“[Redbud] feels comprehensive—they mean it when they say the Triangle. They don’t just mean one city and then are calling it the Triangle,” Tonelli says. “They’re doing it for their jobs, and I think that’s the kind of commitment we’ve lacked. They’re offering courses in the day and night and that’s something I haven’t seen yet. I think that the Triangle has one of the richest scenes anywhere, it’s just that there’s no umbrella or storefront.”
While running Redbud is Cataneo and Simkin’s primary gig, post-graduation, both also have their own writing projects on the burner: Simkin is working on a short-story collection that she characterizes as fiction “concerned with women in a male-dominated society and what it means to be an outsider,” while Cataneo’s novel hews most closely to speculative fiction.
In the lead-up time before the first class, they’re trying to drum up interest for the program; next week, they’re hosting the second installment of a literary trivia night at Quail Ridge Books. Ultimately, they say, they’re “very earnest nerds, not the cool kids of the writing world—but hopefully, people will see that as an advantage.”
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