Checking in with artists: Emily Flake, humor writer, ‘New Yorker’ cartoonist, and founder of new writing residency, St. Nell’s


Emily Flake, a humor writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker, can find something to laugh about in almost any situation—even parenting through Covid in a small Brooklyn apartment. But the joke got old about this time last year, and she started looking for a place to relocate her family, which she ultimately found in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

It was there, in the birthplace of Little League Baseball, that she bought a three-story, red-brick home that now houses a humor writing residency for females and non-binary folks with funds from a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s called St. Nell’s and rolls out the welcome mat for its first round of residents in September. (Applications open in June.)

Recently, Flake chatted with Brooklyn Based about her creative process and starting an artist residency during Covid.

How did the pandemic change how you work and your creative process?

Being that I’ve been working from home since like 2007, it wasn’t this huge shift for me that it was for a lot of people who either had to abruptly start working from home or lost their job all together. In some ways it gave me new things to write about. I ended up pitching some pieces about pandemic parenting that I’ve found homes for.

And I say that it kind of broke my brain a little bit. I’m like, do I even know how to write jokes anymore? But I feel like that’s kind of a dodge on my part. My brain has always been broken. I think it’s just, maybe I’m more cognizant of the fact that I’m blindly feeling around in a dark room for stuff. And every once in a while a light comes on, and I find something, and then I can use it. But you know, my creative process is 95 percent, just this.

Tell me about how St. Nell’s started; what was your inspiration?

I’ve done artist residencies before, and always found them very helpful if nothing else. Just to put myself in a space where I’m looking at a different set of four walls. And Williamsport came about because we were just looking for a place, honestly, that we could go to that had an outdoor pool and low Covid numbers, and we could afford. And it turns out that place was in central Pennsylvania. And so, while we were there, I don’t know if you do this everywhere you go, but I always check [real estate sites] to be like, what do houses cost here? And I’m looking at, oh, houses cost a normal person amount of money.

I had this whole bee in my bonnet of, wouldn’t it be great if we had a house here, or what? And I’ve always thought, if we had a house that wasn’t in New York City, we could rent it out as an artist residence. But my husband was like, well, we don’t have “buy a house money.” So have you considered just doing a crowdfund? So I crowdfunded it and here we are.

We closed on the house in December. So, basically because I threw a tantrum, now there’s a house for other people to use. Which is a real best case scenario for outcomes of my various vapors.

Tell me about the application process. Who are you looking for, what are you looking for, and why?

So the application process is basically: Tell me your name, give me a writing clip, or some kind of example of what you do. Basically I’m planning on just resetting the house every month with a new cohort. There’s space for three people to be in there at once. And they’ll each have their own room and writing space and everything. And, I’m not expecting them to produce anything.

Honestly, if somebody’s like I would like to sleep for a week, please. I’ll ask them to contribute something to the newsletter and maybe, if they’re interested in teaching or something. But generally speaking, I just want there to be a space for people to get away and do some creative work without the sort of demands of everyday life.

What’s made you laugh this year?

That’s a really good question. You know, I actually went out to St. Nell’s to kind of reset the house with two good close girlfriends of mine. And we were in the kitchen and we ended up cracking each other up to the extent that we were screaming laughing. And the communality of laughter is something that I’ve missed so much. And it really brings home the fact that laughter, comedy, and humor are a communal experience. You know, it is like a shared connection, even if it’s something you’re reading or watching, it’s just a fellow feeling. And that was like, the best time I’ve had laughing in a really long time.

But, as always, I have thought that, I mean, I’m biased towards short satire, because it’s one of the mediums that I work in. But, McSweeney’s and Shouts [The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs] have really had some great ones this year. Dealing not with just the pandemic, but just, everything about 2020.

So yeah, things that have really kind of taken on the absurdity and cruelties of the past year and made it funny in a way, not that seeks to make it go away, but in a way that makes it easier to bear.

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