The Capitol Letters Writing Center bills itself as “The Greatest Writing Center on Earth!” Those are big words for a place with no location, no students, and no money. The Ringling Bros.-inspired operation hopes to fill a void in traditional literacy programs by bringing creative writing to District kids ages 6 to 18. But before it opens its three rings, it’s going to have to jump through some hoops.
“What we’re trying to do is change the public school system by stepping outside of it,” says Matt Klam, author of short story collection Sam the Cat and one of the 19 District writers, educators, and nonprofit workers involved in the project. “It’s an innovative way to attack a problem, but it’s also really hard. It can be really, really discouraging. We’ve all had to decide that we’re not going to lose steam and give up over it being difficult.” Adds consultant and McSweeney’s columnist Holly Jones, “It helps that we’re such a cheerful crowd and that we’re so optimistic and have so much momentum. But I know people probably look at us and say, ‘What the hell is in that Kool-Aid you’re all drinking?’”
Reader: The writing center’s future is in your hands. At each juncture, one choice will help determine its fate.
• If you choose to give up because it’s really hard, face your social consequences at 1.
• If you choose to drink the Kool-Aid, go to 3.
1. What, given up already? Matt Klam has a story to tell you about how the D.C. school system gave up on one young writer. He was 15 but looked 19, recalls Klam, and his cousin had recently been shot and killed. Within a year, he would drop out of school. But before he did, he would write a story.
“In the story, he and his friends get in a car and they drive around looking for the guy who killed his cousin. And they find him. And they kill him,” recalls Klam. After writing the account, “the kid disappeared, and the teacher lost the story. I was so struck by the potential to reach out to this writer who was in such a precarious but exciting place. When he fell off, it was heartbreaking.”
You think starting a nonprofit is hard? Try dealing with crippling guilt. “I think a lot of people in D.C. have a strong sense of guilt,” says Klam. “The D.C. public school system needs help, but this can be such a transient city that a lot of people don’t end up investing in their communities.” Adds Julia Smith, a 24-year-old Community Outreach Coordinator with Idealist.org, “I’ve certainly struggled with my share of white guilt.”
• If you choose to ignore your white/transient guilt, go to 2.
• If you choose to address your guilt, go to 3.
2. Move to Del Ray. Groom an inviting lawn. Die there. Start over.
3. So, you’ve chosen to create your own writing center. Now, it’s time to figure out where to put it. “When we’ve gone out into the community, people have said, ‘We don’t just need one of these centers, we need 50 of them,’” says Jones. “But we don’t just want to drop another center in the middle of the city.” Jones says Capitol Letters has scoped out locations in Columbia Heights, Anacostia, Navy Yard, and Chinatown and has also considered “partnering with one or more schools to put a writing room in the actual school, where we can hold drop-in tutoring and on-site workshops.”
• If you choose to locate your center in Columbia Heights, go to 4.
• If you choose to locate your center within the schools, go to 5.
4. Congratulations: You’ve found a location convenient to local schools, a Metro stop, and a Bed Bath & Beyond. But now that you’ve secured a spot, how are you going to get kids to come in when they don’t have to? “Obviously, we don’t want to have 50 volunteers in there without any kids,” says Jones. Adds volunteer Kira Wisniewski, “our goal for the center is for it to be a little bit quirkier. We want to signal that we’re fun and tongue-in-cheek.” In order to get kids in, Capitol Letters has borrowed the Dave Eggers model from his 826 National creative writing centers: a themed storefront aimed at generating revenue and local interest. Eggers’ 826 Boston chapter has “The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute,” the Los Angeles chapter has the “Echo Park Time Travel Mart,” and the Chicago chapter has “The Boring Store,” which serves as a front for a covert spy outpost (itself a front for a youth creative writing center). The Capitol Letters Writing Center has considered a host of themes—a newspaper theme withered under the Newseum’s shadow, while a green theme was jettisoned because “we want our center to be as green as possible anyway,” says Smith. That leaves underwater and circus themes to choose from.
• If you choose the underwater theme, go to 6.
• If you choose the circus theme, go to 7.
5. Several years ago, Klam visited a friend who was teaching at D.C.’s Hyde charter school. “I was immediately struck by the acoustics,” says Klam. “They were so screwed up because they couldn’t afford carpet, so if someone even whispered, you couldn’t hear anything else. Kids came out of neighboring schools to come to this place, but it was chaotic. My friend stood in front of the class for an hour and got maybe 10 minutes of teaching in.”
• Oh, just keep reading.
6. In a freak accident, a broken aquarium valve slowly floods your Under the Sea Writing Center, trapping your entire staff of local MFA candidate volunteers inside. Only the piranhas survive. Start over.
7. You’ve decided to stock your storefront with clown noses, rubber chickens, magic tricks, and various frightening animals in order to lure children inside and trick them into learning. “It would be great if we could have a lion leaping out from the front, or maybe a giant shark,” says Capitol Letters volunteer Joe Peters of the center’s tentative storefront plans. But lions, tigers, and bears don’t come cheap. Jones estimates that the center will need to collect as much as $300,000 before the proposed fall launch; right now, they’ve got nothing. Maybe Dave Eggers can help?
• If you choose to call Eggers, go to 9.
• If you choose to instead help the community by purchasing a cold beer from a locally owned establishment, go to 8.
9. While chatting up Eggers might help you renew your Believer subscription, Eggers’ 826 National is not currently accepting applications for additional chapters. Jones says that while Capitol Letters hopes to apply when the process is re-opened, the center is seeking funding and applying for nonprofit status now. “We’re starting up regardless,” says Jones. “[826 National] is a great name, but either way, our vision is still sitting down with a kid and teaching them how to write a story.”