The history of The Muse Writers Center is the story of many wonderful people coming together to form what has become one of the largest literary centers in the nation. It is a story of kindness and thanks.
A few years after Michael Khandelwal moved back to Hampton Roads from Los Angeles in 2000, he missed teaching. In L.A., he had received his B.A. and M.P.W. from USC and had taught in their honors program there as well teaching classes for youth and adults in the city. He approached his friend, Missy Berent, from the Ghent Studio of Fine Arts (SOFA) in The Ghent Market Shops about teaching a poetry class at her art school.
At first, she was hesitant. She had tried to offer one before, and it hadn’t filled up. But he made fliers and put them up all over town. In the fall of 2004, the Poetry Writing Workshop had 6 students. In the next class session, he added a second level-workshop and offered the introductory class again. That time, 10 students registered.
The origins of The Muse’s student reading series began there as well, as after each session, Michael arranged readings for the students in the class in local restaurants. The readings were a success, and also helped spread the word about future classes.
After three sessions, there was a third-level workshop, and in the next session, he wanted to add a fiction class, and one of his students, Lisa Hartz, wanted to offer a memoir class. Unfortunately in the summer of 2005, SOFA closed its doors.
After class upon hearing the news of the arts school’s closing, sitting at Cogan’s Pizza in Ghent, Lisa suggested that they just start their own literary center. The other students agreed. Michael drew the logo on a napkin, and The Muse: Writing Studio and Workshops was born (a few years later, the name was changed to The Muse Writers Center).
One of the artists who had taught at SOFA, Kathy Fogle, had opened up an artists’ studio space called Studio 18 in The Ghent Market Shops and the artists offered the new Muse a space there to teach classes. In the fall of 2005, The Muse offered two levels of poetry and one class each in fiction and memoir to 19 students.
In January, 2006, The Muse’s incorporation and nonprofit status were both approved, but the spring session at Studio 18 was to be the last, as they were also closing their doors.
But Elfi Idiart reopened SOFA in the same shopping center and offered The Muse space there to teach classes, in their upstairs classroom space. For the next two class sessions, The Muse continued to grow slowly.
But SOFA again closed its doors, and this time another teacher at SOFA decided to open up her own art school, across the parking lot in the same shopping center. In January 2007, Laura Webb opened Drawn to Art, and The Muse had two dedicated classrooms in their space.
With two classrooms and an established reading series, The Muse flourished at Drawn to Art. The class offerings greatly expanded. Kip Watson began teaching a Screenwriting class. Janine Latus began teaching Writing from Life which evolved into today’s Write Now class. Karla Martin began the children’s book writing class. Novelist, Tim Farrington, who later was influential in creating our teen program, began teaching fiction along with Mary Westbrook. And Patti Hinson, a future board secretary, taught memoir classes along with Tom Robotham.
That year, 12 teachers offered 26 classes that attracted 176 students. In the summer, instead of a reading at local restaurants, The Muse hosted an all-day outdoor marathon reading and party in the back of the parking lot. Sadly, after the fall of 2007, Drawn to Art went out of business.
The West Ghent Years
That’s when Ron Jones from Symphonic Church told us that we could use some of their space in West Ghent. Symphonic was very involved in the community and hosted art shows in their warehouse sanctuary. They had Sunday school classrooms and an office a few blocks away. They weren’t using the office, and they only used the other rooms on Sunday. Instead of rent, we tithed them 10% of our tuition income, for about a year, when they decided not to renew their lease on their space at the corner of Orapax Street and Redgate Avenue.
In 2008, The Muse signed its first lease with Nick Seretis, who owned the Orapax restaurant as well as our building across the street. For the next seven years, we grew in West Ghent (which became known as Chelsea), eventually growing to three classrooms.
The parties and events we began at the Ghent Market Shops flourished in West Ghent. We saw the neighborhood as an important part of Norfolk, and we did everything we could to help grow its vitality. Luck smiled on us when Sarah Munford and Laurel Quarberg moved The New Leaf florist across the street. They had the same community-centered mindset, and we began hosting summer and winter parties together, which soon evolved into neighborhood-wide celebrations, covering several blocks.
