Writers, no doubt, have a reputation for solitude. H.L. Mencken said, “The loneliest people in the world we writers are.” He’s not far from the truth. It would be difficult to call Columbia’s literary scene a community, fractured as it is along genre, school, and department lines. Being a writer (or any kind of artist) and finding a community of like-minded people are not easy here—particularly for students who don’t have an official place in one of the arts departments.
Since our inception in 2009, we have sought to rectify that. We have always been inclusive. Chemists and engineers live beside English and creative writing majors. Poets, prose writers, and lyricists trade notes and pilfer books from each other’s libraries. We edit and give feedback on each other’s work at our weekly workshops. We cook for each other. We eat with each other. We are even fortunate enough sometimes to be joined by successful authors—the likes of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand, and bestselling novelist Paul Auster.
But we do more than this. Writers House has always reached out to and brought together the broader Columbia community. We have the record to prove it, too. We’ve organized open readings and panel discussions with renowned authors, a lecture series with beloved Columbia professors, programming collaborations with literary magazines and fellow Special Interest Communities, and monthly open writing workshops, where we welcome any artistic creation on which people want feedback. We even helped organize and host the initial meeting of the Inter-Publications Alliance, which pulled together the disparate publications that animate our campus. We have always provided a nurturing and receptive environment for creativity, literary and otherwise. We strive to protect a constructive space for expression and to keep it open to all students, and we take this responsibility very seriously.
Yet throughout our history, we’ve struggled against space constraints. The first year, we spent on the second floor of Wien, conducting workshops on the floor and talking Beowulf and Junot Díaz around the trash chute in the middle of the hall. Mark Strand bumped his head on the ceiling of a Wien single; the quiche we served to Paul Auster may or may not have been too raw in the middle. (Thank you, ovens of Wien.) Open events were stiflingly overcrowded.
In 2010 we moved to our current home in Harmony. At the first ever IPA meeting in our space, guests were lined up against the walls, sitting on our trash bin, and overflowing into the hallway, where they strained to hear the speakers in the lounge. This cramping has persisted at open workshops and other events—in the past, we’ve even had to borrow chairs and a table from other floors just to be able to sit all together in the common room.
If we had the space we needed, we would better facilitate interaction between authors and the rest of the community, in a place that would be non-academic and relaxed, intellectually inspiring and non-judgmental. We would be able to partner more effectively with other literary and artistic on-campus groups to host dinners, panels, and more relaxed get-togethers.
You may not be a writer, but that doesn’t mean opportunities to grow, meet new people, and express yourself might not be interesting to you. Whether it’s the chance to hear your favorite author speak, to pick up something new to read at a book swap, or to enjoy a literary magazine launch, Writers House could enrich both your creative mindset and your sense of community at Columbia. As you think about what you’d like for 114th Street, think about this: We have a track record of providing events and resources that attract Columbians with diverse interests and backgrounds. We would create a space that is community-focused and inclusive. We would put together events that might interest you—or, if not you, perhaps your best friend, who dabbles in slam poetry even as she pursues her engineering or biology or anthropology degree. We would provide a nexus where people could meet, collaborate, and innovate—and an art-focused alternative to the existing options for extracurricular enjoyment on 114th Street.
We are honored to be considered for a brownstone alongside such strong contenders and we wish the other groups the best of luck. We are confident that given this opportunity to establish our presence in a brownstone, our efforts would serve to enrich the lives of those who call words their work and Columbia their home.
Abigail Struhl is a Columbia College junior majoring in English literature. She is the coordinator of Writers House. Kyla Cheung is a Columbia College senior majoring in computer science and is entering her third year living in the Writers House. This op-ed was written on behalf of Writers House.
This op-ed is part of a series providing an opportunity to each group applying for a brownstone to explain why it deserves a space.