The Story of a Writers Workshop: Lighthouse Shines in Denver

Everyone has a story to tell. For the past 16 years, Denver's Lighthouse Writers Workshop has made sure those stories were told through the written word. Offering workshops, literary events and more, Lighthouse in landlocked Colorado provides a guiding light to literary types by promoting engagement, growth and connection among writers and readers.
Two women about 30 years apart in age are in deep discussion at the historic Milheim House on 1515 Race Street. They come from different backgrounds and have almost nothing in common, except that both are aspiring novelists. And at Denver-based Lighthouse Writers Workshop, that's more than plenty. 
While writing is a solitary act, Lighthouse Writers work to make sure no writer truly feels alone. 
"So many of us just need a reason for writing," says Andrea Dupree, Co-Founder and Program Director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. "Most of us have day jobs, families and other time constraints. But to have a community where there is a respected mentor figure who will read a manuscript -- writing goes up on the priority list and that's what we aim to do." 
From eight-week novel boot camp classes to bringing in Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz to teach and lead discussions, Lighthouse Writers is serious business. And graduates of the program have seen their own share of literary success.  One example, Denver-based Eleanor Brown, the bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, actually cites Lighthouse Writers as one reason for her move to Colorado. 
Chapter 1: The ideaThe Lighthouse at night during Lit Fest 2013.
In 1996, Dupree, a short story writer, and her husband, poet Mike Henry, were in Boston straight out of graduate school teaching at local universities. Problem was, it wasn't what they had in mind. 
Teaching 'Intro to Composition' to college freshmen who were probably more concerned about the next keg party wasn't the most gratifying experience for the passionate writers. 
"We weren't teaching what we love," she says. "So we decided to start our own workshop."
They realized that not all aspiring writers have the time or money to enroll in college-level creative writing courses. So the writers decided they could reach a broader audience by offering their own workshops with no minimum GPA requirement or course load. The only requirement was a desire to write.
They were quickly able to recruit writers from diverse backgrounds to build a community support group for writing, which proved to the husband-and-wife team that there is an audience for independently run workshop classes. 
After they saw success in Boston, they decided to bring the concept to Denver in 1997. The problem was, unlike in Boston, they didn't have connections.
"It was a lot more difficult than expected," Dupree says. "What happened is that no one knew of us, which was a big obstacle. People would say, 'Okay, a lot of people say they are writers and help writers, what do you have to offer?' To start what we envisioned, we needed more people to get it going."
They were able to promote their workshop at the Rocky Mountain Book Festival, which helped spread the word. They began with two workshops at Denver Public Library, with featured about 50 people in attendance. Mike and Andrea co-facilitated these initial workshops and urged participants to take their first, somewhat undefined creative writing workshop.
The first such workshop had four members. The next had two. Then it was back to four again. By the end of the fourth workshop, Lighthouse had a core group of writers. 
Dupree said hiring the right faculty became the organization's lifeblood. 
"The people who have stayed with us tend to be driven and natural teachers," she says. "We've gotten really lucky because we know there are plenty of amazing writers who are lousy teachers and that would have killed us. We all feel lucky for the faculty we have and that's how we continue to keep growing." 
Chapter 2: Securing the nonprofit route 
Lighthouse was founded as a LLC. The founders were hesitant about establishing it as a nonprofit as Dupree says they didn't want to spend most of their time dealing with the business of being a nonprofit. But at the same time, the concept nicely aligned with that of a nonprofit. 
"We thought about a lot about things we could do as a nonprofit that we couldn't do by ourselves," she says. "More importantly, you get more people to take ownership than just Mike and I. We felt that we had hit our max in what we could do as an organization, yet we were still growing. You know, I'm a fiction writer and Mike is a poet so there are limitations to our skills and business savvy." 
In 2004, Lighthouse Writers Workshop was officially designated as a 501(c)3 organization. Dupree says that was the big turning point for the organization.
Chapter 3: Continued growth Andre Dubus III, author of "The House of Sand and Fog," talking with Kate Barrett.
This year, about 5,000 writers will attend a workshop or event at Lighthouse. Membership is growing at a steady clip of about 25 percent a year.
Dupree says that the spirit of those early workshops is alive and well at Lighthouse today. Writers are writing the stories they are meant to write. Workshop participants are publishing books, winning awards and even seeing their novels turned into movies. 
While much of its core membership base is located in Colorado, writers from all over the country come to Denver to participate in a workshop. Aspiring writers have embraced this more affordable and job-friendly alternative to the academic route.
Going forward, Dupree says Lighthouse is focused on smart, sustainable growth. In addition, they are looking to get even more involved in the Denver arts community. 
"We're really focused on how to make Denver and the philanthropic arts community recognize how important it is for the city to have literary center, not everyone has one," she explains. "We need to show that we matter to the community and how a thriving arts community makes a place a stronger and more desirable place to live."
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Read more articles by Heather Caliendo.

Heather is a Denver-based journalist and Confluence contributor. 
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