Andromeda: Writing Center Lessons – It’s Not About the House

Hugo House, Seattle’s wonderful nonprofit writing center (est. 1997), is located in a sprawling, 16,206 square-foot, Victorian house facing a green park. There are classrooms with charming names — “Winslow” and “Alice.” There is a world-class ‘zine archive and a cafe-cabaret space, perfect for the monthly open-mic night that took place last night, the evening of my Seattle arrival (when I also attended an evening prose master class, in order to soak up some of the instructional atmosphere). It is enough to inspire envy in anyone who dreams of founding a physically-sited writing center.

But upon meeting today with some great staff — including Program Director Alix Wilber and Executive Director Sue Joerger — I was quickly reminded: It’s not about the house.
It is tempting, when dreaming up a nonprofit, to long for a permanent, charismatic, historic, ideal space. Instead, Joerger told me: think cheap, keep costs low, and focus on programming, programming, programming (meaning, in this case, writing classes and events). “You can make a virtue out of a crappy space,” she said. Wilber further reminded me that writers come not to look at the house, but to consider their own “internal landscapes.” Good points, all.
The staff had lots of other great tips for a would-be writing center: Focus on what you do best. Don’t get distracted by too many sideline activities or programs that don’t fit your mission. Be aware of how difficult it is to raise money for operations costs (it’s easier to raise money for programs, and easiest of all to raise money for kids’ programs, but few orgs or people want to give money to the executive director of a nonprofit who keeps the lights on and the website updated and the whole show running).
Wilber, Joerger, and others were candid with cautionary tales and examples of how an organization like theirs evolves over time; challenges aside, they’ve got a great track record and they deliver lots of writing instruction — about 25 to 30 classes per quarter. Even with their big house as a base, they have a hard time having enough space for classes.
We talked instructor pay and class pricing, how to pick nonprofit board members and why it’s great we already have a happenin’ blog (cha-ching!), writers-in-residence programs and youth scholarships, the challenge of delivering programs to prisons and the notion of orienting events around a fall-to-spring “literary season,” much as theater and dance are presented. (That would make sense in Alaska, where summer is not the best time to schedule most public events).
I filled 10 notebook pages. I collected names and addresses. I felt like I left with possible future friends — friends that just maybe could be talked into having an ongoing interest in Alaska, their enchanting, northern neighbor. (Writer or administrator exchange program, anyone?)
A long walk to Pike Place, a quick Chinese meal spent staring at my notes, and back to my hotel in the Queen Anne neighborhood not far from the Space Needle. (Seattle is fun — I’m not complaining.) Tomorrow, I leave for Denver, where I’ll meet with more writing center folks, and pass on what I learn.

8 thoughts on “Andromeda: Writing Center Lessons – It’s Not About the House”

  1. Shannon Huffman Polson

    The Hugo House is a wonderful resource! What a wonderful idea to find ways to bring the best of it to Alaska, too.

  2. Brian McGuigan

    It was a pleasure talking with you, Andromeda. Best of luck with launching the center up in Alaska. Please keep in touch with your new friends at Hugo House.


  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks Arne and Shannon — and how cool to see a message from Brian at Hugo House! I'm feeling a little more connected to Seattle already.

  4. I have visited Hugo House, too, and feel amazed at some of their programming… such as Cheap Wine and Poetry night and Cheap Beer and something else night — prose, perhaps? At least one of these being an open mike. I really wanted to attend but my schedule did not allow. Here in Anchorage, I went to organizational meeting at Trailer Art Center, before Christmas, I think, for strategic planning for a writing center. There is space at TAC and plans, long afoot, for developing space dedicated to all the arts. Not sure what it takes to get past the talking stage. When Andromeda speaks of Seattle, I am alight with images of the market and sound. I can conjure up a virtual writing center that is itinerant, a nomadic center, camping at various locales to carry out programs. On the other hand both TAC and Out North might have space for a center.

  5. Great thoughts, Sandy. The TAC space is definitely on our radar. With a statewide focus – more about that next week – that wavelength of vision and programs is key.

  6. A writing center is a great idea, but let's not forget to have a writers exchange with writers in Southeast Alaska. We get lonely down here.

  7. Good point, Anonymous. Check tomorrow's post (4-13) for more on the statewide vision. And if we can find enough interested writers, we'd like to bring one of our workshops to Southeast this fall. If you by chance know writers in your area with an interest, let me know:

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