The idea of New York City being a literary and literary city has gone without being acknowledged for too long. But in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Writers’ Center founded in 1963 to attract writers from across the world to New York City, I thought it would be worth revisiting what may be one of the most significant landmarks of the city’s writing culture.
I first moved to New York City in 1986. That year, I participated in a hack fiction workshop at the Writers’ Center in the East Village. This was a skillful and engaging space where creative writing would be treated like a bona fide professional sport. The masters teaching at the Writers’ Center had published more than a dozen well-known books, from fiction anthologies and short-story collections to poetry and especially essays.
An enduring memory is riding my bike through bustling East Village at night. Even on the cobblestoned streets, there were dozens of writers’ studios and workshops where work was written and practiced. There were workbooks and even actual books. Not one of them seemed to belong to a publisher but were rather the sole literary property of their authors.
When I returned to New York in 2008, it felt so similar. There was no more permeating feeling of what seemed to be an infinitely large literary culture. There was, however, still no book of rotating poet readings in every restaurant and movie theatre. With so many creative-writing courses now on offer, it was assumed that there was an insatiable demand for authors. Therefore, the real question came down to who owns the intellectual property.
In order to help create a better sense of ownership and discovery, I founded the Local Non-Fiction Association in 2009. The goal of the Local was to identify local writers in every region of the country and then collectively support them as independent writers. Through the Local, I focused on emerging non-fiction writers, hoping that one day, everyone will have his or her own anthology of their own writing. As I noted at the time, this has not been achieved yet, but it was at least a start.
I recently encountered an optimistic young professional in her late 20s who told me she realized that the future was bright for local non-fiction writers.
She continued, “If you imagine 30 years from now, I will have many more accomplished friends than I will ever know because they will read my work.”
Like my friend, I was struck by the idea that in spite of the many collaborations which each of us pursued, we, as non-fiction writers, had rarely been embraced and celebrated, not even in our own communities.
I pondered this thought and came up with three striking observations.
First, I wondered why the Local isn’t now addressing the growing community of LGBT writers, including literature and non-fiction. Couldn’t such a time frame allow for the Local to study decades of books, chronicles, and journal articles exploring this vibrant and important community? These could be books, exhibitions, and festivals.
Second, I wondered why, just 10 years ago, I would never have considered publishing work of local journalists or screenwriters. Clearly, the books made by writers have now opened a world of possibilities for novelists and screenwriters.
Third, I wondered whether any of us, as writers, appreciated that fiction as well as non-fiction thrives as equally promising forms of writing and understand that in order to develop, writers have to consistently respond to the market, funders, agents, editors, and literary festivals.
As we celebrate the Writers’ Center’s 50th anniversary, I would like to see young writers like my friend find a sense of pride and accomplishment in being a local writer in New York. Our idea of a writers’ marketplace would provide our artists with greater economic stability while preserving the process of discovery which makes our city a global center of literary creativity. We can all play a role in developing the Local’s long-term evolution.
William Wanny works as a fiction and non-fiction writer and is a writer-in-residence for Brooklyn Community College.