NEA Arts Magazine

The Power of Words

Missoula Writing Collaborative's Writing Residencies

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Excited fourth-graders wait to share their work

Excited fourth-graders wait to share their work at a reading at the Missoula Art Museum, the culmination of a Missoula Writing Collaborative writer residency. Photo by Jason Seagle.

Founded in 1994, the Missoula Writing Collaborative (MWC) provides in-school creative writing residencies to approximately 1,500 elementary, middle, and high schoolers each year. In this interview excerpt, MWC Artistic Director Sheryl Noethe and Administrator Megan McNamer discuss MWC's impact on the student writers and their communities. For the complete interview with Missoula Writing Collaborative, please visit www.arts.gov/ features/index.html.

NEA: How did the Missoula Writing Collaborative begin?

MWC: We began in l994 with support from the Charles Engelhard Foundation. Since then we have grown -- mainly through word of mouth from teachers and principals -- from five school residencies in Missoula, Montana, to our current fifteen, located in Missoula and surrounding rural areas, including the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This year we were invited to mentor efforts by the Pacific Writers' Connection to reestablish a writers-in-the schools program in Honolulu, and we've begun initial planning for our own pilot residency in Alaska (dependent, as always, on funding).

NEA: In addition to improved writing skills, what do you think students gain from working with the resident writers?

MWC: The students join the fellowship of literature and contribute to it, they make better connections with others, and they define themselves in much more positive ways. They belong. They matter. They are someone of worth.

They also get to know people who have chosen to make creative writing their life's passion and, whenever possible, their life's work -- which usually means opting for a definition of success that is not based on money. We don't discourage the idea of power when encouraging kids to write. Words are powerful. We just hope that the students reached by our program will get a broad view of what it is that might really, finally, be worth pursuing. We think it is a great thing when students get a glimpse of the private promise of their lives.

NEA: How do you think the writing residencies affect the community in general?

MWC: Our public poetry readings and our anthologies of student work are very popular and valued. . . . Our work extends into the community via children at risk, homeless populations, group homes, detention centers. We make people aware that their children are the most valuable resource.

NEA: How important is NEA funding to MWC?

MWC: NEA funding opportunities have helped us move into rural communities around Missoula, including the Flathead Reservation. And they have inspired us to think broadly, even daringly, so that when a new idea emerges we are less likely to say, "We can't do that," and more likely to say, "Let's see if we can put it together." Our NEA grants have been a huge endorsement, liberating us to become more creative in our ideas about the teaching of creative writing.