If art is the backbone of Savannah, then writing and writers are the lifeblood. With a rich literary history and plenty of local material to source from, Savannah has a proud community of writers that have defined the city’s narrative and shaped so many stories we have come to love. With that in mind, it makes absolutely sense that The Refinery, a writing studio run by famed local writer Amy Paige Condon, is based here.
The Refinery’s community writing classes are designed for writers at all stages of development, from beginners who are just putting pen to paper to advanced authors who need to polish their work for publication. Classes will remain intentionally small, up to 8 students each, so that each student receives tailored instruction while also building trust and camaraderie with fellow writers. The weekday classes meet for two hours once a week for five to eight weeks, depending upon complexity, and involves in-class lecture, writing, out-of-class reading and writing assignments, and workshop feedback.
We were lucky to grab a few minutes of Amy’s time to talk about the jump from the familiar to the new, the business of writing and answers with plenty of literary references.
The Creative Coast: Talk to us a little bit about why you decided to open The Refinery.
Amy Paige Condon: Gosh, there’s so many reasons. One reason is I was teaching for these non-credit courses at Coastal Georgia Center for creative writing, and realized how many people … have a story to tell, and just don’t know how to get started. Or, they’re afraid that they don’t have the grammar skills, or they’re afraid that there’s all these barriers in their thought process. I wanted to create something where you felt like you were getting a top-notch education, but at the same time, it’s fun, it’s relaxed. There’s no pressure. There’s no grading. You’re here because you want to be here, and because you’ve always wanted to do this. You’ve always felt like you have a novel in you or an interesting memoir, or you’ve been screaming into the void for so long you just want to write essays, whatever. I wanted to be able to give people a way there.
So, that was one of the reasons. Another reason was I feel like this community could be a super literary community. It’s got history for it, but it needs to raise that thing that coalesces around it. So, if this can be that thing that supports the indie bookstores, and gets others writers to come here, not just once a year for a book festival, but all year long. Maybe they come and do workshops. Maybe they come and we have to build toward that, but there will be a group of people here to do that.
The third, for me, I want to write books, and I want to write other stories that, frankly, there isn’t, necessarily, a platform around here to do it. Even though I loved working for Savannah Magazine, it’s a niche publication, and I feel like there were so many stories that we just scratched the surface. So, to be able to fund myself, to be able to write those stories, I had to create a mechanism to do it. It was to teach.
So, it’s both of those things, or all three of those things. To help other people, but also, to create a space for me to be able to write the stories that I want to write.
CC: Very cool. It’s so interesting, too, to hear you talk about giving people that space, and that community, and those skills, to really build up on, essentially becoming the business of becoming a writer. Not only the nitty gritty to go into, what it all means to be a writer, and editing, and all of that, but when people talk about job creation, they think of this very 9-5 narrow thing. But if you’re building a writer who is capable of becoming a writer, that’s job creation!
APC: Absolutely. Some of my past students have published. Some have gone on to write textbooks. Some have gone on to freelance for, and have started being able to make a living, as a write, which helps support their family. Also, gives them all the stuff they’ve had pent up inside of them, that they wanted to talk about all these years. It mounted out there.
So, sometimes, writing classes can be group therapy, in a weird way. Also, people get braver, and that’s my favorite thing to see. How somebody transforms form that first class to that last class, and then they take another one, and just get a little bit bolder, and their stories get a little bit deeper. I think that can only benefit all of us, as a community. If people are having those conversations.
What I love, too, is I have people from all walk of life, in here. It’s not just … I think there’s this belief that it can be bored housewives. It’s not. In fact, I’ve got people in logistics. I’ve got people who … quit college to raise a family, and never finished that degree, or whatever. So, what they end up doing is, they realize they have the same fingers that even though they’re from completely different walks of life, they have very similar stories, and that they’re no so different, after all. That can be a middle aged white male, and a 19 year old single mother, that’s having the same experiences.
Also, when they read, they all read in here, and they read their works, so they end up sharing their stories with each other, and learning to trust each other, across this table. It’s an interesting thing, how is becomes group therapy, in way. It’s helping us make a better community out there.
CC: Most people remember you so fondly as being the voice of Savannah Magazine, but you’ve done this really brave thing of stepping out, and creating something of your own, which … feels very hard, sometimes. But we would just love to hear about your journey from being this very recognized presence, with the very recognized magazine, and then being like “No, I’m gonna go do my own thing.”
