Why Minneapolis and Saint Paul Are Good for Writers

April 13, 2015
Photo courtesy of Flickr user m01229 under Creative Commons 2.0

According to USA Today, Minneapolis is the “most literate city” in the US with its older brother St. Paul ranked fourth. This article was published just in time for the big annual conference of the Association of  Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) which was held in Minneapolis this year.

Coincidence? Yeah probably. But anyway…

I’ve talked before about how we Minnesotans love these sorts of rankings as validation of our worth/intellectual status/coolness. But this one is interesting to me as a writer. Not because I take it all that seriously. As with most of these sorts of lists, it’s possible to endlessly debate the criteria used in the methodology and whether they really tell you anything in the first place.* I find many of these lists things interesting and informative, but I don’t think any one list is all that important.

So whether or not Minneapolis is really the most literate city in the US, or whether such a thing can be realistically determined, it’s not surprising to me to see it ranked as such. I see a high ranking on this literacy list as a proxy commentary on why I think this area is a pretty good place to be for a writer. Here’s a quick rundown of a few reasons why I think that:

We Are Educated and Artistic

The Twin Cities is home to tons of colleges and universities ranging from prestigious liberal arts colleges like Macalester to arts schools like the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to the big game in town, the University of Minnesota. There are dozens of high quality schools right within the borders of the two cities. What does this mean? It means high levels of educational attainment across the two cities and a likely correlation to reading and literacy. Those eggheads you see at the Seward Co-op, adjusting their glasses to double-check the price of arugula? When they’re not creating delicious apples like a bunch of wizards, they’re probably reading books.

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Spoonbridge and Cherry. Art.

Beyond being a bunch of smartypantses, Minneapolis and Saint Paul have a deserved reputation for being artsy. People are fond of touting our theater bona fides, especially our favorite factoid that we have the second most theater seats per capita after New York. The Minnesota Fringe Festival, eleven days of crazy shows, is the largest non-juried performing arts festival and third largest Fringe in the US. We also have highly regarded art museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for the more traditionally minded and the Walker Art Center for you modern art weirdos.  In another ranking listicle, our Northeast Arts District was recently called the best in the US. It’s home to Art-A-Whirl, the largest open studio tour in the US. We also have the annual Northern Spark festival, a massive one night festival with events going on across the city.

There are many more examples. We’ve got an amazing comedy pedigree including stalwarts like Brave New Workshop and Acme Comedy Club as well as a growing festival. We’ve got great classical music at the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and one of the most well-loved contemporary music venues in First Avenue. I really could go on. It’s true that all great cities have these kinds of resources, but here in the Twin Cities it’s the cumulative effect that’s really noticeable. There’s just so much that this is the kind of place that actively encourages you to pursue some sort of artistic endeavor just by living here.

We Have a Reading and Writing Community

All of that theater, music and comedy I mentioned above? Well someone has to write it, and I see those people as all part of a community that prioritizes and values creative work. As someone working on fiction, it’s easy to think of the “writing community” as limited to other fiction writers or at best stretching it to journalists and nonfiction writers. That’s unnecessarily limiting. Writing is writing, and there are a ton of people here doing it.

That said, we have incredible resources focused specifically on the narrower definition of “writing.” The best known of these is the Loft Literary Center. It’s a resource that I admit I have not availed myself of as well as I should. Yet. Shame on me because it offers so much. There are writing classes and seminars, events and speakers, grants and awards. They do it all while offering a great place to tap into the broader writing world within the Twin Cities. It seems to serve as a sort of hub of the writing community.

When you pair a place like Loft with a network of great local booksellers like Magers and Quinn, Common Good Books and more, you know you’re in a place that wants to support you as a writer. We even do a great job of getting to the young’uns with incredible kid-focused bookshops like Wild Rumpus and Red Balloon. To me this reflects community-wide commitment to and valuing of reading.

We Have a Publishing Industry

This last one surprises a lot of people. It surprised me at first, too, but seems fitting in retrospect. After all, this is the Mill City, and mills sometimes produce paper. You know what you can use paper for? Books. Pretty crazy, right?****

Paper. You know, for publishing stuff.

Paper. You know, for publishing stuff.

Minnesota is home to a surprising number of publishing houses. It’s unlikely you would know it if you’re either from outside the MSP region or not in the writing world, but it’s pretty cool for someone who’s trying to figure out how to move from writing as “hobby” to writing as profession. Sure, they are not the big five that we hear about the most. Those all have their US headquarters in New York, which has to be at least part of the reason that it often seems like movies about publishing are set there.**

And that’s fine. It’s not hard to understand why New York is the center of the publishing world. What we have in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are small, independent presses, but it’s a real and thriving community. Companies like Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, and Graywolf Press are unlikely to produce the next book that gets turned into an epic, action-adventure movie trilogy, but they might be responsible for your next book club read.***

As someone interested in self-publishing as a business decision, there’s cool stuff here on that front as well. Hillcrest Media is a Minneapolis-based company with several divisions, all of which are involved with self-publishing. As the industry has evolved, so too has their mission and focus. A quotation on their website reads:

If you had asked us in 2006 what we do, our answer would have been, “We’re an innovative self-publishing company.” If you ask us today what we do, our answer is, “We’re a technology company in the book publishing arena.

I recently got the chance to meet with Dena Alspach, their Chief Marketing Officer and learned more about their plans for the future. In simple terms, they are reworking their internal project management software for publishing as an author-facing tool. Coming from a technology background myself, I’m exited to see where they go because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d love to try. Throughout the conversation I kept thinking, “how cool is it that this stuff is right here in my city?”

The Place to Be

I have that last thought a lot. “How cool is it that this is right here?” My daydreams of living the writer’s life used to fit in with the movie stereotypes. I pictured myself plunking away on my computer in a coffee shop in New York, maybe writing screenplays in Los Angeles or perhaps in a haunted, dilapidated mansion in the middle of nowhere. Who knows? Maybe those things will still happen someday, but it won’t be of necessity. I’m already living in a great place to do what I do.

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*Such debates are as useful to me as arguing about the use of split infinitives like the one in the sentence above. You may not like split infinitives/ranking listicles, but they’re not going anywhere. Why get worked up about it?

**Fun fact — Young Adult, from the linked list above, is set in Minnesota. Hooray!

***In truth, it seems tetralogies are the new trilogies. The third book has to get split into two movies for maximum consumer bilking. See: The Hunger Games, Divergent

****I know that’s not what most of our milling industry did. Settle down and eat some delicious General Mills cereal.

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