While attending the Key West Literary Seminar Workshops this year, I was seated next to Katie McDougall, co-founder of The Porch, a nonprofit literary arts organization in Nashville, Tennessee. Her partner, Susannah Felts, was also attending the workshops, though in a different class. I asked them to sit down and explain the who, what, why, and how of creating a literary center.
LL: Katie, you were a high school English teacher. How did you decide to create a writing center?
KMcD: Really, the idea was Susannah’s. I’d left teaching, did some other things, like worked at a bookstore, taught in the Bahamas for half a year, then was back teaching for someone who was on maternity leave. Susannah and I were in a writing group together, and she kept always talking about how Nashville didn’t have a literary center. She’d just come from Chicago—
SF: I was deeply involved with the writing community in Chicago when I lived there, as was my husband (in fact, that’s how we met: Chicago lit-life brought us together). So I knew what writing community could be, and what it could do for a person. I also felt an urge to carve my own path as a teacher and literary citizen, and in those first few years in Nashville, I was sort of fumbling around, trying to figure out what that meant and what it looked like. It ended up manifesting as The Porch—in no small degree thanks to Katie, I must add. The initial idea was mine, but what we’ve built would never have gotten off the ground without her input and skills and passion and doggedness.
KMcD: We’re both Nashville natives, but we’d both lived away about 18 years. I hadn’t really lived anywhere where there was a home base for writers, and I thought it sounded great. I wanted to get out of teaching, so I offered to help.
SF: She raised her hand, and that was that! Ha. I mean, seriously, I was like, “I want to create a literary center,” and Katie was like, “What’s a literary center? Oh, yeah, that sounds great, I’d love to do that,” and we just never looked back. I’ve been thinking about the Law of Attraction today and so…you know, maybe it was just that. It’s true that we both bring different skills and perspectives and tendencies to the table in ways that are, thankfully, complementary.
KMcD: We had coffee in November of 2013 and she invited me to be a part of it. We launched the website in January of 2014, and from that moment forward it’s been nonstop.
LL: You have a huge list of offerings at different income levels. You have free classes, like Creative Writing for Immigrants and Refugees, and you have free classes at the libraries, then you offer scholarships for the paid programming. You seemed to have really surveyed the community and try to offer a lot of different things. Did you always have so many classes?
KMcD: No, we did not, but that has always been part of our mission and strategic plan that there would be access to our classes. Literary access—we didn’t coin the phrase, but that’s the word we’ve been using. I think there’ a perception that interest in the arts is for those who can afford the arts, and that’s not true at all. Nashville has a fantastic public library system, so from the beginning, we built a relationship with the library and every season we give them a list of offerings and they offer it to their branch libraries. And as we grow, we do that even more, so that there are offerings at every level.
LL: Susannah, is this what you had in mind from the beginning? Or did your original vision change at all over the years?
SF: You know, like most of my visions, it was blurry but urgent at first, and I think it has just become clear, which sometimes means I’m seeing questions or concerns for the first time. I feel like what we’re doing with The Porch is still at its core true to what I imagined, but I just know so much more about what this takes, how it’s made.
LL: I saw online that you have a youth camp?
KMcD: Most of what we do with our youth program is in schools. We have one program for English Language Learners (formerly called ESL), it’s about 70% Hispanic. We’re in their 3rd grade classrooms once a week doing creative writing workshops, and in their 4th grade classes once a month. That’s the youngest group. Then we’re involved with NAZA, the Nashville Afterschool Zone Alliance for middle schoolers, and that’s a free program. Last year I think we made 57 visits to these after school enrichment programs. Our youth focus started with a free program for high school students once a month called SLANT: Student Literary Artists of Nashville, Tennessee. That’s been ongoing for four or five years. And the only tuition-based things we do with youth are the weeklong camps in the summer. We have one week for fifth and sixth grade and one week for seventh and eighth grade. Our youth program is probably our most rapidly expanding one. School and youth programs reach out to us fairly regularly.
LL: Did you have to do grant writing for this?
KMcD: Oh, yes.
LL: How did you learn to do that? Or did you find someone who already knew how to do that?
KMcD: No, we wrote our own grants for the first few years, and it was definitely a learning process. About 30% of our revenues are grant-based. We got an operational grant from Metro Arts of Nashville and Tennessee Arts Commission we have a few grants from for small programs. This is the first year—year six—when we’ve actually engaged a grant writer, which has been a game-changer. Grant writing took up a huge percentage of our time.
LL: And looking for opportunities, I imagine.
KMcD: Yeah, just trying to figure out where and who. The arts are a little bit different from other nonprofits. But yes, we definitely rely to some degree on grants.
LL: You said that you started in people’s living rooms, and now you have a building.