At the parties, we moved past passing the hat at readings to hosting huge raffles to fund our tuition assistance program, which has helped thousands of people take classes at The Muse to this day. Events like our Writers Happy Hour, Writers Coffee Break, Slover Library Write-In, and Neighborhood Jam began and grew during our seven-year tenure in West Ghent. The Boot restaurant (owned by David Haussman and Josh Wright) was an important venue for our reading and our happy hours for many of those years. As was Night of the Iguana/37th and Zen (owned by Annette Stone); Azar’s (owned by Tarek Azar and his family); and Andrea DiCarlo’s La Bella in Ghent, a restaurant which was our reading venue until 2019. Andrea was always a huge supporter of our programs, especially our tuition assistance program.
The Muse formed great partnerships and collaborations with organizations like MOCA in Virginia Beach, the Mariners’ Museum, The Chrysler Museum of Art, The Cultural Alliance of Greater Hampton Roads, Christopher Newport University, Old Dominion University, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), and many others.
What has become one of our greatest friendships was formed with Lauran Strait and Hampton Roads Writers (HRW). In many ways the two organizations have grown together, and HRW now hosts Virginia’s best writers conference every year in September.
In 2009, The Muse offered its first classes for younger writers, with both pre-teen and teen classes. Kindra McDonald and Jennifer Adams eventually grew the 9-11 year old class, while Sarah Pringle grew the teen program along with teachers like Lauren Hurston, Lucian Mattison, and Robbie Ciara.
Eventually, a 14-year-old writer named Noa Greenspan sat down with Michael and asked if The Muse could host an open mic just for teen writers. She thought that the area open mics weren’t the right fit for younger writers. She created and hosted the Teen Open Mic until she graduated from high school.
During this time, new classes and teachers emerged. T. Campbell began the Comic Book Writing class; Lewis McGehee taught songwriting; Melissa Morgan Stewart, then editor-in-chief of Hampton Roads Magazine, taught feature writing; Patrick Evans-Hylton started food writing with a cookbook writing class; Linda Cobb, took over from Jill Durham and started what has become thriving seminar series in grammar; Mira Roberts brought us journaling; and Susie Pedigo offered classes in creativity.
One of Kip Watson’s screenwriting students, Ken Phillips, began to offer a standup comedy class, which Michael very much wanted to take, but it took a while. In 2011, he scheduled the class at a time when he could take it, and met one of his best friends, Adam Paine, in the very first class. One night, Ken had to be out of town and asked if he could have a substitute come in who was an improv comedian from a local group called The Pushers.
Brad McMurran taught that class, and Adam and Michael were hooked. That summer, Brad and Sean Devereux (both who later served on The Muse’s board) taught the first improv class at The Muse, which eventually grew to five levels of improv, three levels of sketch comedy, and a teen class that was suggested by one of our teen writing students, Rhiannon Harvey (who also was one of four of our teen students who presented at a TEDxYouth event in Hampton).
The improv and sketch comedy program, led by Brad, Sean, Ed Carden, and Alba Woolard, grew a large community after several years of being nurtured by The Muse. Hundreds of new students took part in dozens of improv and sketch comedy shows around Hampton Roads. By 2014, there was no more room at The Muse for more comedy classes, and The Pushers set out to open their own theater and training space nearby. In the fall of 2014, The Push Comedy Theater opened in the Arts District in Norfolk, and The Muse and The Push have been great friends ever since.
Three students have a special place in the hearts of The Muse and The Push. Adam Paine, who was there with Michael in the very first improv class (and was later Michael’s roommate) went on to join The Pushers and teach hundreds of students in their theater. Tragically, he passed away suddenly in 2019.
In the spring of 2013, John Sharp came to The Muse looking for the screenwriting class and went into the wrong room, where Improv 101 was taking place. He was hooked, and took all the improv and sketch classes, both at The Muse and The Push. He was a vital part of The Push Comedy Theater and The Muse until his death in 2016.
When The Muse first started, Julia Hislop was one of our first fiction students, and quickly became a regular at events. She dragged her friend, Alicia Dekker (who later served on The Muse’s board as Vice-Chair), to Michael’s new year’s eve party and encouraged her to take classes. At a party at Alicia’s house in 2012, Michael finally convinced Julia to take the improv class. She was a natural. She took many improv classes at The Muse, and was named A Pusher in 2014. Sadly, before the new Push Comedy Theater could open for shows, she succumbed to her last battle with cancer. Rooms at both The Muse and The Push are named for her. Also, our conference scholarship fund is named in honor of Julia.
Expanding Board, Expanding Programming
By 2013, opportunities abounded and The Board of Directors expanded, adding new members including Steve Burgess (former chairperson and current vice-chair), Charles Hecht-Leavitt (former vice-chair), Kate Copeland (treasurer), Tim Seibles (then a future Virginia Poet Laureate and now a former one), Ann Sullivan, and Stephanie Catherines among others mentioned earlier. In 2015, the board attended a retreat hosted by Jane Stein and undertook a round of strategic planning and set short- and long-term goals looking toward 2020. Most all of the goals were reached by the end of 2016.
