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Writers' Center waving not drowning

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Writers' Center waving not drowning

Barbara Shoup, director of the Writers' Center of Indiana. Photo by Mark Lee

“It feels like a creative

process. It feels like writing a novel,” says Barbara Shoup,

director of the Writers’ Center of Indiana.

Shoup is talking about the funding

travails the Writers’ Center has had to navigate over the past

two years. The award-winning author of six novels, including

Everything You Want and Wish You Were Here, as well as

two books on the art of writing fiction (Editor’s note: Shoup

has also been a periodic contributor to NUVO), Shoup’s

understanding of creative process is well honed.

As is the sense of satisfaction she

conveys now that it appears the Writers’ Center has weathered

the Great Recession’s storm.

Founded by Jim Powell in 1979, the

Writers’ Center of Indiana supports the work of established and

emerging writers and cultivates the audience for literature

throughout the state. Like numerous other nonprofit arts

organizations, the Center was caught up in the ripple effect created

by the financial crash of 2008. Public and private funding sources

the WC had grown to rely on over the years were suddenly vaporized.

The WC found itself unable to meet its expenses, the most notable

being the salary of its director.

“There was a pretty good chance

we’d go under,” Shoup recalls. But the crisis ultimately

served to sharpen the WC board’s sense of purpose. “We

looked at our debts, we looked at our programs,” Shoup says. “I

said that I would take over as director on a volunteer basis until we

could get to a place where things stabilized enough for me to have a

salary.”

The WC set about methodically paying

off its debts. It cut back on overhead, giving up a suite of rooms

and classroom space at the Indianapolis Art Center for a smaller

footprint in the same building.

“The Art Center has been

unbelievably generous,” says Shoup.

“I think in some ways it was the

best thing that could have happened in the sense that all nonprofit

organizations go along day-to-day because you have to, “ says

Shoup. “You don’t have the resources a lot of the time to

really stop and think about things and make changes because you’re

up to your ears in stuff to do. But we had to do that. We had to sit

down and really look at the things we were doing and say, ‘What

are the things we do well? What are the things we might still hope to

get funding for? And what are the things that are time intensive but

don’t necessarily have results that match up with the time we

spend on them?’”

Creating a community

The Writers’ Center board

identified one of its greatest strengths as the classes the WC offers

aspiring and accomplished writers. “Nobody else is offering a

variety of writing classes for people in the community who don’t

necessarily want to have an academic experience,” says Shoup.

“We knew our classes are really important.”

The classes, combined with its annual

Gathering of Writers conference, have served to create a community

for writers and readers. “It’s such a shame that when

school ends, so many of us don’t have a place to be,”

says Shoup. The Writers’ Center has been able to provide a

grown-up option for people who want to remain connected to the

on-going world of the literary arts.

This has also meant improving the

Writers’ Center’s online presence. “We needed to

have a website people could come to for a variety of things,

including not only what was going on here, but all around the city

and the state,” says Shoup.

Outreach has constituted the third

major thrust of the Writers’ Center’s work. Shoup has

taught writing extensively, as has Lynn Jones, whom the WC hired to

direct its community education efforts, most notably an initiative

called “The Memoir Project,” that has recruited retired

and vacationing teachers to enable people of all ages to write about

their experiences at venues, including Flanner House and the Girls

School.

The WC has made a virtue of its lack of

physical space by producing other outreach programs dealing with such

topics as blogging, nonfiction book production and the writer’s

craft at a variety of community organizations, including the

Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, Congregation Beth-El

Zedeck, Marian University and the Carmel Public Library.

Shoup and other members of the WC have

become a regular presence on the summer art festival circuit, produce

a weekly email blast regarding literary happenings and opportunities

and are getting increasingly involved in social networking

technologies. A committee of younger writers, many of whom are now

teaching WC courses, has also been formed, resulting in creative

programming like a performance featuring poetry and rock music that

took place at the Irving Theatre last summer. “The word is

getting out,” says Shoup.

Challenges remain

All this work is paying off. The

Writers’ Center has doubled its membership over the past two

years. “We’ve actually accomplished quite a lot, and I

think it had to do with the fact we really had to focus.”

Shoup is finally able to draw a modest

salary for her efforts.

Challenges remain. Funding and

marketing are the two areas of greatest need, according to Shoup.

Although grants are coming in to support particular programs, funders

are reluctant to underwrite operational expenses, which makes it hard

for any organization to sustain itself on a professional level.

Linked to this lack of operations support is the need for better

marketing – finding effective ways to consistently get the word

out about WC offerings. “We have great programs,” says

Shoup, “but we don’t have the staff to market these

programs.”

Shoup credits the active participation

and determination of her board for keeping the Writers’ Center

open. “We have a CPA with the heart of a poet,” she says,

adding that she was especially moved by the volume of five and ten

dollar donations that came in from around the city and state during

the early stages of the Writers’ Center’s financial

crisis.

Shoup says she believes that small is

beautiful. “I think when you are doing something well, it’s

smart to keep doing it, but enriching it as you go. We have

established our vision. I think, at this moment, we are a pretty

successful organization.”