The Writer’s Center (TWC), home to Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest literary journal, is undergoing a metamorphosis. The old building on Walsh Street in Bethesda–formerly a recreational center–boasts brand-new classrooms and a writer’s studio on its lower level, and the second phase of renovations is set to start next year.
At the helm is Executive Director Joe Callahan, who came on board in January, just in time to celebrate the center’s 40th anniversary.
In 2014, the former executive director of 826DC—a D.C. nonprofit that supports students, ages 6 to 18, with creative and expository writing skills and helps teachers inspire students to write—was awarded the Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education. He was a finalist for the 2015 Mayor’s Art Award for Innovation in the Arts. During his five-year tenure at 826DC, he increased the organization’s budget by 700 percent and the population of students served by 500 percent.
Like most of the TWC staff, Callahan is a writer himself, and he has imparted his knowledge of the craft as a professor at both American University and The George Washington University (GW). He has a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from GW, a master’s in nonfiction writing from The Johns Hopkins University, and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management and public policy from Georgetown University.
Unlike any other arts nonprofit in the county, TWC offers a space for performance and visual arts on top of the literary. Sure, you can go to TWC to hone your writing skills, but you also can enjoy a play in its intimate black-box theater and peruse the vibrant work of local visual artists on its walls.
In a Q&A, Callahan talked about upcoming changes, literature, and catching that infectious creative bug that resides within the center’s walls.
In your short time as director, what have you perceived that writers, your patrons, appreciate most about the center? What do they want more of?
TWC is and needs to be a center of creativity. It needs to be a place where creativity happens–writing, access to the arts, presentations and performances, and all the things that play into the strength of the environment that is TWC. But it could be that regionally in a more effective way than it currently is. I think our audiences in the Bethesda area crave access to the arts, a cultural resource that they don’t have to go into the city to find. Here they can come and learn and be creative in a way that is different from what they normally do. It’s a meeting place for like-minded people.
In your opinion, what is the state of the literary arts regionally and nationally?
I actually think it’s stronger than it has ever been. We are in a time when more people write now than have ever written before in the history of language, and a lot of it is bad. There are only so many tweets you can read a day. But there’s also so much good happening. There is a surge in indie bookstores, this is one of the best areas for it, and we are very lucky to have those resources.
Also, as writers realize they need to be more active and focus on their marketing, we see more reading series and literary events across the region. The D.C. region has a very diverse literary community–a great poetry and spoken word scene–when you have that you can cultivate a vibrant literary arts community. So there’s really a lot out there in this region, and we are starting to see it grow in other major cities. The center of gravity is shifting away from New York in some ways, and it is providing really great opportunities for organizations like ours that make a great impact.
On a pie chart, what would your patrons’ genre interests look like?
It’s very mixed. There’s also a lot of mixed genre writing, meaning we often see writers of memoir or poetry or nonfiction take their first fiction course, fall in love with it and start writing fiction. There is high demand for genre fiction and memoir courses. We are trying to offer new opportunities rather than the same we’ve been offering every year. We have a new leader for the Novel Year, a year-long course for writers who have 100 pages of a manuscript and want to take it to the next level. There they can refine their manuscript, and prep it for presentation to agents, because dissemination of (literary) work is the other part of our mission.
Where are you focusing your efforts on growing the organization?
Where TWC can grow is answering questions about how we are supporting members of that community at every level. How are we supporting master writers, and mid-level writers trying to find agents, and journals that are trying to get off the ground? Are we the true connector of the literary world here in the region? The literary world is very disparate in the region and we are looking at how can we play the role as a connector in that way. We are not just in Bethesda. We work in D.C., Glen Echo, Leesburg, Annapolis. But how are we working to create a connection comes from what our workshops are. It comes from Poet Lore, our Write Who You Are program at Carlos Rosario International Career Center, our writing support at Walter Reed. It’s all interconnected in building a much larger community of literary activists.
How are you supporting your older patrons while reaching out to younger ones?
Our demo is definitely reflective of Bethesda and the surrounding area, primarily older, primarily women. We have a lot of dedicated workshop participants and members. However, we offer online courses that tend to skew younger.
As we look to play a more effective role regionally, we’ll see those demos change, but not at the cost of ignoring our clientele here in Bethesda. I think we have the network and the capacity to expand that reach regionally but we have to do it smart, strategic and keep our costs down. Everywhere we go has a different role to play and a different audience.
Putting aside your role as director, what excites you most about TWC as a writer?
The passion of everyone around me, in the sense that everyone here is writing and wants to know what you are writing about, but it kind of forces me to find the time to do my own creative work, because it’s infectious around here, and we can do a better job of amplifying that infectious creativity.
My background is in humor writing, and we have someone teaching some humor courses and I think things like that are a lot of fun. A lot of people want to write genre fiction, how are we supporting them? I have a master’s in writing, but how can we support others in navigating the publishing world, finding agents? We can help break down those barriers for participants that don’t have an MFA. It goes beyond the creation. How are we developing the skills to get their skills out there?