Write Where You Are at The Muse

the muse writers center

For two decades, The Muse Writers Center, based in Norfolk, has been helping people find their voices and tell their stories

Photos By David Uhrin

Michael Khandelwal laid a stack of bright yellow fliers on the table at Café Stella in Ghent. He taped a poster up in the window there and at Cogans Pizza, at the now-gone Naro Video, and Fair Grounds Coffee Café and The Ten Top. Day after day, year after year, he walked through town, telling anyone who would listen about what he knew could be a shining star in our region, The Muse Writers Center. 

Khandelwal began it in 2004 with six students in one poetry class in the spare room of an art studio. For a while he partnered with another poet, Lisa Hartz, and over the years they recruited teachers who ran sessions in memoir and short story, comedy and flash fiction. Hartz went on to found Seven Cities Writers Project in 2015 and Khandelwal continued with The Muse.

Now, two decades and thousands of steps later, The Muse’s space at 2200 Colonial Ave. has five classrooms, a recording studio, a library and an auditorium for readings, art shows and special literary events. This year The Muse is expected to host 1,500 students in 300 classes for adults, teens and pre-teen writers. 

There are two entire bookcases in the Muse’s lobby of books written by its teachers and students. A man proposed to his now-wife there. A long-time student was memorialized there after her death. New books are cheered. Writers gather there to quietly create or join classes to share their work and discuss character motives and back stories, flow and cadence.

“I knew it was going to be much bigger than when it started,” Khandelwal, who serves as executive director, says now. “I knew that it was going to reach a lot of people. We provide a place, a beacon for the literary arts in the area.”

the muse writers center sign

It’s a place where everyone is welcome, where old and young connect over the joy of painting pictures with words, whether to create art or to heal from trauma or celebrate life’s joys. 

“We want to be there for anyone to seize the chance to live life more meaningfully through the creative and healing power of the written word,” Khandelwal says. “Our vision is that expressing yourself changes everything.” 

Jessica Kelley discovered The Muse shortly after it moved from its earlier home in Chelsea to the middle of Ghent. She’d been a quiet kid. Reserved. Writing had been her refuge. At The Muse she found her people. Poets and novelists, writers of romance and memoir and sci-fi. 

Now she offers that same refuge to hundreds of other quiet kids each year. Loud ones, too. As Youth Literary Program Director and director of The Muse’s Teen Fellowship program, she helped more than 850 young people in 2022 discover the joy of writing. 

When Kelley began teaching eight years ago, there were two classes for writers younger than 18. Now, not only are there are at least 17 in the building but Kelley—in the spirit of The Muse motto Write Where You Are—takes classes out into the community, into juvenile justice centers and public libraries, to Langley Air Force Base and public schools. 

Kelley is perhaps most proud of The Teen Writers Fellowship, which selects eight high school students and provides them with free online class, free MFA level workshops, free craft classes and open mics, plus their own published mentor who helps them polish a writing sample, query letter and synopsis. Fellows’ graduation is a trip to a writing conference, where they pitch their book package for potential publication. 

Kelley has seen young people blossom from hesitant to proud, as they prepared to present themselves to agents and editors. “It’s amazing to see them learn these pro-social skills,” she says. “They’re not just skills for creative writing, they’re skills for life!”

What people seem to miss, she says, is that literacy for so many kids starts with the love of the literary. “If they fall in love with books, if they fall in love with writing, their reading scores are going to go up,” she says. Plus, crafting a story helps children learn how to organize ideas. “People don’t seem to realize how the creative side can make the educational side just flow like a river.”

While it’s relatively easy to find someone to teach your child guitar or piano or drums, or to find classes in ballet and tap, creative writing programs for young people are rare. At The Muse they’re also free, although donations are welcome. Even though the center has a robust tuition assistance program, Khandelwal found that sometimes just asking for help has been a barrier, and The Muse wants everyone to have access. 

Now only a third of the center’s income comes from tuition. The rest comes from donations from individuals and corporations, and grants, including from The Norfolk Commission on the Arts and Humanities, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, and The National Endowment for the Arts. It’s also often one of the highest earners in Give Local 757, a grass roots fundraising push organized by The Peninsula Community Foundation.

