“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
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
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.
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
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
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