By Jack Rubinger
It’s about ten steps up to The Attic Institute through a narrow entranceway on Hawthorne Blvd. on a rainy winter afternoon.
To the right are the coziest, most writer-friendly offices in town, and stacks and stacks of hardcover books on top of classic typewriters. To the left is another pair of comfy rooms filled with well-worn couches, coffeetables and bowls of candy.
Founded in 1999 by David Biespiel, The Attic has been a welcoming place for writers to hang out. Writers are celebrating the twentieth anniversary by continuing to hone their craft in this setting.
The faculty of fellows and teachers includes recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in both fiction and poetry, the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, both the Stegner Fellowship and the Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.
In addition there are many Oregon Book Awards and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, inclusions in Best American anthologies, The New York Times Bestsellers, and Notable Books of the Year lists, Poetry Foundation’s Best Books of the Year, and the Smithsonian Notable Books of the Year.
Big name faculty include Cheryl Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) and Whitney Otto (How to Make an American Quilt).
The Attic has served some 10,000 student writers over the years with single classes and year-long workshops. Writers appreciate the self-selected group and the spirit of literary camaraderie.
Here, committed and focused writers from their mid 20s to mid 70s come to work with real working writers; from beginners to those who have agents. A full range of workshops lets writers explore their options.
Many are at a stage in their lives when they’re ready to take their writing to the next level. They’ve negotiated the time and now they’re going to try to make it work.
Emily Whitman teaches workshops on writing middle-grade and young-adult novels. She’s taught tools for expressing emotion, retelling myths and fairy tales, and other aspects of writing books for kids and teens.
The Attic helped her on her writing path. Years ago she was raising her kids and longing to get back to writing. She took a workshop at the Attic that freed her pen and made her brave enough to share what she wrote. That path has led to three published novels, teaching at conferences, and leading workshops at The Attic.
Whitman loves the small workshop structure and how it creates a community of committed writers. From her experience, writers come to The Attic because they’re eager to learn. They take their work seriously, but they’re not stuffy – they support each other, giving and taking input, while learning to trust themselves as writers and find their voice.
One student who went on to an MFA program said she’d learned as much in The Attic’s workshops as in the first semester of her academic program.
“David Biespiel has created something really special with The Attic,” said Whitman. “Readers should know that it’s for everyone. You can try a weekend workshop or sign up for a session.”
Poet Jennifer Dorner took several courses from 2011-2016. She started with a $40 one-day workshop with poet John Morrison, tried a three-day summer class with poet and president David Biespiel and then participated in several five-week poetry classes.
She’s had the privilege of working with John Morrison, Dave Jarecki, Wendy Willis, and Matthew Dickman. Dorner said she wrote one of her best poems in Jarecki’s Time to Write class.
She explained that writing to prompts has been a useful skill for growth and experimentation. At the Institute, she learned how to be a poet with a full time job.
After two years at the Attic, she began submitting work for publication after encouragement from John Morrison, one of the best kept secrets at the Attic along with poet Wendy Willis.
“I have made many lasting friendships and have found a network of poets and writers in the Portland area which has lead to opportunities for publication, readings, teaching, editing, community development and leadership,” Dorner said.
The faculty helped her with line edits, strengthening her voice, and kept her sharp and productive through changes in her life, including with her job handling complex and large loss insurance property claims.
“The space is so inviting, and the level of instruction is superb. I feel the Attic’s approach to writing is experimental, open, and encouraging. There is no one style or school of thought.
“The Attic Institute is in the good business of offering affordable writing opportunities for working writers who don’t yet trust their work,” she said.
For more information about The Attic, including open mic sessions on Fridays, visit atticinstitute.com. Better yet, take a moment from a stroll on Hawthorne and climb up the steps into a world alive with words and conversations.