Michael Khandelwal, director of the Muse Writers Center, is used to getting phone calls, but not one quite like this.
On the other end of the line is a blind 97-year old, asking about the process of publishing a book. Khandelwal, polite and with a unmistakable hint of surprise in his voice, offers room for him in their seminar on self-publishing, just one of the nearly 80 classes they offer.
“The Muse”, as it is so frequently called, is a literary center focused on developing writing skills and providing a sense of community.
“This is a gem,” Sara Pringle, ODU professor and instructor at the center said. “Not very many places have a writing center like this and everyone here starts to learn that and love that about this place. That’s what makes us better and better all of the time is that we bring in so much of the community.”
This inclusiveness is seen through their events like monthly coffee breaks, weekly writers happy hour, and other social functions that connect writers with each other and with the greater community.
These efforts signal a mature phase of The Muse, who now have both the expertise and funds to organize such events.
However, this maturity did not come without enormous amounts of effort and energy.
The building that houses the current Muse Center in central Ghent is newly furnished and clean as a doctor’s office. However, the Muse itself has moved from place to place, first renting out space in art schools to a garage with “leaks and mildew” and then finally settling their own space.
“We’ve grown in the past 10 years from being brand new to being one of the top ten literary centers in the country,” Khandelwal said.
This growth is in part because of its dedication to providing a rich learning environment.
From workshops to classes to summer camps, The Muse Writers Center can cater to any interest and age. Their demographic extends from age eight to now 97. The class sizes are usually capped at eight to nine people, according to Khandelwal, to encourage participation. “We are also the only literary center in the country to have an extensive tuition assistance program,” Khandelwal said. “We don’t want to turn people away from a class just because they can’t afford it, even though it’s a tenth of a college class.”
The Muse Writers Center usually gives away $12,000 in tuition, and that money is generated through fundraising and donations. “Economic barriers to learning and creativity shouldn’t exist. That’s our thinking at least, I know they do but we don’t want them to exist,” Khandelwal said.
In addition to tuition assistance, the center has a strong base of professors, most with MFAs.
These professors range from ODU, CNU, Hampton, Norfolk State and Wesleyan, and the student base is just as varied. Students come from all over the Peninsula, even sometimes as far away as North Carolina because of attractive pull of this unique place.
“It’s so amazing to see how talented and prolific young writers can be, how imaginative they are,” Pringle said, who works primarily with the teen program. “They are so inspiring to work with. They remind you of all this creativity that is out in the world that you have to remember to go back and grab. I think we beat the creativity out of people and working with children reminds you of how much creativity is out there.”
Another unique aspect of the center is their extensive poetry library, which is one of the larger ones in the country, according to Khandelwal.
They have over two thousand books of poetry, half of them from other countries.
Attractions like these help transform The Muse into a transit between writers and the greater community.
“It creates a literary hub of activity for the literary arts scene in the area,” Khandelwal said. “It supports local writers by allowing people to refine their voice and refine their craft. And it’s sort of like providing a beacon: here’s literary arts and they’re important and we want you to join us.”