Three yearly $500 college and graduate school scholarships were offered to Muse students who wanted to pursue a degree in creative writing. At first these were funded by pass-the-hat donations, but in 2012, neuroscientist William McClure, who was Michael’s teaching mentor at USC, began funding the scholarships in their entirety each year in honor of Joan Rorke-McClure, who had passed away after a heroic battle with cancer. Bill McClure instilled in Michael a passion for teaching. He, along with James Ragan, former program director for USC’s MFA program, were both instrumental in shaping the programming and professional approach to becoming a writer that The Muse holds dear.
Thanks to a new grants committee headed up by Cindy Carlson (a current board vice chair) and assisted by Gretchen Gillen and others, The Muse began applying for grants and expanded its fundraising to help offset the expansion of its programs. Our early grants from The Millers Foundation and The Norfolk Commission on the Arts and Humanities helped lay the groundwork for ongoing support from these entities as well as The Virginia Commission for the Arts, The Business Consortium for Arts Support, The National Endowment for the Arts and others.
Give Local 757 (organized by The Peninsula Community Foundation) began in 2014, and The Muse participated, raising more than $3,000 in the inaugural year. In a way, Give Local taught us how to fundraise, and by the 3rd year, The Muse had the third highest number of individual donors during Give Local. The next year, 2017, The Muse won the grand prize grant for the most donors, something we repeated in 2019. This outpouring of community support has meant a lot to The Muse, as arts organizations are normally the least funded nonprofits, and literary arts organizations are usually the least funded arts nonprofits.
During this time, The Muse kept on expanding its course offerings, adding long-running seminar series on craft by Jean Klein, on police procedures by Lt. Mike Lovely of the Norfolk Police Department, and many others. The Chelsea Business Association formed (thank you Malia Paasch, Christine Neikirk, Jeff Hux, and Laurel & Sarah from The New Leaf), and The Muse was thriving in West Ghent.
In 2015, The Muse held 178 classes, attracting 906 students. One hundred ten of those students were on tuition assistance. Because our space in Chelsea just contained three classrooms, most all of our events (except our holiday parties and some teen events) were held at other locations. Still, we hosted 94 events that reached 2,709 people.
One of the priorities of the new strategic plan was finding a larger space, and soon that plan was in motion. Michael had become friends with the Alonso family who own Plaza del Sol in the Ghent Market Shops, and a few years earlier, he had met the shopping center’s owner, Richard Levin (who now serves on our board), at a quinceañera party for the Alonso’s daughter, Sammy. Richard became interested in The Muse, and in 2015, he presented an opportunity for The Muse to move back to the place it was born.
A New Muse
In the fall of 2015, The Muse signed a lease and began renovations of a former Re/Max office in the Ghent Market Shops, creating a vibrant, fully-accessible 2,700 square-foot space that tripled the size of the West Ghent location. The literary center would house five large classrooms, two semi-private rooms for writers who need a quiet space to work, office space, a kitchenette, a library (including an international poetry collection donated by Dan Brame), and an auditorium for readings and special literary events as well as art exhibits.
Nearly 100 volunteers helped pack, move, unpack, and organize the new space. Kindra McDonald, along with others including Michael Frost and Barbara Carlson began to curate the new library. Rob Edwards helped build more than 60 pieces of Ikea furniture. Kate Copeland painted walls, and Holly Chacon (current board secretary) along with Joaquin, Jack, and Dakota Chacon, and Anna Lehman from Colley Avenue Copies and Graphics created signage and author quotes for the walls and windows. And Rick Eley donated a new sound and video projection system and installed it in the auditorium.
The Muse began a program of sponsorships to support the new center (borrowed from visiting GrubStreet Writers a few years earlier during the AWP Conference in Boston). Everything from the custom-built bookcases and individual chairs to storage closets and classrooms was made available for sponsorship. The thought was to have a cushion to fall back on, in case the move was not successful. Before the official opening, most everything was sponsored by friends, students, and fans of The Muse, including Linda Founds, who would be instrumental over the next few years in helping establish our outreach programs to young people in Hampton Roads.
The grand re-opening was set for January 23, 2016, and The Virginian-Pilot wrote a feature story about the new center. A few days before the big day, a snowstorm hit, and the decision was made to push the grand opening back a week to the 30th.
