Increasingly, cities and towns are looking to appoint a writer in residence to ‘up the profile’ of the area to tourists, visitors and investors. Cultural cachet as an economic driver.
For example, there is a delightful article in the Cities section of The Guardian by Steven Poole on the decision by Milton Keynes authorities to appoint a writer in residence to increase its profile and tourism. Many people who have written job descriptions in the public sector will wince.
But let’s look at this a bit deeper. It is one thing to attract someone to come and write nice things about a place. But how would a town or city make itself attractive to writers as a place to live, to write in for the next ten or twenty years?
Well, the economists amongst us would point to cluster theory. This explains why restaurants choose to set up near each other, the same for jewellery shops, fancy clothes shops, and so on. A too-simple economic theory would suggest they would all spread out, as far from each other as possible. But there is more money to be made by similar businesses grouping together.
So, cluster theory and writers as new residents. Here are my suggestions, based on the real town of Sale in Greater Manchester (or is still in Cheshire for some).
First the existing factors and assets:
1. Most writers have a day job, the writing itself being a passion which usually pays less than the minimum wage. The breakthrough is to get a salaried job for writing, a rare and precarious living as journalists will tell you. Forget the very few celebrity writers, who are foot-loose anyway.
2. Writing is a solitary and self-critical activity, so any supportive and understanding friendships and networks are very welcome, especially in person rather than remote and virtual.
3. As well as there being little money to pay writers, there is precious little money to pay to support writers. The existing resources could be used to their full extent. In Sale these include the library (even though cuts continue), the Waterside Arts Centre, the Northern Lights writers festival, and charity shops with a range of books which put bookshops through their paces.
4. Sale has a large cluster of coffee shops, cafes and bistros which tolerate solitary souls tapping away at their screens and keyboards.
5. Housing which, in places, is affordable in terms of real incomes and not just as a phrase on a press release. Sale is a town which straddles the richer professional groups and the less secure working population.
6. Connectivity to the rest of a big city-region with an international profile and organisations to match, from theatre to TV studios to freelance radio companies to newspapers to university libraries to community writing groups.
7. Resilience is key to making a town attractive as a long-term home for writers. This is not about a new website or a time-limited funded project, which rise and fade like fireworks. It is about a resilient and sustainable change in the culture of a town. It isn’t a ‘hub’, but it is family of strong and independent bodies.
8. Sale has a number of small printing companies, and with the respectable growth in self-publication these firms offer affordable ways for a writer to reach paying readers. There is also online writing (this blog!) but the ability to earn income online as a writer is absolutely minimal. The income goes instead to the hosting organisation such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, Amazon. WordPress, dare I say. The writer is always last to be paid, if at all.
So Sale has these eight assets. What could the ninth?
9. Talks and short courses. Writers love to hear from other writers, and to ask them questions. I would suggest a coffee house owner could volunteer to stay open sometime beyond 6pm, line up the chairs and have a guest writer or two speaking. The extra coffees bought could cover costs, but it is done firstly for the greater good. Keep the costs right down and use existing resources and goodwill to the full.
And a sign of success would be when we see more people moving in to Sale who have budgets and rely on writers – agents, producers, publishers. And if some moved from London, drawn by the buzz of a town of writers, well that would be something.