Many of you may know me but not The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Or perhaps you know the HVWC and not me. So allow me to introduce both. The first word I’ve always used to describe myself was “writer.” But then I became “mom.” Becoming “mom” has a way of casting everything other than one’s mothering into a different, lesser, light. My lifelong compulsion to write – or else – had receded into some less accessible corners. However, by day, I was writing, if not entirely the way I imagined.
Photo: Krista Madsen
Since I moved to Sleepy Hollow from Brooklyn in 2009, I had become a regular contributing reporter to our local online news site. It started with (what else?) a mom column (“Mom Spelled Backwards”) and progressed into other “featurey” matters like “Movies Made Here” – of which there are many; my favorites include old footage of our bridge and our trains, like Elizabeth Taylor driving to her death over the brand new original TZB in a little red coupe in Butterfield 8.
Then I morphed into a full-on journalist/mom,the roles very difficultly intertwined as there was usually one child strapped to my back and another in a stroller as I traipsed around town covering stories. I quickly learned my attempt to be plastic-free was not the wisest for traveling with a toddler who might, say, hurl her glass milk bottle onto the Main Street sidewalk on my way to an interview with a shop owner.
Eventually I was full-time managing editor of several online news sites, pumping out the requisite eight articles a day. Fast forward to when relief came in the form of the company laying off most its reporters across the country. Thanks to the numerous community contacts and good will I had formed here, I soon became a grant administrator for a middle school program with Historic Hudson Valley and a regular contributor to a local paper. As a working mom, I found myself writing less and less. Rather, I grew to prefer other forms of storytelling – making short videos for my new #SleepyHollowShorts 30-Second Film Fest, and later recording and editing oral histories from residents surrounding a particular theme each month (GM workers, life on the homefront during WWII) in collaboration with that publication and the Warner Library.
The real writer in me, however translated into different forms, was a novelist. And novelist I have found to be an impossible pairing with mother, or at least this mother of these young children. But these children were aging and there was time ahead of me, in the form of full-time public school. I was so close! Back in my former, pre-kids existence, I was, improbably, a bar owner. I opened and operated an arts lounge in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Stain, featuring wine and beer, only from New York State, and local talent of any sort, from poetry readings to art openings, theme parties and movie screenings. It was a thrilling if very trying five years. Before that, I was always immersed in some sort of editorial work, in between writing two novels (Degas Must Have Loved a Dancer and Four Corners, both published by Livingston Press), and getting my MFA from The New School. My five year-lease on the bar ended (since to keep it, the rent would have doubled, of course) and, with a nearly one-year-old daughter, my husband and I landed, very gratefully, in the Village of Sleepy Hollow. A village even!
The Sleepy Hollow of literary legend. I hadn’t even known the real place existed until we were driving down Route 9 one night from Beacon back to the City, and passed the cemetery and that phalanx of grand trees and the “Welcome to Sleepy Hollow” sign shrouded in mist. It was perfect.
And there was even a Writers’ Center!
The HVWC was something I have admired and fantasized about in my life here, albeit from a bit of a distance. It was never the right time, I was never ready to fully enter its doors and be the Writer, Capital W, that I was meant to be or that the place seemed to require. I had a job, or jobs, and I had these kids. But, I also had an old third novel in a drawer, and a fourth that really wanted to hatch someday if it could only get past page 35. I attended a few events and readings here through the last eight years, but never as much as I would have liked. Someday, as I revealed to a few close friends, I’m going to take classes there, and then teach there, and then, well, help run the place. That was my 10-year plan. I saw myself someday at a desk in that beautiful former railroad station overlooking the boats docked on the Hudson.
Only some short months ago, when I thought the timing was, finally, just right, I enrolled in a course here, “Year of Your Novel” with author Kirsten Bakis. Kirsten is an excellent, nurturing teacher, as was everyone in an immediately cozy group of talented and insightful new and veteran writers. But then my dad entered hospice for his prostate cancer, and, yet again, this wasn’t going to be that elusive time when novels would come. In the middle of this fraught, time-traveling journey of reliving the anxieties of youth in my birth home, Bristol, CT, an opportunity came along that I can only call serendipity. The current managing director of the HVWC was leaving, and he asked would I like to interview. I actually said no at first because I thought I wasn’t worthy of that dream just yet. My dad passed away, and I got the job that began only two days after his funeral.
It’s been an adrenaline-fueled whirlwind ever since June 5, and though I’m navigating unbelievable responsibility, it is truly thrilling to be here, in this role as managing director of this place, eavesdropping from that desk on the course I used to be taking. This does not mean I am farther away from being a writer, but closer. I’ve moved in. I am breathing in this literary air and inspiration daily now, and there’s actually a freedom in reporting to a demanding day job (you are free when you choose your cage, I always say). The secret is loving it. I’ve necessarily had to drop out of everything else in my life, all the volunteering and extracurriculars, but I do think the forecast bodes well for a more creative life.
There are many people in these communities we serve who don’t know what we do here, don’t know we even exist, or maybe think they aren’t Writer enough to come, or the timing isn’t perfect. I say come. We have courses for all levels and genres and readings that are cozy and conversational with people you’ll be awed you get to meet in such close proximity. Former NY Poet Laureate Marie Howe is gracing us this fall with a reading and Q&A. Author Nick Flynn will be among those honored at our annual gala, as will our own Sister Susan Gardella of the RHSM Life Center of Sleepy Hollow.
Which brings me to the growing community outreach programs we run, which many who live here, except the youth served, might not be familiar with. The HVWC sends out some of its instructors, including our founder, poet Margo Stever, to teach free writing workshops for youth at the Nepperhan Community Center in Yonkers and at the Life Center. These vital programs touch the lives of these youth and expand their voices, as well as doing the same for their teachers. We hope to raise the further funding at our annual benefit at Tappan Hill on November 17, and beyond with other ongoing fundraising, to continue to support these important initiatives that expand our space and reach beyond these wood-paneled walls.
The story of the creation of this place in the 1980s is a spectacular one, and one I’ve actually recorded and written about. When you have a historic building (we are listed on the national register), the preservation project never ends. So there’s building maintenance and repair concerns that are always more $$ than expected for me to tend to and the mundane concerns of keeping shop, paying bills, sorting data. But there’s a magic pervading all, a feeling – still – that I can’t believe I’m here, and yet of course I’m here, exactly where I belong. I feel extraordinarily lucky to serve my community in this capacity. And yes, I will write, but no pressure. And I hope you will too.
Come join me. You needn’t be a Writer to come here, or even a writer. If you’ve read this far, you’re a reader, or an appreciator of the arts, or just curious enough. It’s my goal to create more $5 suggested donation events here, more student scholarships, more in-house youth programming, more community collaborations and multi-arts events, and to welcome you.
Learn more about The Hudson Writers’ Center at www.writerscenter.org. Classes and readings run throughout the year, with an Open Mic every third Friday. Krista Madsen’s writings and oral histories are featured on her website, www.sleepyhollowink.com.