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Following Oil Boom In N. Dakota: A Cultural Blooming?


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

This week, NPR has been reporting on the effects of the fracking boom in the area known as the Bakken. Williston, North Dakota, offers a haven for a new working class. Tens of thousands of newcomers have flocked to the oil field over the past five years. The region is flush with high-paying, low-scaled work. It's bringing a lot of economic development, and some are hoping it can bring cultural development too. Montana Public Radio's Dan Boyce has the story.


DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Driving into Williston at night feels like descending into a bustling industrial assembly line. Roads are dominated by endless lines of trucks pulling in and out of giant warehouses. The flares of distant oil rigs paint an orange glow onto the sky. Locals call it the North Dakota night light. But there are also bastions of Bohemia here, if you know where to look.

MICHAEL OGDEN: Dinosaur blood, sulfur, crustaceans.

BOYCE: A small group gathers around tables in a shop called Books on Broadway. Amateur writers, comparing their work over freshly brewed coffee.

OGDEN: Pump jack dipping down back up, down, oil.

BOYCE: Michael Ogden works on the gas flaring systems found on oil rigs. He had a busy workday down near the South Dakota border. He peers through dark-rimmed glasses, reading out loud the essay he finished about 20 minutes ago.

OGDEN: It is rough-neck work. And if you are skilled enough to crawl past warm status, you might get lucky. But not like monkey, the man with no thumbs who now grips levers like a lobster since the morning his thumbs were clipped off like butter.

BOYCE: Ogden's taking part in a series of writers' workshops put together by the North Dakota Humanities Council, workshops held around the region in communities most affected by the Bakken.

DEB MARQUART: We wondered when we gave you a homework assignment if you were actually going to come back. But there you all are. So...

BOYCE: Iowa State University English professor Deb Marquart is co-leading them. Each workshop consists of two sessions: One, where the instructor share some writing samples and get everybody thinking of ideas. A second class the next week has attendees bringing in pieces of their own writing for feedback.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Eight managers crunching numbers. Now, we have to take on more fuel.

BOYCE: Subject matter varies widely.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is a story about Lydia the ladybug who lives in our backyard and her adventures. Lydia lives with her mother...

BOYCE: These writers range from longtime Williston residents, yoga instructors and crop adjusters, to the oil workers making up a large portion of the new population. Bartender Ashley Price moved here from Michigan to help pay off her student loan debt.

ASHLEY PRICE: If you just have the ambition, the drive and the goals to get it, you can do it. And this is the place to do it.

BOYCE: But it's the writers' workshop that reminds her of the sense of community she took for granted back home.

PRICE: It seems to me that most people here just drink and work and sleep and drink and work and sleep. It's refreshing to find a group of people who want to do more than that.

BOYCE: Facilitators say the sessions are producing some great writing.

TAYLOR BRORBY: You'll find that people are willing to share deep sides of their life and what that day-to-day looks like. I don't think we're hearing those stories.

BOYCE: Leader Taylor Brorby says it's challenging his own stereotypes of oil country.

BRORBY: Not everyone's going to the strip clubs. Some people are actually, you know, writing poems when they're at home or they're working on a short story.

BOYCE: Attendees say they feel a transformation starting to take hold in Williston.

MARK WILLIAMS: The Bakken is changing.

BOYCE: Mark Williams describes a shift from the temporary search for a quick buck to something more.

WILLIAMS: I've seen a great move towards permanence and quality.

BOYCE: More writing and art can serve as an indicator of that. Facilitator Deb Marquart says this is the way of boomtown economies.

MARQUART: It brings in the sort of first wave of economic activity, and then it brings other things with it. The gourmet pizza shops come and the coffee shops come. And then maybe, you know, they'll get more theaters and then more music.


BOYCE: The writers exchange contact information at the end of the night. They say they plan to meet up more to form a local writers' group to try to build a little permanent culture of their own in Williston, North Dakota. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.