Sonora Review co-editor Laura I. Miller interviews Michael J. Henry, Executive Director of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, CO, where he also teaches poetry and memoir and essay workshops. He’s the author of two poetry books, No Stranger Than My Own and Active Gods, and Intersection, a chapbook. Read on for insight into nonprofit arts education and for a glimpse into the inspired work happening at Lighthouse.
What was behind your decision to co-found The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in 1997?
Even back then it was difficult to find full-time work at the college level, even though Andrea Dupree and I had our MFAs and teaching experience. We did the traditional job search, sent out almost 100 applications for jobs, and got nothing.
The more we talked about it, the more we realized that our goals were simple: to find a community of writers to hang out with, talk shop with, workshop with; to teach the craft to people who wanted to learn; and to find some time to work on our own writing.
So one night, Andrea turned to me and said, why don’t we just teach workshops and create community on our own? What the heck, let’s try it, I thought.
Our very first workshop, held at our apartment in Melrose, Massachusetts, attracted five students—a marketing writer, a working mom of three, a PhD candidate in literature, a postdoctoral student from Japan, and a software engineer—and somehow they ended up loving it, and falling in love with one another. The bonds they formed in eight short weeks completely surprised us, and made us think: heck, this idea just might work. So we drafted a business plan and moved out to Denver, where we had some family support, and where we knew there was an educated and ambitious population that was growing exponentially.
Which challenges have you found the most difficult or unexpected?
Mostly the challenge has been to manage the growth—and to transform the organization from a close-knit family to a really, large extended (and reasonably professional) family. A family that’s much more formal in many ways. (See: employee handbooks, auditor’s reports, and directors and officers insurance policies, for example.)
The first few years, we doubled in size. Even now, our workshops and memberships are expanding around 10 to 20% from year to year. We’ve had to learn a lot about running a non-profit organization—which isn’t quite what you’d learn in “Forms of Poetry” in grad school.
All this, of course, is a wonderful challenge to have.
In what ways has Lighthouse evolved over the past 17 years? Has your audience changed or grown in surprising ways?
Not really—we’ve always been focused on two things: excellence in writing and teaching, and the idea that anyone can be a writer. We still get folks of all ages and walks of life, from the 85 year-old master gardener, to the 20-something who’s working on her MFA application portfolio. It’s so much fun to see these people connect with one another!
These folks care about literature and love to read, and they find the act of writing incredibly rewarding and engaging. Some are very focused on publishing; others just like to learn. We try to accommodate everyone, no matter their level of knowledge or ambition.
I noticed that you hold an MFA from Emerson College. How are the workshops you hold at Lighthouse different from the workshops you attended while in graduate school?
They’re very much like the MFA workshop, except we have one basic rule that’s sacred, which isn’t always a part of the typical MFA workshop: to have the writer leave the critique excited and energized to get back to work on the piece they’ve just had workshopped. Some workshops tear you apart so you never want to write again. That’s not what we’re about.
That, and they’re about 1/10th the cost of a typical MFA workshop.
You seem to cast a wider net than other popular nonprofit writing centers—826 National, Writopia—how do you manage such a diverse schedule?
There are many others like us—The Loft in Minneapolis, Grub Street in Boston, and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. We’re all about teaching the craft outside of academia, while also building community and a love of writing and literature. I think this is because our missions are open-ended and focused on literature in a general sense, and not on a distinct population. Which allows any crazy idea to take root. In many ways, we still believe in that first impulse—‘what the heck, let’s try it and see if anyone signs up’ sort of thing. Plus, it’s clear that the community wants a variety of educational opportunities.
How has the local community (businesses, volunteers, members) responded to Lighthouse?
They’ve been wonderful—completely supportive. We have great relationships with other nonprofits and local businesses, since we bring a dedicated community to our doors every day, and these folks like to drink (coffee, tea, beer, wine), and they sometimes like a nice place to stay, etc. Plus, I’m so proud at how many Lighthousers buy books. They’re amazing readers.
One of the amazing things about Denver is that the voters in the metro counties approved an arts district tax—something like 1 cent for every $10—be allocated toward arts nonprofits. That’s been a godsend. Lighthouse receives around 7% of operating income from this fund, which helps us survive, and keep our tuition low. It’s a truly wonderful thing. Every major city should have something like this—it’s called the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD).
What impact does working in a nonprofit setting have on your writing life?
Probably no different than any other job—it’s a constant challenge to find the time to write. But I do have flexible hours (an excellent perk!), so I tend to sneak writing into my schedule at least a day or two a week. Plus, when I teach, we often do some freewriting exercises, which gives me an excuse to write alongside my students.
You offer courses in science fiction, mystery, YA—genres which are largely considered taboo in academic writing programs. What’s your opinion of genre fiction?
I think there’s less and less of a clear line between genre and “literature,” which is great because some of the best books out there are labeled “genre,” which is sometimes seen as something lesser than capital L Literature. (That’s just ridiculous.) Plus, it’s fun to see literary writers learning elements of genre and playing with them in their own work. Furthermore, the Denver area has a fantastic gang of great genre writers, along with a thriving community of avid readers.
Do you see any popular writing trends happening within or emerging from Lighthouse?
It ebbs and flows. For a while, screenwriting was the most popular genre. Then novel workshops took over. Now poetry seems to be enjoying top billing. Experimental forms are really popular right now, too. These classes fill up incredibly quickly—sometimes the waitlist is larger than the actual roster.
Any advice for MFA students looking to go the nonprofit route?
I can’t tell you how lucky and grateful I am to have been a part of Lighthouse from the beginning. But it’s not easy. You have to be able to stand at the edge of the abyss of financial ruin, and laugh heartily. Ha ha ha!
But seriously: such a community needs to grow organically, and you have to be open, friendly, and accommodating to every single person who calls or shows up at your door wanting to write. Also, you’ll need to find others folks who believe in what you’re doing and want to support you—by donating time, money, couches, coffeemakers, pens, whatever—because those people will undoubtedly become your founding board of directors, and you won’t survive without them. (I will be forever grateful beyond words to the Lighthouse founding board members.)
Laura I. Miller is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona. Her work appears online at Specter, Spork Press, and Necessary Fiction. She serves as co-editor for Sonora Review and managing editor for Fairy Tale Review.