I’m very grateful for the growing excitement around Virginia Center for Literary Arts. (VCLA.)

This week, we were featured in the Fairfax County Times (text below).

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The sweet spot for writers’ retreat

Sean Murphy has a dream, and he is halfway there.

As a local writer who created his existence around writing professionally and artistically, Murphy understands writers and wants to offer them a unique experience by establishing a one-of-a -kind writer’s retreat. The sweet spot? Winchester, VA.

“The Virginia Center for Literary Arts (VCLA) is going to be a retreat, a year-round nonprofit operation that hosts 2-6 week writing residencies and week-long writing workshops. Writers come so they can have that precious time and space to work on their writing, congregate and network with other writers,” said Murphy, who has raised $600,000 and still needs $500,000 to remodel the building he bought on S. Braddock St. in Winchester.

Murphy, who has been living in Reston since 1974, was born in Fairfax hospital and studied writing at George Mason University. He started publishing poems and stories in his 20s and, now in his 40s, he’s written four books and has been contributing music, book and movie reviews for various magazines over the last two decades.

“The way that this came about is, in 2015, I was delighted and surprised to receive the invitation to be a writer in residence at Noepe Center, a writer’s retreat up at Martha’s Vineyard [in Massachusetts], and it was that experience being up there for a year that showed me exactly how something like that works.”

It is important to mention that Noepe Center was sold in early 2017 and this is both good news and bad news in my opinion. The good news is: there is more demand for a center like VCLA.

“There is definitely a large and vibrant group of Noepe alums who have expressed extreme interest in VCLA, not as any type of replacement, but certainly as a new option to explore, particularly as it will help fill a void that the unexpected closing of Noepe created,” commented Murphy.

The bad news: is it hard to survive in this business? If, yes, what will VCLA do to have a better chance?

“Any non-profit will present challenges, and certainly a non-profit geared entirely toward the arts is not an endeavor anyone should enter lightly. While we are counting on the generosity of interested donors, we also hope virtually anyone can appreciate the tremendous ROI of their tax-deductible donations helping fund a center dedicated to providing a forum for writers. Indeed, it’s precisely because there are so few such centers (and none I’m aware of that operate year-round the way VCLA intends to do), we are bringing something new and needed into the world. In addition, we can guarantee that all funds raised will go directly toward the operating costs. That said, considerable thought has gone into the business plan: with a robust program of residencies and workshops, if there is sufficient enthusiasm, the center will easily be sustainable from the start. Our fundraising initiative is essential, because we are not assuming we can count on full occupancy from day one, and we want to keep the rates to visit as reasonable as possible. One of the reasons I’ve put time into assembling an advisory board –comprised of business leaders, artists, and academics– is to help VCLA hit the ground running as a nimble, efficient operation. Having had direct experience with the academic world, the start-up and dot.com era (which my novel Not to Mention a Nice Life interrogates and satirizes), as well as the hands-on experience of managing an arts center, I’m at once aware of the myriad challenges, but well-equipped to anticipate them, and –with the invaluable support of my close team of friends and advisors— turn every obstacle into an opportunity, and prove that a non-profit center for writing can be inclusive, progressive, but also versatile and run like a successful business,” replied Murphy.

Chairman of the Board & Investor Mark Seferian is a business partner and lifelong friend: “The vision for VCLA was something I was invested in from the beginning,” said Seferian.”The dedication Sean has shown to bringing this center to life and providing this space to create, unite and inspire is something I knew I wanted to be a part of in a larger way.”

Finding a location for his dream was not easy; most places are either remote with nothing else to do when writers arrive, or residential properties that you can’t use as a retreat, said Murphy. “Winchester happened to have that place that was close enough to town and odd enough: a series of buildings, five to seven buildings that I am converting to a kind of a compound. In about six months of exploration from D.C. and westward, this was really the first property I found that is truly viable. I did not set out to find Winchester; in fact, Winchester presented itself for me later in the process.”

Every writer will have their own room that includes a “bed and breakfast” set up: a bed, bathroom writing desk, and color monitor, and there will be a common area with a kitchen for people to prepare their meals.

How will writers be selected? “The whole point of this center is to be extremely inclusive,” emphasized Murphy, who noticed from experience that most of the opportunities for writers are exclusive. “My focus is to absolutely welcome writers from all levels, so your resume will be much less important – what you are hoping to get there and what you are hoping to accomplish is what matters. My heart will lean more toward people who have never experienced anything like this, because it is so important to have that solidarity. What I have seen from writers being around writers is that it’s a transformative experience. It truly is.”

And the cost? “You pay for your application ($20) and you get your room for two to six weeks. We are still working out the business model to make it affordable … The goal is to make it much less than what it would cost to stay a week in a hotel or bed and breakfast” said Murphy. “Your meals are your own responsibility and this is why Winchester is perfect [because of the many restaurants and shops],”said Murphy, and added, “From what I experienced at the previous place [Martha’s Vineyard], people tend to do their own thing for breakfast and lunch, but inevitably there will be group dinners where people will pool their resources — and then the magic really happens.”

To learn more, get involved and get updates on the progress of VCLA, visit http://1455litarts.org/about-vcla/

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