Despite the common wisdom that everyone has a book in them, writers need the time, space, and support to release those books and other projects. City Books, an independent bookstore on the north side of Pittsburgh, aims to bring writers all three with its Writers-in-Residence program, an activity I had the honor to participate in as a fall 2020 resident. Now, two new writers have joined the group as Spring Writers in Residence: Alona Williams and Marsha Timblin.
Both residents are graduates of Chatham University. Williams graduated in 2020 with a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Music, and they write about “the mundane, self-discovery and freedom”. Their works have appeared or are to come in Review of 1839, The minor bird, and the Pittsburgh Current, among others. Timblin holds an MA in Fine Arts from Chatham University and his work has been published in Matchbox, Orange blossom review, and Amethyst Reviews, among others.
The residency began on February 1 and will run until June 30. Williams is working on a hybrid genre book about growing up in Pittsburgh, gentrification, and the culture and history of the Black Midwest. They started with 12 poems and plan to include other forms of text and art, such as photos and historical media. One of the books they drew on for their research is that of Mark Whitaker Smoketown: The Untold Story of Another Great Black Renaissance.
“Some words I wrote to describe this project are: black, Midwestern, industrial, historical, anthropological, futuristic,” Williams says. “My personal artistic goals are to create poems that tell a story collectively and separately, and in doing so, to master my own voice in prose poetry. ”
Timblin has a dual purpose for her residency: to seek publication of a 16-piece short story collection that she completed in 2020, and to start her next book. While editing and revising the entire collection was no small task, finding and submitting the collection to independent presses, publishers, college presses, and literary competitions that would suit well is daunting for Timblin.
“Having this residency as a setting to put in the time and effort to do ‘the hard part’ is something I’m really looking forward to,” says Timblin. “I know it will help me see this project, in which I have already invested so much of myself and my creative energy, until the next phase.”
Williams and Timblin will receive a $ 500 stipend from a One Northside grant awarded to City Books by New Sun Rising. Residents will also receive a 40% discount on books and merchandise during residency, receive a City Books Reader’s Journal, and have the option to host a Reader’s Choice virtual bookshelf at Bookshop.org.
They will both have access to the bookstore’s writing space, which City Books owner Arlan Hess will clean between visits. While neither have used the space yet, Timblin and Williams plan to come on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the two days the store is open for take out orders. They also have the option of fulfilling their residency-at-home obligations during COVID. While this may seem to undermine the purpose of the residency to give writers a workspace, they still benefit from the validation and support of the residency, which has given them emotional space and encouragement to work on their projects. .
“This is probably the first time that I’ve felt like I’m a writer and it’s my job, and I’m doing something big,” Williams says. “It’s not just me trying to get my things out, it’s something that has to come into the world… [I]It gives me a little more validation that people want to see what I need to create.
As a writer in residence in the fall of 2020, I did the entire residency at home. I looked at the graph of COVID cases in Allegheny County each week to determine if it was safe to go to the store, but each week seemed to bring an increase in cases or new risk factors – vacations, flows of social media inundated with people posting COVID safety precautions, local colleges and universities bringing students back to campuses.
It was difficult to carve out a physical space for myself to write, especially since I moved into my then partner’s apartment at the start of the residency and had to navigate what looked like his space. . I had also been fired twice from my job due to COVID, which left me with a sense of broken stability and self-confidence, as well as spikes in my physical health due to stress.
Despite the inability to access the physical support of the residency, communicating with Hess and the two virtual writers in residency gave me immense support and helped me prioritize and create a “mental space” for me. writing. Like Williams, for the first time, I felt like a “real writer” who deserved time to write. I had to move my writing space depending on where my then partner was in the apartment, but during my residency I wrote eight new essays as the start of an essay collection about adoption and identity, and I wrote a short story and edited two stories that I had written before the residency.
Hess encouraged me throughout the process, cheering me on when I accepted the publication of two essays during my residency, and shared my joy in learning Chinese recipes as another way to explore my Chinese identity. While she was always thrilled to hear about any essays or stories I was working on, she never rushed me or demanded that I stick to a productivity schedule. The leniency and flexibility of the residency, balanced with mental support and validation, created an environment where I was able to be generative and develop my self-confidence as a writer.
Now that my residency is complete, I have retained that confidence and continue to work on the collection of essays with the hope of completing the first draft by the end of April. While the residency has not allowed for broader interactions with Pittsburgh’s literary community due to COVID, I’m happy to see City Books’ community of writers continue to grow, and look forward to seeing what Williams and Timblin are spending their time as residents.