From Words to Rooms: Talking with Carol and Rachel of Writers Room Literary Arts Initiative at Drexel University
by Rachel Wenrick, Carol Richardson McCullough, and Kirsten Kaschock
Writers Room (WR) is a three-year-old literary arts initiative situated at the edge of Drexel University's campus, at the border of the Mantua and Powelton neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. In the past three years, with the help of our members (a committed group of community members and Drexel students, faculty, and staff) we have co-created programming: side-by-side classes, visiting writers, cultural events, and monthly workshops. After receiving an NEA Big Read grant in fall 2016, we realized we had the capacity to act on the stories emerging from our writers. The election of Trump and the lost housing of one of our own (Carol Richardson McCullough) cemented for us the necessity of taking action. We've recently been named as finalists for ArtPlace America's National Creative Placemaking Fund. Our proposal flips the typical script of a "writers house"—we are proposing the construction of a residence that will be populated by half-students/half-community members. The storytellers will live, and make, in the building.
What follows is a discussion about houses and stories and the people who inhabit both with Carol and WR's founder, Rachel Wenrick, as witnessed and collated by WR assistant director, Kirsten Kaschock. See our website at www.writersroom.online for information about our programming and our people.
Uproot and Seed: June 2015-Moving Day with Carol
Carol: I had to move because the landlord had sold the property I was living in. I didn't have any funds to pay anyone and I didn't know, or I thought that I didn't know, anyone who could help me.
I didn't say anything [before our big Anthology reading] because...first things first.
Rachel: Right. We had this transcendent thing—our first year's celebratory reading—sharing stories. Then, I get this email from you the next day and my kids, well they are still little, but they were littler then, and you wrote, "You should be proud, Mama." And it felt like the biggest compliment that I could ever get, conflating those two things. So you say, okay—this wonderful thing happened...and now I have to move.
One thing I've never asked is, what allowed you to...I mean, you weren't asking me for anything...but you were telling me. And I know you are very reserved.
C: It was pressing on me. And in the writing I had done a lot of reflection and shared things about what had gone on in my life. I felt a connection with you. So I just mentioned it. Almost as a point of conversation. The Anthology reading was the first thing we did, and this was the next thing coming up in my life.
R: And how was it, the move?
C: Well, you are old enough to know the cartoon with the Tasmanian Devil—that was what that was like. I was amazed at the number of people who came out on a Sunday morning to help...Your husband just came with the students, and they did it.
(Carol looks to me, an aside): You have to be careful what you say around Rachel because she really listens, really thinks about things, if she sees a problem, she thinks about what she can give of herself to try to tackle it. She gets things done too.
Planting, Tending: June 2015-June 2017
R: The next year, we applied for the NEA Big Read inspired by one of the first pieces you wrote, Carol—Transplant. As soon as Kirsten and I saw the Zora Neale Hurston book on the list, we knew it had to be that...because of that line from your piece about writing a book in seven weeks [like Zora did] to pay the rent. The whole idea sprung from that— doing the festival in seven weeks.
C: In the first Anthology I also had a line "I used to dream about being a poet, about capturing images and making them sparkle on the page." And then something happened in my life, and it shut that poetry down. Coming to Writers Room that first year—it reanimated that spark...
Since I've been writing again, I've become really aware of the idea of stories and people and human capacity to capture what is happening in their life. Here, in Philadelphia, how it's set up in neighborhoods—you might not know somebody from a different place. What we do at Writers Room is we share...
R: We do. There really is something about coming together with a group of people you expect to see and also new people coming in who bring new energy. Those two things weaving in and out create something. All of us at Writers Room believe in this thing we're doing, but then—after your move—we began to feel, to see, it's not enough.
So in October of last year [even before the NEA festival was over], I got the call to go to an info session in November for ArtPlace.1 It ended up being the morning after the election. The horror show. And I went early and the room was empty, one other guy getting coffee in the corner. I felt that my guts had just been ripped out, and I remember saying to the director, Javier, "I didn't know where else to go; it felt like I should be here," and he said, "I like your skirt."
R: So I took notes, and I had all this stuff swirling around, teaching and Writers Room and life, and I knew if we went for this big grant [ArtPlace], it had to be about affordable housing, because it had to be.
I remember a little later being in the shower and thinking–it's that question again. The one that really began Writers Room: "What might a community writer's house look like?" There it was again. The idea of a house.
Waiting on Blooms: June 2017
C: Writers Room has gotten me really thinking about sharing my own story, but instead you all got me writing some other stuff.
R: Yeah, well—right now Writers Room is trying to put together this residential house (and think tank, and commons...), and you've been hired to write for a website about anchor institutions in the neighborhood. And you were hired because of your voice and because of the way you are able to connect with people and draw out their stories rather than just procedural stuff.
C: Sure. Because everyone has a story, and it might not be what you think it is. Once you learn what's going on it helps to explain a lot and helps you understand and maybe gain some compassion. Or you realize you need to keep your distance.
C: And I'm still moving towards...coming to grips with telling my own story, because the thing is, I have two kids. But my daughter said, which I think is very profound, that if I hadn't gone through all I had, then I wouldn't be who I am.
R: It's true. And I do think the writing we do, that you've done and you're doing, is our chance to stop, to reflect. During our last workshop, for the first time in a long time I was able to write something not about doing. And I wrote, "I write what I cannot say." I always have. I also write to try to figure out what it is I think, which is not a new idea, but it's an idea that feels new every time I come to it.
I think I try to make things happen because I write. Once you see that link, between wondering and doing, it's addictive.
C: You know, I recently had this experience of going to another well-known writer's house in the city. I'd heard about it, but I'd never been. It was a reading of an anthology celebrating Gwendolyn Brooks, and it was a great evening. I really enjoyed it.
Then, at the reception, I was talking with one of the students. And I was thinking this is such a nice atmosphere and thinking, what a great place, and I looked up [to the second floor], and I asked her "Do you live here? Does anyone live here?" And she kind of giggled, and she said, "No, nobody lives here."
And I thought, "Well...why not?"
- Find more information about ArtPlace's National Creative Placemaking Fund and the work it helps seed at www.artplaceamerica.org.