Building Creative Community in the MFA and Beyond: A Conversation with Blue Stoop’s Joshua Demaree

bluestoop_textonlyJoshua Demaree is a creative nonfiction writer and a literary community organizer. Along with Emma Eisenberg, Joshua is a co-founder of Blue Stoop, a hub for literary Philly. Blue Stoop offers rigorous creative writing workshops as an MFA alternative with the express goal of opening up a physical space dedicated to literary culture in the greater Philadelphia area. In addition to offering workshops, Blue Stoop organizes events to invigorate communities of writers and readers, including happy hours, write-ins, and author events intended to bring more early- to mid-career writers to Philadelphia.

Joshua and I met a few years ago at a memoir writing retreat in rural Pennsylvania facilitated by Garrard Conley and Holes in the Wall Collective. Back then, Joshua was in the throes of his own MFA. In our FaceTime discussion this fall, we talked about the importance of community in the often solitary endeavor of writing, and how to build creative communities both during the MFA and beyond.

Alexa Garvoille: So, now that you’ve participated in both classroom (read: MFA) and community writing spaces, how would you say they’re different? And what are the limitations of each?

Joshua Demaree: This is a question that Emma and I grapple with constantly. As two writers who have MFAs, we’re very cognizant of that fact and we understand that there is a huge dichotomy in the writing world between those with MFAs and those without.

When we first started developing Blue Stoop one of our initial thoughts was, You know, there’s a lot of really great universities in Philadelphia that do not offer MFAs (like Penn and Drexel). Maybe we could align ourselves with an institution like that to provide some foundation for the work we’re doing. But then, the more we thought about it, the more we recognized that of the barriers of entry to creative communities, the institution is perhaps the largest. Of course, we’ve been to hundreds of programs at the Kelly Writer’s House on Penn’s campus, but as two relatively young white people, we don’t feel any kind of qualms about walking onto campus and feeling like we belong. But for plenty of people, the second they hear it’s on Penn’s campus, it’s of no interest to them for any number of reasons. And they don’t feel comfortable being there. It’s already just a barrier to entry the second you align yourself with an institution.

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Alexander Chee reads at a free event hosted by Blue Stoop.

 

AG: What other institutional problems do you feel you can avoid through a community space?

JD: One of our guiding principles early on was we wanted to both offer rigorous, creative writing workshops that are relatively affordable but also pay instructors adequately. But it was also of vital importance that we be able to offer financial aid to anybody who wanted to take part in the workshops.

In the way that some people would never even think to go to Penn’s campus just to go to a free reading, many people would never even think that going to an MFA program is a feasible possibility. We want to be able to provide what is tantamount to an MFA education at a far reduced cost that still pays instructors well. You can imagine, that is not an easy thing to do.

AG: I bet the diversity of the space brings a lot to the table.

JD: Age-wise, socio-economic status, race and ethnicity: these are all things that we think become vital in a creative community that, at its heart, is trying to build empathy. As a storyteller of course you want to entertain and you want to intrigue and you want to inspire thought–but I think at the heart of it, you’re trying to build empathy in readers for understanding experiences that aren’t their own.

If you go to an MFA program where everyone you see is is just a middle-class white person, then you’ve denied yourself the full spectrum of experiences from which to learn.

AG: Based on your and Emma’s experience, if someone were trying to build community around writing, either at a city-wide level, within an MFA, or even within a friend group, what are some things you would tell them about building that community?

JD: Going into my MFA, having already been to grad school once, I remember sitting there on the first day thinking, At the end of two years, I am going to know these people inside and out. And right now we’re complete strangers. The workshops were great, the craft classes were great, but really I thought we could help each other out in a different way. I felt like we had so much to learn from each other. And I remember saying that first semester: “The one thing we’re going to take away from this experience is lifelong colleagues, so the closer we get, the more we help each other, and better are able to share our work with each other, then the better that process is going to be.”

So our first semester, we started meeting, just us first-years, outside of school. Every other week, we would meet on a Friday afternoon and one person would volunteer to present a lecture on anything they wanted. For instance, My friend Juliana Roth wanted to talk about how movement was vitally important to her writing. Before she starts writing, the first thing she does is stretch. When she’s thinking about a scene, she’ll do yoga poses. And in her writing, her characters are always moving; bodily movement is just essential to their characterization. So it was this fascinating mix between the movement she does as a writing process becoming instilled within the actual narrative of her work. That was a fantastic discussion that we had. And it wasn’t something that you would learn in the MFA program, right? The MFA isn’t geared toward something like that.

So at each meeting, we would have one person do a mini-lecture, we would do a short writing prompt, and we would all write. And then, we would read what we had written and discuss it there. It was very low-stakes. Just engaging with each other in a new and different way and in short forms. And then we would just hang out with each other for another three hours. It felt like a good reset. And then in two weeks we would do it again.

When you’re sharing with each other and learning together outside of class, you’re outside the confines of competing with each other. The second you get out and have a whiskey, you get a completely different reaction to the work.

It was a great way of connecting on another level outside of the academy, which functions the way it does for many reasons–out of necessity, out of a lack of institutional critique (like “This is how we’ve always done it”).

