Lancaster both breeds and attracts writers. It’s a small city, just under 60,000, positioned in a landscape of equal parts farm and forest. What is it about the area that sustains such an active and diverse lit scene?
If they plan to remain sane, writers can’t spend all their free time writing. They need to get out and meet others who spend their precious time cloistered in rooms typing on keyboards. For many, half of the writing life takes place away from the work. In order for artists to grow, work must be shared, new ideas must be heard, and lessons must be learned from traveling and seasoned writers. Lancaster fulfills this need in spades. The Triangle (the organization that I co-founded with Erin Dorney in 2013) provides a community calendar that aims to keep all interested writers informed about everything that is happening.
There are literary events happening almost nightly. Whether it’s a weekly coffee shop open mic, one of the many reading series, a monthly creative nonfiction Story Slam, a youth-lead spoken word poetry slam, or one of the many one-off performances, craft workshops, or festivals that consistently pop up, Lancaster gives writers more than enough to keep busy.
Lancaster is known primarily as an arts town. Writers will find streets lined with art galleries, monthly art festivals, yearly art walks, and downtown’s Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. Seeking inspiration and community from everywhere, artists of words can feel at home among hundreds of visual artists, dancers, musicians, and craftspeople. It’s no surprise that the literary often meshes and collaborates with other art forms in Lancaster. For example, in July we’ll see a reading paired with improvisational dancers at a downtown dance studio, Move It Studio.
Lancaster is landlocked. No rivers flow through it. But that doesn’t stop it from creating beautiful downtown spaces in the form of many bookstores, bars that morph easily into venues, and coffee shops where writers venture out to work in public. When you’re here you can’t miss Steinman Park, an oasis tucked into an alley on King street. The waterfall fountain provides a serene, quiet writing space amongst the bustle of the downtown district.
This is also a college town, so between Millersville University’s Ware Center, Franklin and Marshall College’s Writer’s House, and Lancaster Bible College’s The Trust Performing Arts Center, there are plenty of funded programs using their notoriety to bring in big-name writers for readings, workshops, and talks. This year already has seen poet Aaron Belz at the Trust, Jennifer Egan and Steve Almond at F&M’s Writer’s House.
A little further east in the city, The Lancaster Literary Guild exists in a lovely city dwelling where workshop series and author retrospectives happen frequently. It also publishes a literary arts review called Rapportage.
A block from there sits Lancaster Public Library, which plays an active role in providing literary programming for adults and fun book-related events for children and teens. I attend its monthly book club, Books on Tap, which meets in a gigantic nearby bar.
Nature figures prominently into literature. Apart from the dozens of city parks Lancaster offers, the surrounding county boasts gorgeous natural views. Writers can find a unique blend of woodsy, city, and rural environments here. The Amish countryside covers the east, and in the west we’ve got hills, trees, parks, overlooks, caves, lakes, streams, and the grand Susquehanna river separating us from neighboring county York.
Moving between these scenic landscapes and the bustling downtown is easy; it isn’t like big cities where you must plan a weekend to get away. A 15-minute drive will take you between all three. So, if you’re tired of the town, a park is a walk away, the forest is a bike ride away, and the famous Amish countryside is a short drive (or Buggy ride) away.
I’m not trying to kid you. There are plenty of bigger literary cities on the east coast. But many find Lancaster preferable for exactly that fact. So many east-coast artistic hubs are so close to us. Baltimore is a little over an hour away. Philly and D.C. are two hours. You can be in New York City in three, Pittsburgh in four. It’s quieter and slower here in Lancaster, a great stopping place between these major cities. Or, many choose to call Lancaster home for any of the above reasons (a much lower cost-of-living also weighing in on the decision), and travel to these bigger cities on occasions.
With so much to do, see, and write about, plenty of writers call Lancaster home. And those who don’t often find themselves stopping by or traveling out specifically for exciting events; charming bookstores, cafes, and bars; and the natural beauty that surrounds our little city.