Creative writers find community in Bozeman

 “Welcome friends,” David Shields said, addressing a room of about 25. It was 7 p.m. at a meeting of the Bozeman Poetry Collective. The Collective has met twice a month for almost four years now. The first hour, Shields said, is for family-friendly poetry. “No guarantee for safety for your ears on the second hour,” Shields said, looking around the room. The Bozeman Poetry Collective meets on the second Monday of every month at Townshend’s Teahouse, and the last Friday of every month at the Bozeman Public Library.

There are several newcomers, but most of the room seems to have been there before, a mix of people, young and old, some with guitars, but most with composition notebooks or Moleskine journals. Shields read a poem from a small orange notebook to warm up the room. The night started off great here, and only got better.

One of the newcomers to the stage was Chelsea Laubach, who said she’s been writing poetry for 18 years. “I started playing guitar, and I wanted to be a rockstar. Soon, I started writing just the lyrics.” Laubach was not the only new performer, however.

After Laubach, Mallory Morgan, read a poem called “Garbage Truck.” Unlike others there, Morgan said “I wouldn’t consider myself [a poet].” “Garbage Truck” is the only poem she’s ever completed, and this was the only poetry reading she’s ever participated in. “Garbage Truck” is a free-form poem about her waking up after hearing a garbage truck outside her window, and how she wants to be seen, and heard. “I literally did wake up because a garbage truck was outside…and out of a dead sleep I thought, ‘I wish that was my heartbeat,’” Morgan said.

The Bozeman Poetry Collective isn’t the only poetry group in Bozeman. Shields had fliers for another event, called Poetry Live!, sponsored by Bozeman Public Library and the MSU Renne Library. Poetry Live! happens once a year, falling on Monday, April 10 this year. Shields said that when he first started writing poetry, this was the only poetry group around. The lack of community opportunities led to the Bozeman Poetry Collective, as Shields felt there needed to be more opportunities for poets to share their work more frequently than once a year.

Exploring the Bozeman Creative Writing Scene

Zack Bean is an assistant professor in the Department of English and is the writing option coordinator at MSU. Bean has a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston, and a book of short stories that came out April 2015 called “Man on Fire.” Bean is also the faculty advisor for Opsis, the MSU Literary Arts Journal. “When I lived in Houston there were regular readings where they would have national writers come to town, and read to an audience of a couple thousand people. And then at the local bookstores, there might be a reading that would pack the place out with 60, 70, 100 people,” Bean said. Houston’s writing community was big. “It felt like there was always something going on there,” Bean said.

The community here, in comparison, is a lot smaller. “Bozeman doesn’t have that sort of infrastructure. We don’t have that many people,” Bean said. “We’re not a major metropolis that you can fly direct to from any city in the country. It’s very different.” Despite this, Bean explained that the community feels smaller, tighter than in big cities. “It feels like the writers here really know each other.” Bean called the Bozeman writing community “vibrant.” “There’s a sense here that writing belongs to everyone.”

Bozeman’s writing community was created by, and for, the people in Bozeman, as opposed to that of Houston, where Bean said that an organization called Inprint, a literary arts nonprofit, runs most of the creative writing events. Inprint’s website, inprinthouston.org, states that they run literary performances, writing workshops and even give out prizes and scholarships.

No such organization exists in Bozeman. Instead, Bozeman’s creative writing community events are sustained by several community-led groups. Along with the Bozeman Poetry Collective and Poetry Live!, there is another writing group called Thunderhead Writers’ Collective, which started in 2014. According to Thunderhead’s mission statement on their website, thunderheadwriterscollective.com, “Thunderhead creates a supportive place for the artistic growth of writers.” Thunderhead does this through events and workshops. “You need not be a professional author to participate.”

MSU’s Creative Writing Community

The on-campus writing community is lacking in vibrancy. Besides Opsis, and a creative writing club, there are only a few classes that focus on the development of creative writing skills. “There’s not a strong focus for creative writing on campus right now,” Bean said.

Ben Leubner, an assistant teaching professor in the English department, feels the same way. Although, he admits that, compared to other cities, the creative writing community in Bozeman stands up pretty well against other college towns. “Pick up a rock in Bozeman and throw it blindly over your shoulder, and chances are it’s going to hit a writer,” Leubner said, recounting a phrase that was said to him by the late Judy Keeler, a retired professor of English at MSU. Quantitatively, the greater Bozeman community has a lot of writers.

Leubner said, “Bozeman’s pretty invested in the arts, certainly if you compare it to non-college towns, non-college cities. If you compare Bozeman’s creative writing scene to Billings or Great Falls or Butte, I’m guessing that it’s got a pretty prominent one.” Leubner said that as a whole, Bozeman’s got a “pretty thorough” arts and creative writing scene.

On campus, though, Leubner said, “it’s weird because it’s sort of the opposite of what I see a good deal of in Bozeman as a whole.” Where there are tons of writers in Bozeman, there aren’t very many on campus.

Creative Writing in the Classroom

“The market [on campus for creative writers] is highly, highly underdeveloped, and in need of development, which is taking place right now,” Leubner said. The number of creative writing courses offered for undergrads is growing every year and, as of this past semester, has recently added a beginning creative course to its collection.

CRWR 240, a class designed for any student and not limited to writing majors, fulfills the arts research CORE and helps prepare beginning writers to take their first steps into creative writing as a whole. However, only two 240 sections are being offered in fall 2017, and only one each of the upper-division 340 and 440 levels.

Leubner is excited that the beginning creative writing course has a research designation. To him, “there’s too much of a sense of creative writing entailing free, undisciplined, non-technical” writing, as opposed to writing that needs “discipline, technique, research, the very things that make people who consider themselves creative writers cringe and shudder, and say ‘no, that’s not what we want in creative writing.’”

Leubner sees creative writing as needing just as much hard work as any other discipline, but that it carries with it a connotation that it doesn’t. “There’s this idea that a lot of people have that creative basically means expressive,” he explained. To be a good writer, Leubner said one needs “a really, really keen eye and the ability to record and register what you’ve seen heard, touched and smelled and tasted.” Careful observation, he said, is the key to being successful as a creative writer.

Both professors want to see more creative writing classes in the future, along with the growth of a creative writing community on campus as a whole. As it stands now, there’s a club for creative writers that Bean is the faculty advisor for. Perhaps, in the future, this will change.

If you want to be a successful creative writer, Bean’s number one tip is to “keep your butt in the chair. The people that succeed are not necessarily the smartest or the most talented, they’re the most persistent.”