Then when we became second-years, we took what we did in that first year and started a brown bag lecture series. Every two weeks, we would have two students during an hour who would read a little bit of their work and then discuss the process of it. We’d meet in a room on campus; anybody was invited. We also invited some of our professors to share what they were working on. You don’t get to experience your professors’ work-in-progress in workshops. We had them read a draft of something they were working on and then tell us about their process so we could get to know them less as a professor and more as a writer.

That second year, we took everything that we did naturally and then actually made it institutional. We wanted to show the first-years who came in after us that this is a happy, healthy creative community that engages with each other, engages with the outside world, and is fully created by ourselves. The first-years came in and I was able to tell them, “Hey, we all really enjoy being in this creative community together.” Whereas some people are told, “We all basically hate each other, so don’t expect a lot.”

Here’s another one of the things we started my first year: Rutgers has a research cabin out in the Pine Barrens that any students or faculty can just go to–and they have dormitories there. So we spend a weekend together out in the woods. We started going twice a year–a few weekends into the semester and then again in the spring. We’d go, hang out Friday night, Saturday would be spent writing, then we’d do a reading on Saturday night, and then we’d party again, and go home on Sunday.

AG: So are these programs, the brown bags and everything, still happening in the MFA program?

JD: Those are still happening. As my final semester was winding down, we had three meetups with the new (student-led) MFA Org Board specifically to discuss logistics of keeping these programs going, but also to talk about the ways that they’ve succeeded and the ways that they could be better.

It’s so wonderful to see them carrying on the same practices. It’s kind of surreal. I just hadn’t thought about it so expressly as creating a creative community and finding ways to make that last. More, it was just like, “Hey, this is what I want to do.”

AG: “So I’m just going to make it happen for me.”

JD: I’m going to make it happen for me! And then I realized everyone seems to be enjoying this, so how can I make this happen for other people?

AG: It sounds like you’ve really hit on something that you’re good at, you enjoy, and helps other people.

JD: The first years, who are now the second years, call me MFA Dad. “Don’t leave us, Dad!” they said. But another thing with creative communities is you can become too precious of them. If you’re the person in power, you can stifle them. I created the creative community that worked well for me, but it felt very important when I left, to say, now they get to create the community that’s good for them. Change it. Do whatever you want. It’s hard work, but it’s better if you just keep doing it.

And then as soon as I graduated, I thought, Ah, okay. That was a fun two years of my life. And when Emma asked if I wanted to do Blue Stoop, I was just like, “YES, let’s just keep doing this thing that I love so much.” But now I get to do it in the real world, as they say.

AG: Tell us a little about how Blue Stoop started.

JD: I had just graduated from the Rutgers-Camden program and I had a very vested interest in reorienting my relationship with writing after the MFA . . .

AG: Side question: how is your writing going?

JD: After working on the thesis, my manuscript, I felt creatively tapped. I knew that my thesis was not even remotely the best first draft work I could do. Coming into the MFA, I felt like “I’ve got this essay and this essay and this essay. It’s all fully baked and it just needs to be pulled out of the oven.” And then by the end, I was just like, “Here’s this half-baked idea I have.” I just started serving up up doughy croissants instead of beautiful, flaky, full-cooked ones. By the time I was done, I just needed to stop for a moment and just exist in the world for a little bit to rejuvenate myself.

So I needed to reorient my relationship with writing outside of the MFA world, which is this beautiful bubble that allows you to really grow as a writer in a short amount of time. And I needed to engage in my community. And people do it different ways. Some of them start a reading series. Some write book reviews. Some teach outside of the academy. There are any number of ways to engage with your creative community and give back to it. I didn’t want to write, but I also didn’t want to stop engaging in this community.

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Joshua Demaree and Emma Eisenberg

AG: How did you meet Emma?

JD: We both worked at an independent bookstore here in Philly, but not both at the same time. For two years, I heard her name. So one day I friended her on Facebook and just sent her a message that said, Enough’s enough! Let’s just get together and hang out and see how things go. And she’s just like, Yeah, totally. She just goes with the flow. We say that I’m a rule-following-gay and she’s a not-rule-following-gay. She breaks all the rules.

AG: Yes! Sounds like a great partnership.

JD: So we hung out, and it was really fun. And then we hung out again, and then again, and then we were both like, “Oh my god, I also love Appalachia and country music and Dolly Parton and ice cream.” And then it slowly built from there. And then when she asked about doing Blue Stoop together, I was just like, “Um, YES PLEASE.”

AG: There’s the myth of writers working in isolation . . . Obviously, there’s some truth to that: you have to put your butt in the chair and do the work. But, in your experience, how would you say anti-isolation is essential to art-making?

JD: This reminds me of a Tracey K. Smith poem, “The Good Life.” She says, “When some people talk about money / They speak as if it were a mysterious lover.” I feel like people do the same thing with good writing. They’re just like, “Ah! What a mystery, how good writing works!”

