The Loft Literary Center in Minnesota’s Twin Cities offers creative writing, residencies, music, book clubs, screenwriting, mentoring, readings and more to develop and sustain audiences for literature. This feature article was commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.
In a world increasingly focused off the printed page, extending a broad and compelling invitation to enjoy the literary arts may well be the most important thing we can do for the future of literature.
Linda Myers, Executive Director
The Loft Literary Center
Globe made from books at the Loft.
Photograph by Jill McLean
The first thing visitors see when they arrive at
The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis is a large globe made out of dozens of remaindered out-of-print books. While the books may be old, the Loft is anything but a relic. After years as a haven for adult writers in the Twin Cities, the Loft has recently transformed itself into a literary institution that serves writers and readers of all ages throughout the upper-Midwest. In the past two years the Loft moved into a permanent home that it shares with other literary organizations, increased participation by both adults and young writers, and joined with community groups to provide highly-visible programming that extends far beyond city lines. If anything, the globe in the entrance symbolizes to all who enter that the Loft is truly "on the map."
Photograph by Bob Williams.
Open Book (see
Open Book sidebar), the name given to the nation's first building devoted solely to the literary and book arts and home to the Loft, there is activity everywhere. The numbers speak for themselves: Loft membership has grown by more than 40 percent, class enrollment has nearly doubled and the organization's reach has grown exponentially through new partnerships with major media outlets. But it is the bright faces of children who arrive from their writing classes flushed with excitement that speak volumes about the impact the Loft is having in the Midwest and beyond.
Young writers in the summer youth program
Photograph by Elizabeth Ruhter
The story of the Loft resembles a well-formed novel: it has an interesting setting and characters, rising action and a climax. To fully understand the latest chapter in the quarter century old organization's history, one must first turn back the pages of time.
The year was 1999 and the Loft was about to be evicted from a former school-turned-community center, its fifth home in 25 years. By then the Loft had grown to be the largest and most comprehensive independent literary arts center in the country, offering writing classes and workshops, readings, awards, mentoring programs, discussions, residencies and an award-winning monthly magazine, "A View from the Loft." It was a long way from the organization's humble roots as a writers' club, formed in 1974 by a handful of poets. "We joke that the Loft faced its first diversity crisis when it was forced to allow non-poets to become members," says Nancy Gaschott, the organization's longtime administrative director.
By the mid-1990s, the Loft was offering a wide range of programs and Linda Myers, a former English professor and college dean, had taken over as executive director. Recognizing the need for a permanent home--a long-time dream of the organization's staff and board--Myers and Gaschott began talking to local literary organizations with complementary missions about the possibility of a shared space. In the spring of 2000 that dream became a reality when the Loft, along with its founding partners, Milkweed Editions and Minnesota Center for Book Arts, moved into Open Book.
But Myers knew it would take more than a building-even a beautiful, spacious one designed with writers and readers in mind--to develop and sustain audiences. She kept coming back to the Loft's mission statement which articulates the organization's three goals: "To foster a writing community, the artistic development of individual writers, and an audience for literature." Historically, the organization had catered to the needs of its writer members. "No one had ever held the writers' toes to the fire and said 'what do your audiences want?'" says Myers.
Through the Wallace-Readers' Digest Fund's Audience for Literature Network, the Loft's directors began to exchange audience-building strategies with other literary organizations from Seattle to Ft. Lauderdale. Through these discussions, the Loft's staff and board members learned how colleagues at similar institutions were collaborating with schools, cultural institutions, media organizations and other community groups to involve more people in writing and reading.
Photograph by David Huang
It was time to take "great leaps forward," says Gaschott of the organization's decision to target three audiences--young urban adults, older suburban adults and young writers-with hopes not only of capturing their attention with innovative programs but of keeping their interest.
The Loft launched a spoken word series, a Saturday night coffee house-style program for the young urban crowd combining music and poetry. The center reached out to commuter populations with a series of events held at art and community centers and other satellite locations in suburban neighborhoods. They also lured older adults downtown to Open Book with compelling programs timed to avoid morning and evening rush hour. And they began offering refreshments. "Food is very important," laughs Gaschott. "It's like the hospitality you'd offer if you invited people into your home."
Scoring poetry slam participants.
Photograph by David Huang
Participation in the Audience for Literature Network also inspired the Loft to identify new ways to involve children and teens. "One of the things we learned when we were planning Open Book was that young people aren't reading," says Myers. "That was a huge concern to our board and advisers." A recent Loft catalogue reveals the increased number and variety of classes and workshops available to children ages 5-19, from "Homework Excuses and Soggy Vegetables: Writing Extraordinary Stories from Ordinary Life" to "Screenplays for Beginners" to "Mississippi River Poetry." Other initiatives brought a gay novelist to an after-school program for gay and lesbian youth and supported a writer-in-residence at a school for teen mothers and fathers who were not only introduced to a variety of writing techniques but were encouraged to read to their babies and toddlers. The class culminated in a field trip to a local bookstore where the young parents were invited to select books of their own.
Children were not the only ones to benefit from the center's expanded menu of writing classes. Adult offerings-the center's bread and butter-are extensive and cover the basics, poetry, creative nonfiction, multi-genre, writing for children, plays/screenplays and performance, creative process and fiction.
Adults taking a creative writing class in the Loft's classrooms at Open Book.
Photograph by Thien-bao Phi
One of the Loft's signature programs is its mentoring series, which brings nationally respected poets and fiction and creative nonfiction writers to the Twin Cities to work in small groups with emerging Minnesota writers. While it provides a special opportunity for a handful of writers each year, the series also includes a public reading and dialogue with authors, giving a larger audience a chance to hear from the noted writers.
In November 2000, the Loft launched the wildly successful
Talking Volumes (see
Talking Volumes sidebar) series, a regional book club that provides opportunities to participate online, on the radio, through the newspaper and through special events like readings, discussions and family days. Since the move to Open Book and the creation of Talking Volumes, the Loft's reach has grown from 50,000 people to more than 650,000.
The growth is everywhere. The Loft's staff now numbers 19, the budget has increased to $1.8 million and membership has swelled to 2,500. In fall 2002, The Loft begins publishing a new national literary magazine called Speakeasy. The premiere issue features reviews of fall fiction, original poetry and essays by Bill Holm, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sven Birkerts, Josip Novakovich and Barrie Jean Borich. The energy inside Open Book is so positive it is, as one journalist wrote, "like walking into a cloud of joy."
"Every day we uncover new questions about what it means to provide a place for literature and what is required to foster a literary community that fills-and extends beyond-this physical place called Open Book," says Myers. The Loft director is reminded of Adrienne Rich's poem "Beginnings" about the challenge of charting new territory:
Whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date by years.