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The future of creative writing

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story was posted incorrectly.

The first thing you notice after walking into Flying Object, a hub of creativity located in Hadley, Mass., is the distinct smell of books.

It is not a particularly overwhelming smell, but it’s unique. It’s a smell that has been fighting a losing battle against the aroma of coffee in bookstores, new-age odorless e-books, and dust-ridden library shelves.

Despite setbacks in the independent bookstore industry, Guy Pettit refuses to throw in the towel. After overseeing the renovations of a small building across from the Esselon Café, he opened the Flying Object bookstore, letterpress and gallery on Oct. 1, 2010.

“Originally it was made to provide a space for people who are working on their own projects—like maybe they had a small press or they were printmakers or artists or writers— and didn’t have the resources that they might want, or even need, to do those things,” said Pettit.

These were the people who supported the establishment when Pettit undertook the responsibilities of director, and he’s determined to support them back.

But the unfamiliar smell of printed paper and ink is not the only thing to notice. You may look at the walls decorated with paintings by local artists, or see the shelves filled with booklets by local poets. You may go around the back to examine the press equipment, which includes a large letterpress with its associated lead letters. You may glance over at the products of the letterpress lying around everywhere, paper that’s printed with raised, inked surfaces— documents that you not only read but feel.

Or you may notice how small the place is.

“Independent publishing is something that’s not well-funded by anybody, not locals, or the state or the government,” said Pettit. “Providing a space for people and their art and what they’re passionate about is marginalized.”

The lack of money invested into the arts and its circulation is a problem that goes beyond simply disgruntling locals, however. The University of Massachusetts’ English department, which once had around 100 professors, now employs less than 50. To make up for the drastic economic cuts, others have had to pick up the slack.
One such example is Francesca Chabrier, who is simultaneously a student and professor at the university. When she’s not teaching English 354, a creative writing course, she is finishing up her studies in the Master of Fine Arts Program, from which she hopes to graduate this May.

But like most people, Chabrier did not always know that she wanted to teach, read and write poetry for a living. As an undergraduate she started off studying journalism. Eventually, her professors convinced her to take creative non-fiction. Then, after trying fiction writing, it did not take long for her to take the plunge into poetry.

“I think doing something that you really love is a wise life choice,” said Chabrier. “The writing program here is a strong program with a great reputation, and the people in it have a lot of energy and heart and dedication.”
The importance of creative writing in the job market, let alone in the world of academia, incites a lot of debate. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs held their annual conference in Washington, D.C., where the issue of the future of the discipline was addressed in a panel on February 4.

In the face of financial limitations, an increasingly consumerist society, and administrative instructions to enroll more students into the small classes, the speakers still seemed optimistic. The subject of creative writing itself, as one that is accredited and taught in educational institutions, is fairly new.

“People think anyone can write,” said Pettit. “But it takes a lot of work and practice and craft.”

Moreover, Pettit and Chabrier argued that honing your writing skills enables you to be successful in almost any other professional field. Conversely, being employed in any profession may still allow you to write in your spare time.

“I’ve had jobs that had nothing to do with poetry or creative writing,” said Chabrier. “But having good writing skills allowed me to get further in those professional fields. Writing is a major means of communication, and it’s important to know how to do that well.”

Creative writing does not always need a backup plan, however. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale recently agreed to buy the work produced at Flying Object to document contemporary culture.

The establishment is not alone in its endeavors either. Places like it exist all over the country, though usually in larger cities. They bring in the creative work of locals, give them a voice, and allow a place for the community to come and engage with each other.

“It’s not common for something like this to exist in a small town and still survive,” said Pettit.

“We’re able to do this here because there’s a history of writers and printers, and the five colleges bring in a lot of people, too.”

While addressing debates that question the existence of creative writing as a discipline, artists also face the problem of the people’s demand for an easier, faster, and cheaper means to get their creative fix. Amazon book sales have increased, e-books have become popular, and Borders has declared bankruptcy. In the midst of all of this, Flying Object and its sister establishments emerge in defiance.

“Physical objects, like printed matter, is so much more seductive to me than reading off a computer screen,” said Chabrier. “I like the way, too, that poetry and design can be married.”

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