KMcD: Yes, we started in coffee shops and basically my living room. Then we went to co-working spaces, where you pay a monthly fee like a gym, and you work at a desk, and they have a conference room. We were in one, and it went out of business, so we scrambled and found another one and were there a couple of years and then they went out of business. We didn’t get a whole lot of warning, so we had a whole array of classes and no home. So we had to rely on some other nonprofits to lend us our space. It’s been a little over a year that we’ve had our own space with our sign out front.
LL: How many people participate in your classes in one form or another?
KMcD: Last year for all our events, workshops, programs, etc. we had a headcount of about 2500. We served 480 youth. We had 800 registrations for 79 classes in our regular, tuition-based adult workshops (not including library workshops). We served 45 immigrants and refugees from 20 different countries in our Creative Writing for immigrant and refugee workshops.
LL: And the list of people involved in making this happen is pretty extensive as well. Tell me about your team—instructors, board members, etc. How did you find them? Word of mouth? Did you have to hire people?
KMcD: Our instructors have mostly come to us. We ask our instructors to have an MFA or publishing experience and ideally teaching experience as well. Because Nashville attracts creatives, getting instructors has not been a challenge. People find out about The Porch and we wind up talking. The board has been a pretty neat process. The first year we didn’t have one, we waited to see who was interested and wanted to get their hands dirty. There has been a lot of interest in the community. We’ve always had someone on our board who is connected to Parnassus Books, which is Ann Patchett’s bookstore. They have been one of our big sponsors. We always have a Vanderbilt person, we currently have an Ingram person, there’s a publicist, and we try to have someone from the entertainment business because our big fundraiser every year involves a musician. We try to do a Music City Literary night and do a pairing. Our first year we had Tim O’Brien the author and Tim O’Brien the bluegrass musician.
LL: What advice do you have for someone who is yearning to start a collective of their own?
SF: Team up with people whose strengths complement yours. Be prepared to fundraise. Don’t try to control everything yourself.
KMcD: Definitely find a partner. I really don’t think either of us could have pulled it off on our own. Our division of labor has developed organically. Susannah does more of the marketing, the curriculum, the hiring of teachers. I’ve been doing more of the board relations, fundraising, accounting. I would say having that companionship and four feet on the group is one thing. And there is a lot of community building. Early on, we were going to every local poetry reading. We were having meetings with anyone we thought could be useful to us.
SF: Learn from the masters at literary centers all over the country, even if that just means poring over their websites, at least to start. Do your research.
KMcD: Connect with your Public library systems- we got that piece of advice from Grub Street in Boston. They said to make a relationship with your library. We made relationships with Grub Street, with The Loft in Minneapolis, with Lighthouse in Denver. We’ve gone to all those places and talked to their founders and executive directors and learned as much as we can. You don’t have to create the wheel from scratch. There are people who have been doing it a long time, I mean The Loft is probably thirty years old.
We went to GrubStreet’s conference last April. It was mostly Boston writers and they had over 800 people there. They are deeply established.
LL: Do you ever think about having a conference on your own? Or is that not your focus?
KMcD: It’s probably in the 10-year plan. Right now we might not have enough infrastructure to pull that off. And there are a couple of other local people trying to pull something together. That’s another piece of advice right there—don’t step on other people’s toes.
LL: What’s been the biggest joy of this endeavor? What is something you’ve gotten out of this that you didn’t anticipate?
KMcD: Witnessing the tribe forming the community. Every time I teach a new class there’s this wonderful bond forming. Right now I don’t have to teach. We have enough teachers, but it’s my favorite thing, where you’re connecting with people who really love to write and are nervous and interested and excited about it. I feel very proud of the community of literary writers that has formed out of the porch.
SF: Just looking at every passing year and seeing what we’ve accomplished and how it keeps on growing–and how the PEOPLE that comprise what I think of as “Porchland” are a part of my life. I had none of these people in my life seven years ago. Now my life is flooded by them, and it’s a beautiful thing.
LL: And what was the biggest struggle?
SF: The day-to-day necessities—financial, organizational, managerial, administrative—of running a nonprofit. Learning all of that from a starting point of zero. Trying, always, to get better at it, and being aware, always, of my failures and limitations.
About the co-founders:
Susannah Felts is a fiction writer, freelance writer, teacher, editor, and native Nashvillian. Previously, Susannah taught creative writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Watkins College of Art, Design & Film, and in several other youth and community settings. Her first novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record, was published in 2008 by Featherproof Books.
Katie McDougall, also a native Nashvillian, first took Fiction Writing as a senior at Colorado College, where she earned her BA in English, and in the twenty-plus years since, she has been writing stories, crafting novels, scribbling in journals, and teaching, reading, selling, breathing literature. She earned her MFA in Fiction Writing at Colorado State University, and her short stories have appeared in Barcelona Review and in Storyglossia.[boxer set=”lillibridge”]