In that week, everything that was almost done could be finished. A plan to later replace all the fluorescent lights with LEDs happened that week, and friend and historic-home remodeler, Eric Frankenberg, volunteered his time to replace all the lights and the ballasts.
Finally, The Muse opened its doors, hosting a day-long celebration, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner donations from Yorgo’s Bageldashery, the Handsome Biscuit, and Andrea’s La Bella in Ghent. Local cellist, Jake Fowler, played at 10 a.m. as the doors were opened to the public. During the day, The Muse hosted a pre-teen student reading; a teen student reading; a ODU MFA program reading; a songwriting class show; a reading from some of Hampton Roads’ most acclaimed women: Ellen Bryson, Luisa Igloria, and Lydia Netzer (all current or former board members); and our Neighborhood Jam with Dan Duke. Our student, Alyssa O’Neal also set up chair massages and donated the tips to our tuition assistance fund. The night concluded with a champagne toast. Nearly 1,000 people attended the event at some point during the day.
For the first time, The Muse was open to the public to come and use the space to write, read, and meet other writers. At first, it was just open on Tuesdays, but over time, and with the help of volunteers, The Muse is now open Monday-Thursday each week.
In the new space, The Muse truly became a full-service literary center. We began hosting book launch readings and celebrations for local authors as well as for Muse teachers and students. Local artists (usually with a connection to the literary arts) had space for gallery exhibitions. Karen Tatum (and later John McCarthy) began leading a monthly Writers Support Group. And many local writing groups found their home at The Muse, including the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Hampton Roads, Humanities Behind Bars, the 20/30 Creative Writing Club, and the 757 Comic & Cartoon Creators.
As soon as we re-opened, one of our teachers, Shawn Girvan, began volunteering every week. By the end of the year, he was helping so much, we asked him to be our second staff member, first as a Program Associate and now as Program Manager. Under his leadership, programs and events expanded each year. In 2018, he led The Muse’s key involvement with the NEA Big Read, and many of the local events were held at our center.
Taking a cue from our slogan: Write Where You Are, we realized that we had to bring creative writing to people who may not be able to come to the center as well as to those who might not know about the resources we offer. We expanded in three key areas: to senior living communities, to schools and youth organizations, and to members of the military community. For military service members, veterans, their families, and caregivers we began hosting creative writing classes and events at local base libraries and classes at The Muse in collaboration with the Arts Services Arts Partnership.
A third staff member, Anna Fitzgerald, came on board in 2018, and successfully launched the Teen Writers Fellowship, which gives eight tenth and eleventh graders access to our regular teen class, a special fellows class, one-on-one mentoring with a published author, and pitch opportunities at the HRW Writers Conference. Under her guidance, The Muse also began sending creative writing teachers to public and private schools and to organizations that work with at-risk youth.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the incorporation of The Muse Writers Center in 2016, Alicia Dekker formed a committee to host The Book Lovers Bash, our first large in-person fundraiser. Sponsors were secured and tickets were sold, and nearly 200 people celebrated The Muse at the Slover Library. The Bash has continued each year, featuring amazing guest speakers: poets Tim Seibles and Luisa Igloria in 2016, PEN award-winner Joe Jackson in 2017, actor Terry O’Quinn in 2018, and humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson in 2019.
The Muse began collaborating on a region-wide Open Mic for writers at the Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach’s Town Center along with HRW, Tidewater Writers, and Zeiders.
The curriculum continued to evolve, with week-long creative writing camps for pre-teen and teen writers and one-day creative writing camps for adults each summer. Skye Zentz took over the Songwriting class, Kristin Mehaffey took over the Comic Book writing class, and Sheila Arnold began teaching storytelling. Writers from out of town, including John DeDakis, Michele Young-Stone, and Patti McCracken began travelling to The Muse to teach seminars on craft and professional development.
The Board continued to grow, and in 2018/2019, Karen Corrigan took over as board chair. Together with Cindy Carlson, they spearheaded a new strategic planning process with great new goals for 2022 and beyond.
Now recognized as one of the top literary centers in the nation, in 2018 The Muse hosted 261 classes with 1,389 students (280 of which were on tuition assistance). We also hosted 433 literary events at The Muse and in the community with a reach of more than 8,200 additional people.
Thank you for reading our history. We’ll add more about 2019 later. But one of our big accomplishments for 2019 is the launch of this new website! We hope you will enjoy it, and we hope to see you at The Muse Writers Center.