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The Write Kind of Place

The Writer’s Center offers workshops for writers of all levels.

From its humble exterior you wouldn’t expect the building to house almost nightly in-depth literary discussions, hundreds of published authors discussing their craft and one of the most expansive collections of literary journals in the area. Once inside, though, the realization strikes that it isn’t the building that matters, it is the community that has formed inside it. That literary community, and the building, goes under the name of the Writer’s Center.

The center, located at 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda, is, at its core, a place where anyone of any writing skill can come to improve their writing abilities and better understand a wide variety of writing styles and crafts via workshops, author discussions and a small press library.

"We are here to help build a literary community for writers and people interested in writing," said Sunil Freeman, the center’s assistant director, "We offer a range of workshops in all types of writing: mixed genres, fiction, poetry, screenwriting and many more."

WORKSHOPS at the Writer’s Center vary widely in cost, experience level and subject, but all have the same goal of getting participant to better express themselves through their writing. To achieve this goal the center employs more than 100 workshop leaders, all of whom have substantial experience in the world of writing.

"All the workshop leaders have been published and have experience in their writing style. The center is very rich in writing talent," Freeman said.

The workshops are intentionally kept small, around 8-15 people so that participants can discuss each other's writing on a personal level, and classes become more of a round-table discussion than a lecture. Barbara Esstman, a Writer’s Center alumna who now leads workshops on fiction writing, advanced novels, memoirs and a myriad of other courses, finds the small classes to be a perfect fit for writing.

"For one thing all the classes can be done around a conference table so it’s very communal. You get to know people. It’s kind of the optimal number," she said.

Workshops usually last around eight weeks and are scheduled during day and night so that they are easily available for all lifestyles and schedules. Some courses are even offered online for those who can’t make it to the Bethesda location.

"It’s such an incredible community resource," said Esstman, "because it can accommodate your real life."

Brendan Donegan, who has been taking courses at the center for 20 years and drives an hour from Columbia in order to participate, points out that the quality level of the courses is on par with anything offered at a school.

"I got my Master of the Arts in Writing at John Hopkins, and the Writer’s Center is just more enjoyable because there are no grades, but {it's] still of equal caliber. The participants are far more varied too," he said, noting that he has not been able to find any other writing centers that cover such a wide span of styles. "It isn’t just boiled down to the letters of the alphabet, there is so much more."

THESE IN-DEPTH courses and small classes create a strong community that is strengthened by special talks by guest writers. There is a permanent staff running the center, and membership available that allows members to receive a discount on workshops, items at the bookstore and the center’s newsletter.

"Membership is $40 and has plenty of benefits, plus it keeps you in touch with the community of writers," said Freeman

Many writers in the community return repeatedly to work on manuscripts or pieces they have and get them finalized for possible publishing.

"Every time you go back you see one or two familiar faces. Sometimes you may repeat a course," said Donegan, "The writing isn’t distant; it’s very much about people’s lives so you get to know people more."

The community doesn’t stop with students or the classroom Esstman points out.

"There is a lot of really good exchange between the instructors, students and class," she said, "A lot of times a workshop will carry over into its own writing group. It’s because it is a community that has other people that are interested in the same things you are doing."

THE CENTER'S FOCUS on in-depth writing and strong community shouldn’t scare newcomers away, though. The center is all about learning and becoming a stronger writer at all stages in the process.

"We have an open door to anyone who wants to write. The fact that we are a non-academic writer’s center is perfect for people to just work on their writing and for them to receive critiques," said Freeman, "A fair number of people who take workshops don’t write but they have something in their head to write and these classes help them get it out."

Courses are offered at the beginner level on almost all subjects, and Freeman says that there is usually a good mix of intermediate and beginner students, so help comes from the entire class, not just the instructor.

"You can come in and just have wanted to always try writing a novel or some other type of writing," said Esstman, "Courses aren’t dumbed down but they’re still accessible. There is also a layer of levels to get the beginners and intermediates mixed together."

WITH THE STRONG community and ease of access the Writer’s Center has been going strong for 30 years. While the small press library, open-mics and experienced instructors may all contribute to its long running success, it’s the students who make it what it is with their constant participation believes Donegan.

"The most important thing is there is always a lot of energy coming from the classrooms. There is always something going on there. There is a sort of wholeness about the Writer’s Center that you can’t find anywhere else.