Aesthetic Drift #5 by Racquel Henry
What It’s Really Like Owning a Writing Center
Writer’s Atelier at One Year
For years I have admired creative writing centers like The Center for Fiction in New York, Grub Street in Boston, The Loft Literary Center in Minnesota, and The Porch in Tennessee, just to name a few. These centers balance both the serious and social side of writing. More specifically, they provide a space to focus on or perfect the craft, but they’re also great places to meet other writers. There was nothing like that in central Florida. Why didn’t we have something like that in central Florida? We need something I like that, I thought.
There are many people who dislike the idea of MFA programs, but I am a huge proponent of them. I received my own MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. One of my fondest memories involved sitting on the steps of the mansion (where workshops were held), drinking vodka mango lemonades and discussing craft with my fellow classmates. We were not in a formal setting at that moment, but I remember figuring out a tricky part of a short story I was working on. For me, it’s more than just learning the craft of writing. When you are able to fully submerse yourself in the world of writing, when you surround yourself with people who have similar interests, and when you are held responsible, it does something to you. It forces you to look at your work through a different lens. In my MFA program, I learned about craft, the business of publishing and how to take my writing seriously. You can learn these things about the culture of writing outside of a program, of course, but in my opinion it’s a little harder. I think writing centers help to bridge that gap. They offer the benefits of an MFA program, but without the exorbitant price tag.
Being part of the writing center movement is ridiculously fulfilling. I had an editing company that had done fairly well and I wanted to expand to offer creative writing classes. So many writers complained about not being able to afford either private or college workshops. I wanted to offer an alternative and I felt it my duty to help. When my clients succeed, I get to share in that victory. Often times, it feels like I’ve succeeded too. Most of them don’t know it, but they motivate me. When I see their success, it makes me want to succeed. While my fiction and poetry has been published in various places, the ultimate goal is to have a novel traditionally published. When I work with other writers, I learn a lot about my own writing—what works, what doesn’t, the kind of writer I want to be, etc. Even though it requires a lot of time and dedication, in many instances the reward for helping other writers is more than double what one would expect.
But having a writing center is not that easy and there are definitely dark days. I had plans to start the center much later, but the opportunity fell into my lap and a voice in the back of my mind told me I should take the risk. The building that Writer’s Atelier currently calls home has a decent amount of space and is conveniently located.
I received the keys and got to work emailing people I had kept tabs on in the local literary community.
Soon we were set up for our first workshops, one in person and one online. I spent hours emailing writers on an individual basis. I sought them out on Meetup writing groups and social media. At literary events, I invited them in person.
I posted information in local papers and websites.
I drove around the city and pinned flyers to bulletin boards and taped them to retail windows.
It wasn’t enough. We had to cancel the in-person class.
I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. The class was reasonably priced at a mere $45 (for 4 hours), and I had done everything short of standing on the corner and dancing with a sign to spread the word.
Maybe I should have tried that.
Enter bright idea number two.
I figured maybe I could offer some free classes and then people would come. It would be a great way to get people in the door, and surely they’d be interested in signing up for the paid classes too.
While some people take advantage of our free events, many, many, do not. I can’t tell you how many writers tell me they’re coming to an event and then don’t show up. I’m the kind of writer who tries to take advantage of anything I can, both paid and free. I am an eager sponge, wanting to soak up every drop of writing information I can find. But owning a creative writing center has taught me that not every writer is like me. There are the serious writers and then there are the writers who do it as a hobby. I am in no way judging anyone. Some people want to make writing a career and some experience joy from writing and that’s enough for them.
Because of this, I believe my greatest challenge will always involve getting people in the door. There isn’t a single day that goes by where I don’t ask myself, “What the hell am I doing?” Writer’s Atelier costs money, takes away from my own writing time, and has added an absurd amount of gray hair, which I still have a hard time admitting. Clearly, I’m insane for taking it on and fighting for it.
But then I get another email asking me to host a launch, or telling me how helpful a workshop or write-in was and for some reason, I just keep going. Our first successful event was a reading and discussion with Lauren Francis-Sharma, author of Til’ the Well Runs Dry. We partnered up with local superstar, Kim Britt of Bookmark It. Kim was one of the first literary friends I made and was gracious enough to sell books at the event, though I had no reputation in the local community. I was worried no one would show up, or worse, Lauren wouldn’t sell books and it would be a waste of her time. I’m happy to say here that I was wrong again. We had a great turnout and many of the guests voiced how inspired they felt from Lauren’s reading.
The center had another small win when we hosted a workshop on the topic of voice, a concept that most writers would agree is hard to grasp. It was led by three successful YA authors, Amy Christine Parker, Christina Farley and Vivi Barnes. Not only was it one of the best turn outs we’ve had for a workshop, but the email responses I received about how much writers learned from the event was overwhelming. The same was true for our Yoga and writing inspiration workshop lead by Ashley Inguanta and almost all of our write-ins, both in which writers are able to spend time producing material.
It’s a lot harder than one thinks to motivate other writers, and keep the lights on, and provide editing services, and balance your own writing. There is always something that needs immediate attention and much of the time it feels like I’m failing miserably. But the positive moments keep me in check.
When you’re a writer yourself, you’re told time and time again to keep going. It’s what we do.
Racquel Henry is a writer and editor with an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is also a part-time English Professor and owns the writing center, Writer’s Atelier, in Winter Park, FL. In 2010 Racquel co-founded Black Fox Literary Magazine where she still serves as an editor. She writes literary, women’s, and recently YA fiction. Her stories have appeared in Blink-Ink, Freight Train Magazine, Zest Literary Journal, Lotus-Eater Literary Magazine, The Best of There Will Be Words 2014 Chapbook, and other places.