Lisa Cooper, manager of the Literary Arts for Wellness Program, began as a student 15 years ago. She went on to get her MFA from Seton Hall University, and The Muse’s Associate Executive Director Shawn Girvan, who also directs the Adult Literary Program, offered her a chance to teach a class on writing through grief and trauma.

“I really felt like The Muse needed to expand out and take a look at the therapeutic benefits of writing and what we can do to help people using writing as a healing instrument,” Cooper says. So she’s taught courses on writing with mental illness, and writing through trauma and death and dying. “The dark memoir actually turned out to be a very popular class for people who had edgier things that they wanted to share, and they needed a safe environment to do that where they weren’t going to be judged.”

She now hosts classes in senior living communities and for members of the military. She works with Wounded Warriors and veterans with PTSD. The free outreach program uses creative writing as an expressive arts healing tool to reach youth in crisis, seniors living in memory care, patients at the Brock Cancer Center, people dealing with grief and loss, and those without a home, including those at The Urban Renewal Center, where Rachel Cropper, the vice president of community engagement who oversees the classes, has seen a profound impact on residents and day guests’ lives.

“We have seen deep emotional responses from the women who have participated,” she says. “We’ve laughed and we’ve cried, we’ve had women say things like ‘I haven’t actually felt these emotions in a long time,’ or ‘I’ve never done anything like this before, it’s been helpful for me to find words for what I’m feeling.’

“We have nothing but praise for them,” Cropper continues. “They’re doing incredible things for our community. And Lisa is a gem of a person. We couldn’t ask for someone more sensitive or tender. She’s navigated the hearts of the folks we’re all serving together. It’s beautiful.”

For Cooper, it’s a dream job. “I just wake up every morning feeling this sense of purpose and just gratefulness in my heart that I can not only work with such creative, interesting people, but go out into community and reach people, and when you see them light up or you see them calm down, it really moves me.”

The very existence of The Muse in Hampton Roads shocks some people, says Girvan. “They go, Wow! I didn’t know that Norfolk had this huge writing center! And it’s exciting to meet people who maybe have been looking for a place like this their whole life and didn’t even know it. We get to see that on a weekly basis. There are people here that, this is their lifeline. They haven’t felt connected anywhere before, and, they feel like, wow, I’m wanted here. I have friends here. They finally find people like them, or at least people they could talk about things with and not feel judged. We want to make sure that people feel welcome here and feel like they can find their voice here, and I think we’re pretty successful at that.”

Derek Spohn took his first Muse class in 2017 and he’s now a volunteer, spending one day a week answering questions and phones, but mostly chatting it up with other writers.

Teen Open Mic at The Muse
A Teen Open Mic Night at The Muse (Photo by Jessica Kelley)

“I like the chance to be a part of the writing community there,” says Spohn, a science fiction writer whose social life is split between The Muse and the Autism Society of Tidewater. “There’s such a variety of people who go there, doing all kinds of different writing. It helps me with my writing because I get to see other people’s perspective on it and learn from people about their own experiences with writing.”

Aleene Rose, who lives at the senior community Harbor’s Edge, says writing memoir under teacher Kelly Sokol there has introduced her to people she hadn’t known before. “We became a group, very trusting,” she says. “And I wrote things I never thought would come out of me. As you’re writing, things hit you that you thought were lost in gray matter a long time ago.”

People across Coastal Virginia—indeed, around the world now due to remote and hybrid classes—are discovering themselves through Muse classes and events. They’re finding community and talent and meaning. They’re talking with imaginary friends, building unknown worlds and joining together in the joy of telling stories.

“When I’m at an event and I talk about The Muse, or I’m talking to a person about it for the first time, or I hear a story from somebody who tells me how grateful they are, it just makes me want to cry,” Khandelwal says. “But in a good way. It makes me want to just glow from my heart.”

Learn more at the-muse.org

Janine Latus Headshot
Janine Latus
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Janine Latus is a freelance writer who spent a lovely decade in Coastal Virginia and now lives in Chapel Hill, NC. It’s her delight and job to talk to interesting people about fascinating things and then play with words. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister’s Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation.

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