Because it does take this leap of faith, that you’re like, “Yes, my thing is good.” Like, “I believe in my thing.”
APC: There’s this quite by Anais Ninthat says, ”The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I read that years, and years ago, and that has always stuck with me. It’s really funny. I can almost mark seven, eight years, into something where I’m going, “okay, I need to challenge myself more. I need to …”
So, all my pervious jobs have been about seven, eight years, where I was going like, “Okay, I need to step it up and challenge it.”
I’d been with the magazine from intern, to writer, to associate editor, to an editor, and yeah, it felt like there were other stories to tell, and this wasn’t necessarily the right platform to do it. Also, I was discovering myself, as a teacher, and realizing how much I love that. So, try to bring those two things together is … that became so strong, that I couldn’t not listen to it.
And part two of it is … I lost my mom a couple years ago. Then I lost my father a few years before that, and my father-in-law. It was an incredibly difficult time of loss. My father was 64, when he died, from a real rare illness that just took him. My mother worked her whole life, really hard. And, I was like, “Okay, there’s got to be more to it than this. But no one’s gonna create that for you. You have to create it for yourself. So how do I want to create that?”
This is the outgrowth of that.
CC: It sound like you’ve really talked about the joys of stepping out on your own, and while it seems scary, it’s like, “Yes.” Like you have this autonomy, and this growth, and really, challenge. Pay the bills challenge.
APC: Yes. Definitely just figuring out how to make things work financially is a struggle for any business. What I did for a year, was I just paid off a lot of stuff. Make sure we were in a position where nothing would fall apart, if we went down in income a certain amount. That was one thing.
Two, did a lot of research, and found … yeah, health … having decent healthcare matters. So, … started looking at the political winds, and going, “Okay, that’s not going to get any better. Let me figure out what it has to be.”
So, once I got through, and secured those two things in my mind, and go, “Okay, I really don’t know what’s gonna happen. Maybe no one will sign up for a class. Okay?”
It was really weird. It felt, again, like to rely on quotes a lot. But, the “Once you get committed, providence follows.” That’s what happened. I got two freelance gigs that paid for the space for three months. Things like that. Little things happened along the way where it’s like, “Okay, good.”
A place opened up here. They were booked solid, then I just happened to call one day where someone was moving out the next day. And Jelenik is a really great environment, to incubate new businesses, and ideas. Just the way that other places are going to be creative coves, and the maker studio, and things like that. I’d love to see more of those.
And I see The Refinery as that for writers. The place where they can develop their skills, and hopefully go off, and tell someone their story.
CC: Last question. There is so much advice out there about starting your own business, some good, some terrible. But what would be your thoughts on sharing wisdom with those who want to follow a path similar to what you have done?
ACP: I think part of it is be clear about what you want to create, because I think intention is so important in everything. I think, be clear on what your intentions are. Keep your expectations very … I’m not expecting to get wealthy, that’s not my intention. My intention is to help other people write, at the same time being able to write myself, so I can make a living out of it. I’m not trying to be unaffordable, either, and only for people to afford a certain thing.
I think, be clear on what your needs are. Be clear what your intentions are. And, know what you can handle. Ten years ago, could I have done this? Not at all. I think I know myself better, and I think that’s helped.
Also, surround yourself with really great, smart supporters, even if they’re not. I have a writing group- it’s a group of six women, including me, and we’ve been meeting for almost five years, every other week. So, we have real discipline, and we share our writing with each other. All of this has gone on to publish. So, that’s really the kind that this isn’t a hobby, we want to turn this into publishable work.
At the same time, they were the same people who were the support system around me saying, “Okay, put a business plan together. Let me look at it. I’ll show it to somebody.” When I had the class schedule, they were the first people to share it with other people, and say … “Someone asked me if I would edit their thing. I think they should go to you and take your class first.”
Things like that. Having cheerleaders, who will tell you the truth, but also, cheerleaders who are going to support you in a lot of different ways that have nothing to do with the dollar sign, but have everything to do with sage, thoughtful advice, and then are there to cheer you on as you go.
To find out more on the Refinery, visit: https://www.therefinerywritingstudio.com