On Sunday night, over 20 literary enthusiasts, most of them familiar with the University of Minnesota's MFA creative writing program, crowded into chairs between the mystery and thriller shelves at Magers and Quinn Booksellers. They sipped LaCroix and boxed wine as four writers took the stage, a small podium directly between the science fiction and poetry sections.
This tradition, known as the Mill City Reading Series, is held once a month at the Uptown bookstore. Open to the public, the readings showcase mostly works-in-progress or recently written pieces by four creative writing graduate students from the University.
“[Audiences] can expect to see about four readers reading about eight to ten minutes of work in a variety of genres,” said Theodosia Henney, a second-year poetry student in the creative writing program. “Usually, we’ll have a mix of poetry, fiction and nonfiction writers.”
The Mill City Reading Series has been reborn and reimagined over the years. Because the program is primarily student-led, enthusiasm and support for the series varies from class to class.
“There’s no part of it that’s tied to the creative writing program, so the faculty and the administration, who are the ones who are always there, don’t have specific roles in sustaining it. It’s basically been entirely up to the students’ prerogative to keep it going,” said Connor Stratton, a third-year graduate student concentrating in poetry. “I think that over the years, the cohorts have greater and lesser degrees of a sense of community.”
Fostering a sense of community across years and disciplines within the creative writing program is one of the goals of the reading series, making the tradition a vital part of the MFA experience at the University.
“As a graduate student, it’s part of our initiation in a way,” said May Lee-Yang, a first-year nonfiction student who read for the first time on Sunday. “It’s a chance to be a part of the grad school MFA community as well as a chance to try out new writing.”
Although the work should be relatively new or unfinished, the writers have few limitations beyond that, allowing them to truly explore their craft in a comfortable setting.
“I usually write different things for the readings than I write for a workshop,” said Mae Rice, a graduate student concentrating in nonfiction. “For the last one, I just tried to be more… experimental with some humor… I try to be a little more playful.”
The thriving literary scene in the Twin Cities has numerous live readings throughout the week, but the laid-back, communal atmosphere of the Mill City Reading Series serves as an entry point for budding writers and literary fans alike.
“I feel like it’s an important thing for an MFA program to have. Any good program should have a reading series because it’s one of the many ways you can participate as a literary citizen,” Henney said.
Although many of the courses taken in a creative writing program focus on workshopping, presenting a piece to a live audience provides writers with responses that they're less likely to hear in the classroom.
“I feel like the feedback that you get in a class… is typically going to be more structured towards critique. You want to hear what’s working but you’re also there to hear people point out what you can’t see in the piece,” Henney said. “At the reading, the idea is more to be supportive and kind of bolster people’s confidence. It’s a chance to tell them what you admire.”
Despite the solitary nature of writing, the Mill City Reading Series builds a community where these writers can share new work and break out of their comfort zones.
“It’s just good to have a sense of what people’s faces look like when they’re reading your work and what they respond to and also just to get out of the housing sometimes,” Rice said.