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Chippewa Valley Writers Guild wraps first summer of success

| Samantha West

As B.J. Hollars watches his dreams for his brainchild, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, come to fruition, he knows he has a lot to be thankful for.

The guild’s success has reached far and wide, at UW-Eau Claire and within the community. From the time the idea for the CVWG was born in October 2015 to its official start in February of 2016, and with several craft talks and a summer of six incredibly valuable writing residencies in the rear-view mirror, it has always been a work in progress.

“This is a real moment for us … we haven’t even crested the wave yet and this is a pivotal time and we really need to push now that we’ve got a lot of options,” said Hollars, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of English and the founder and director the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. “It’s a really exciting time to be here and everyone can contribute something. And that’s sort of the guild’s thing — to be inspired and inspire others.”

Although the guild's three main goals are to educate, to collaborate and to celebrate, what is most important is bridging a deeper connection between writers within the community and at the university, Hollars said.

“My primary goal is to kind of get the community and region to understand the incredible opportunities that await at the university,” Hollars said. “I really want to break down any barrier between town and gown. I want people to walk on campus, and to just casually be a part of our community, because we are certainly a part of the community.”

To forge that connection, Hollars said he looked toward what groups and organizations could potentially support the guild. On the community side of the venture, he’d sought out the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, but Hollars remembered feeling he needed a similar tie to the university.

So, he looked to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, which turned out to be an incredibly fitting choice.

“I think faculty members are well aware of how supportive the Foundation has been for our university and our community, as well as how much they seem to value and appreciate the connections between community and alums and current students and faculty, so I really wanted to do my part to move these goals forward,” Hollars said. “It just seemed like a neat fit.”

But not only did Hollars believe the Foundation would be a great fit in and of themselves, but he also thought it would be the perfect opportunity for the two organizations to collaborate even more than they already do.

“Working closely with both of these groups, we were able to kind of build a university-community partnership between two organizations that already work well together,” Hollars said.

Once these key partnerships were formed, Hollars was better able to focus on building the guild with the support of both the organizations. While ECRAC took on most of the organization’s fiscal duties, the Foundation worked to support Hollars more directly. The Foundation funded a one-course release for Hollars during the spring semester as well as the entire 2016-17 school year, which Hollars said has been an enormous help.

“You envision something, and then you care for it. You nurture it, it’s like a child, you really have to make it grow,” Hollars said. “Ultimately, it’s far more difficult than teaching a class …. You’re creating a new wheel, a new brand, learning how to do social media, how to do a newsletter with a team of interns, how to do a summer residency.”

But that’s not the only way the Foundation has assisted Hollars. When Hollars found the guild was in desperate need of a wireless printer for the summer residency readings, he reached out on the guild’s Facebook page, asking for a community member to potentially donate a printer. Hollars realized it was a long shot.

“No one gave us a single offer or dollar, but that’s the tricky thing … it’s so hard to build something so great that people are willing to support on their own, getting no tangible return other than the free programming sorts of things we provide. We’re getting there, but you need to take time to build those things,” Hollars said. “We have to earn it.”

Kimera Way, president of the Foundation, stepped forward and provided the guild with a printer. The timing was perfect.

“It’s not a huge expense or something, but it was nice coming in on a clutch moment,” Hollars said.

Overall, Hollars is proud of the guild’s growth since his original idea and the official launch. But, he’s excited to see how the guild continues to expand as it enters “exciting time" of development. And Hollars is quick to point out that none of it would have been possible if it were not for the support of the Foundation and ECRAC.

 “The program has magically turned into something that’s more than I ever could’ve dreamed.”

Photo caption: B.J. Hollars speaks to writers at the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild's fifth summer residency at Cirenaica, an artist residency on 43 acres of hills, forests, and farmland near Fall Creek where all the guild's residencies were held. The featured writer of the session was current Wisconsin poet laureate Kimberly Blaeser. Photo by Justin Patchin