In a small studio in central East Austin, lamplit, with night outside the windows, four writers work intently in their notebooks. Not far away, poets and musicians share the limelight onstage while a packed house audibly encourages them along. Further south, in a former horse barn tucked away on seven woodsy acres, a newly published author clinks glasses and signs her name beside a host of others on the wall.
Though some of these scenes predate the pandemic, and others await the right time for a safe return, all depict the vibrant landscape for creative writers that a number of independent organizations have cultivated outside Austin’s big institutions. In offering classes, readings, performances, and more informal opportunities for connection, these organizations employ the working artists that are their founders, staff, and teachers, and offer inclusive spaces where both fledgling and experienced writers can find community and grow in their craft.
Given its history as a haven for intellectuals and artists from Texas and beyond, it’s no surprise that Austin has long nurtured a strong community of writers. In 1981, what would become the Writers’ League of Texas formed as a small group based in Austin, seeking connection and support. Now the largest literary arts organization in Texas, the WLT is still going strong. The University of Texas, St. Edward’s University, and Texas State also run significant academic creative writing programs, including nationally acclaimed Master of Fine Arts programs that many see as gateways to professional success for aspiring writers. However, there’s more demand for support for writers, or a more diverse set of needs, than these programs can serve on their own.
Austinites from a variety of backgrounds seek instruction and connection as writers through the smaller organizations. Jaime deBlanc-Knowles, a fiction writer who began teaching workshops and coaching writers through her small business, Fresh Ink Austin, in 2017, describes how many of her students work outside of professions related to writing.
“A lot of my students are… engineers and insurance agents, they work for Google,” she says. ”There are so many people out there just wanting to be creative.”
Finding an on-ramp for that desire to write, though, can pose a challenge, especially for adults with busy lives and responsibilities; programs that require application processes, substantial tuition, or a big time commitment discourage many would-be writers. d
“To have someplace where you can go and be creative and it’s not intimidating, that’s kind of a big deal,” says deBlanc-Knowles. “It’s really important for students to have a welcoming environment to reconnect with that youthful part of themselves that was excited to create.”
At the Writing Barn in South Austin, where nationally celebrated kidlit writer Bethany Hegedus began offering classes and retreats in 2013, writers find a supportive community with particular strength in programming related to the process of completing publishable work and expanding access to the publishing industry. When Hegedus moved to Austin and initially worked for the Writers’ League, she noticed a niche that needed filling.
“For intermediate writers, or a writer who was on the verge, there weren’t a lot of places that met those needs,” she says.
Classes and events at the Writing Barn seek to provide transparency about both “the business and the craft side” of becoming a professional writer, as Jessica Hincapie, a poet who started as an intern at the Writing Barn and now serves as its Program Director, says. Hincapie remembers that when she first got to know Hegedus and heard about her friendships with other published writers, the possibility of becoming a professional writer herself began to feel real.
“It was a peek behind the curtain,” Hincapie says. “This isn’t this goal that is so lofty and unattainable that the average person who just stumbles into writing and loves storytelling can’t manage it; anyone can do this thing.”
One of Austin’s newest independent groups that supports writers, as well as artists working in other disciplines, is Interfaces, which began in 2019 as an open mic and reading series but has quickly grown into a non-profit that offers educational events and performances as well as a residency. In Interfaces’ mission statement, the group identifies itself as a “community initiative that works to nurture and amplify marginalized artists in the Austin, Texas area through IDEA-conscious arts programming.”
Interfaces’ founder, the poet KB, notes that the initiative began in part as a response to “a serious problem with accessibility” of all kinds, including physical and financial, in the literary and arts events they attended in Austin. Inclusivity extends to what KB calls the “intermingling” of different artistic disciplines, as a corrective to the fragmentation KB and others witnessed, where poets, for instance, seemed to inhabit different spaces even from fiction writers, never mind from musicians, filmmakers and other kinds of artists.
This fragmentation also characterizes the social divisions among Austin’s artists, along lines of class, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, gender identity, and on and on. In trying to imagine a different approach, KB says, Interfaces uses IDEA — Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility — “as consciousness creating arts spaces that intentionally champion, and practice, designing events for everyone (and) making our spaces for as many people as possible is a thing that we’re trying to do.”
All of Austin’s independent creative writing organizations have done more work on issues of equity and access recently. Since financial accessibility always increases equity, the question of how to fund programs comes up. Grants have helped Interfaces to fulfill its goal of providing free events in accessible spaces.
“Especially during the pandemic when a lot of my students lost their jobs, I started offering scholarship seats, which I think is really important,” says Fresh Ink’s deBlanc-Knowles. “I’ve been applying for grants to offer more.”
Austin Bat Cave, founded in 2007 and another stalwart in the indie creative writing landscape, brings a huge slate of free creative writing classes to young people in underserved communities through school and community partnerships. ABC does offer classes for adults, but they are fee-based, which helps to fund its free programming for kids; adults may also apply for financial assistance with tuition. Likewise, the Writing Barn offers scholarships and has increased free programming, particularly online, during the pandemic. In Hegedus’ thinking, online programming also increases equity because of the barriers to attending in-person events when physical disabilities, caretaking, and various kinds of neurodiversity come into play.
In addition to nurturing aspiring writers, Austin’s indie writing organizations give working writers a way to support themselves through paid positions as teachers and program staff. It was often in trying to find spaces and means to do their own work that the founders began their groups. “I couldn’t find my creative community after grad school, so I just made one (with Fresh Ink),” says deBlanc-Knowles.
Though Hegedus did most of the work of the Writing Barn on her own in early years, the expansion of programming has made space for other writers to work as paid staff, as well as numerous “teaching artists” who conduct workshops ranging from single-session classes to six-month intensives focused on particular genres. In the past year, Interfaces has had the resources to pay performers and staff, though KB notes that “we’re not in a place where anyone is full time or gets benefits; it’s our passion project.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused an initial disruption for all the organizations; many reported feeling “scared” about the viability of their programs, like “anyone whose business involved bringing people together,” as deBlanc-Knowles said. Attendance at classes and events had been strong; Hegedus and Hincapie had just attended their first Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference to promote The Writing Barn, and deBlanc-Knowles reminisced about a thriving series of in-person events, like drop-in events at coffeeshops — all of which had to be suddenly canceled.
At Interfaces, KB describes how “pre-pandemic, we were getting ready to move to a new venue, a bigger venue; we were getting ready to do a lot of really cool access measures that I hadn’t seen at in-person events before; we had to shut all of that down and figure out how we wanted to emerge in the virtual realm.”
Some things just didn’t translate to a Zoom format. Writing classes, however, did translate, more seamlessly than one might have thought. As Hegedus commented, “the only way we could source community was online.” The Writing Barn had already been running a significant part of its programming online to reach an audience beyond Austin, and all the organizations observed how the virtual shift expanded access for people in a variety of locations and with a variety of needs. deBlanc-Knowles reflected on how aspiring writers made use of more free time in the last year to work on their craft; demand for her classes actually increased during the pandemic. Past the initial shock, the pandemic year provided more time for Interfaces to work on grant writing and revisiting the mission and identity of the group.
The independent organizations that serve Austin’s writers share an underlying belief in the importance of every person’s story, every person’s voice. “It’s an identity thing,” deBlanc-Knowles observes about the choice to share one’s writing.
In agreeing to admit an audience, however small, to their work, people who’d like to write can actually begin to think of themselves as writers. And those who come to classes and events in Austin have a variety of end points in mind for their work.
Says the Writing Barn’s Hincapie: “Success looks different for a lot of different writers.”