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Writers' Center waving not drowning

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“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.”

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