To some degree, yes, that’s why writing is so engaging. In all creative endeavors there is something unknowable. No matter how many craft talks you go to, no matter how many sentences you diagram, you’ll never truly understand how art builds you up in such a beautiful way.

But that being said, there’s a large portion of writing that is not mysterious and that doesn’t take place in your private garret where you’re locked away like some kind of toiling genius. An inherent part of my writing process talking to friends about the topic. Maybe not about the essay or the story specifically, but the idea. Like I’ll say, “You know, do you ever have that experience where you’re having sex and it just gets incredibly quiet? And then you get really anxious and nervous? Does that ever happen to you?” And they say, “Oh my god, yes, that happens to everyone.” “And you’re just like, Will somebody just put something on? Dave Mathews Band? I don’t care. Just something!” And you realize it’s a universal experience. And the next thing you know, you’re writing a short story where a character is having sex and realizes how incredibly quiet it is and then gets anxious.

That is the mark of good writing to me—when I read something that just touches me because it touches on that universal nerve. When I read it and not only see the ways I already exist in the world but also learn new ways of existing in the world. And the more writers are just tortured geniuses existing outside of the world, I feel like the less access you have to those universal experiences.

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A scene from Blue Stoop’s first non-fiction workshop

At its heart, no matter how many times we’re told otherwise and how much we valorize isolation, I think writing inherently is a collaborative process. Between you and the world. Or at least you and the various versions of yourself that exist in the world. And I think that’s why creative communities kind of grow naturally.

AG: So once Emma came up with the idea and you all decided to do this, what happened next? How did you even begin?

JD: When we started Blue Stoop, something that was very important for us to recognize was that we didn’t have all the answers, and we never were going to. We realized Blue Stoop wasn’t creating a creative community. There were many, many component parts to the literary community here that had been existing and flourishing for years. That’s why we like to call it “a Hub for Literary Philly” because it is meant to provide a set of resources and an institutional foundation outside the academy so the many, many established literary communities can connect with each other.

So the first thing we did was wisdom-gathering. We were able to connect with other organizations since a lot of other cities have what we were trying to do: Grub Street in Boston, Sackett Street Writers in New York (well, NY has, like, 30 of them), The Porch in Tennessee, The Loft in Minneapolis, Hugo House in Seattle. So we reached out to all of those organizations to ask them some questions. How did you start? What were the pitfalls? What do you do? What is your revenue structure like? How do you run a literary organization like this?

We also reached out to the wisdom-givers in our city: the fantastic independent presses we have here, literary magazines, the people who run the indy bookstores, career writers living in Philly, people who had created reading series. We said, “Hey, do you wanna get coffee?” And so we met up with tons and tons of people, had tons and tons of meetings. And we explained what we were thinking of doing. We had to figure out how to do something distinctly Philadelphian, that can exist in the city, and that facilitates for the communities that are already here.

First of all, it was us trying not to step on anyone’s toes. So we didn’t just come in and say, “So hey we’re gonna do this thing now so you don’t have to . . . ” It was “What do you think would be helpful?” People wanted a way for writers to get together socially that wasn’t necessarily geared toward reading their work or producing work. So we thought, Alright, what if we start a monthly happy hour series? Two hours, once a month, every third Sunday. Let’s just get a bunch of writers together and see what comes of it. So that was the very first event we did.

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Blue Stoop’s monthly happy hours bring together writers and readers from across Philly.

During that first happy hour, 60 or 70 people showed up on a Sunday afternoon. It was a veritable who’s who of literary Philly. We just had an hour were we talked, drank, hobbed and nobbed. Then Emma and I ran an open discussion meeting.

We had a giant flipboard and a marker. We asked, “What do you all love about Philadelphia? What do you love about our community? And what do we need? What isn’t happening here?” Time and time again, people said we need a space that’s dedicated to just us and our community and what we do. And not only that, we need a more inclusive space. The group pointed out that 90% of our readings happen in a non-ADA-compliant space at a bar. If you have a disability, and you can’t walk up stairs, then you can’t go to 90% of the readings that happen here in Philadelphia. That’s an issue. If you’re a recovering alcoholic and you don’t feel comfortable going to a bar, then you’re not probably going to go to the readings. That’s an issue. Plus, if you have children and you can’t go out to a reading on a Tuesday at 6 because there’s no childcare, then what are you going to do? So it was clear our community wanted a space. And that’s something Emma and I had not thought about whatsoever prior to that first happy hour meeting. At the end of that we thought, That’s what Blue Stoop has to become. We have to work towards this.

AG: That’s such good organizing work.

JD: It was weird; I feel like I finished my MFA in creative writing and now I’m getting an MA in arts management, nonprofit management, just through real world experience. It’s a lot, on top of now working a full-time job, then coming home and working a part-time job. But it’s totally worth it.

And it can happen anywhere. Philadelphia just happens to be the fifth biggest city in the country that doesn’t have one of these. Having a community is of vital importance. And it’s also, in many ways, the most valuable part of an MFA–the creative community.

 

 

Alexa Garvoille is a first-year MFA at Virginia Tech. She is a poet, educator, and scholar of creative writing pedagogy.

All photographs courtesy of Joshua Demaree.

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