Guest Interview: Heather Kelly on the Writers’ Loft Inspiring Creativity & Camaraderie

By Helen Kampion

Writing can often be lonely and isolating. How do authors address this? Some co-author books, others write in public places, and others find a community. One such place is the Writers’ Loft in Hudson, Massachusetts, which offered me a place to meet other writers, build on my craft, and be surrounded by dedicated kid lit folks. Today founder and author Heather Kelly shares her story of bringing together writers, inspiring creativity, and promoting camaraderie.

What prompted you to start the Loft?

First, thanks to Helen for inviting me to chat with you here about the Writers’ Loft! There are a million different reasons I started the Loft, but the long and short of it is that I decided if I found writing and authoring much harder when I did it alone, then other writers, authors, and illustrators might too! If my creativity and productivity and learning got easier and better in community, I suspected it might work for other creatives out there as well.

What steps did you take to set it up?

I thought, if I provided a place for writers to gather, then maybe they would, well, gather. So, I rented a small office five miles from my house, to see if I liked working at an office space, and when it worked for me, I rented a bigger, two-room office in the same building. Talk about scary! I sat in that big office space, alone, wondering what on earth had I done?! But then I threw myself into imagining what type of community I wanted to create – an organization with a culture of kindness, creativity, and learning. I asked people to be involved at the planning level, and the Writers’ Loft Board has always been an amazing group of creatives who keep the Loft growing!

How did you initially approach writers?

I was helping run the New England-SCBWI conference at the time, so I spread the word there! It was important to me that the message spread by word of mouth because I wanted to make sure that the people entering the community were interested in helping other people with their writing and creative careers, as well as leveling up themselves. Building the culture one person at a time. Establishing the first critique group gave us our first loyal members! (Thank you, Josh Funk, Pam Vaughan, and Kyla P’an!)

Josh Funk signs books at Writers’ Loft’s Winter Bazaar.

How does the membership work?

First off, anyone can be a part of the Loft regardless of membership status! In fact, there is a (Green) pay-as-you-go membership which means you simply donate to the Loft (we’re a 504(c)3 non-profit) when you use the space or crit groups. Young adults get a free yearly membership as well.

I’m so grateful to our yearly members because they literally keep the lights on at the Loft. There is a (Red) virtual membership which gives a discount on virtual workshops and classes, a (Blue) in-person membership which allows you to drop in and write at the Loft all year long, a (Purple) full membership combining both virtual discounts and in-person drop-ins, and an (Gold) elite membership with even more perks. Once you’re a member we give you the door code and you can come and go as your creative schedule allows. My favorite membership perk is possible entry into our amazing anthologies!

Writer’s Loft Members with An Assortment of Animals poetry anthology.

How has the Writers’ Loft evolved over time?

I’m delighted that our big move from Sherborn to Hudson, Mass. allowed us to support artists and illustrators in a way we weren’t able to before, and gave us a much bigger, more creative space. The pandemic pushed us to offer our workshops and classes virtually, so we’ve grown well beyond supporting New England creatives. We have publishing opportunities, critique groups for writers and illustrators, indie publishing courses, etc. We have over 1200 authors and illustrators who utilize the Loft in some capacity, which is beyond what I could imagine when I was sitting in an office by myself!

If you are a creative, you belong at the Loft.

How do you decide on what classes to offer?

Ideally, we hear that someone needs a workshop or class and we provide it! Last year, we started a brand-new process of empowering our community members to seek out presenters and workshops. Right now, I’m making that process more user-friendly! That way, members of the Loft get to own what workshops and classes we offer.

Alternatively, sometimes presenters come to us and offer a workshop or two, by filling out our online contract. If what they offer it is a good fit for the Loft, we start the process of putting their offerings on the calendar! Our presenters are amazing. Feel free to submit if you are an experienced presenter!

We want our workshops and classes to reflect what our members need to get to the next level, whether it’s mindset, craft, marketing, critiques with agents and editors, or indie-publishing. We love lifting up diverse voices, and we also love supporting the next generation of creatives—every workshop and class is offered for free to young adults.

Specifically, how did the latest anthology, Friends & Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children come about? Editorial process? Contributors? Time from start to finish?

Oh boy, our anthologies and Writers’ Loft Press are some of my favorite things! A huge shout out to Kristen Wixted for starting our foray into illustrated poetry anthologies!

Friends & Anemones was our love note to the ocean and all its creatures. The whole anthology process takes two years from start to finish. We begin with poetry and art submissions, then critique groups, editorial letters, onboarding the artists, artist crit groups, art director feedback, then into the book design process (many thanks to our current book designer, Robert Thibeault!), and then, finally, into all the steps of publication.

We cap off our achievement with a book release party at our annual Winter Bazaar, and then we jump into school visits, book store readings, and marketing with our anthology participants. It takes a ton of volunteer-hours to get this project off the ground, which is why everyone involved is required to be a yearly member of the Loft during the duration. Friends & Anemones had over seventy contributors. Our current anthology, Gnomes & Ungnomes, is in the works, so check it out! Our fearless editors, Kristen Wixted and Audrey Day Williams, along with Robert Thibeault are wrangling over 100 authors and illustrators in this amazing book to be published in the winter of 2023.

How has the Loft impacted your writing and what have you heard about other’s writing being affected by Loft events and programs?

That is a huge question! The Loft continues to teach me things every day, from how different writers and illustrators get their creative work done, to how to build and inspire creative community. I discovered I love mentoring and teaching, and, through our anthologies, that I love being an editor and publisher. I love indie-pubbing my own books!

There are too many Loft success stories to count—people tell me on a daily basis the ways that the Loft has helped them. With learning and community, for sure, but also with making their dreams come true.

Book Signing for Friends & Anemones poetry anthology.

What is the greatest reward from starting the Writers’ Loft?

I found my own community through the Writers’ Loft—crit partners, business partners, co-authors and friends. But I also love knowing that this community helps people! When I started the Loft, my mantra was: If this helps one person, it will be worth it. And every time we have a new venture, I think that exact same thing.

What advice would you give to others who wanted to start a similar organization?

Start small. Small successes are key. Be open to what your organization grows into, and it’s okay for that to be a surprise! I thought the Loft would be an office for writers and illustrators to get their work done side-by-side in community, and look at what it actually became!

What upcoming events are you most excited about?

This year marks the tenth year of the Writers’ Loft—I started it in March of 2013. I’m looking for ways to celebrate all year long! I’m open to suggestions; just drop the Writers’ Loft an email! That being said, I’m super excited about the book launch of Gnomes & Ungnomes at the Winter Bazaar, but there’s always something to look forward to at the Loft! Check out our events, or email us to join a (virtual) crit group, or to stop by for a visit. It only takes one email to belong to the Loft!

Thank you again, Helen for inviting me here to share about the Writers’ Loft!

Cynsations Notes

Author Heather Kelly, photo by Rae Ann Bochanyin

Heather Kelly is founder of the Writers’ Loft community, and developer of the Creatively WIN method for writers, Heather wears many hats. She is a professional mentor, publisher, editor, author, conference director, and Pokémon catcher. She strives to help all writers, big and small, tell their stories. She thrives on collaboration, creativeness, and community. Heather lives in New England with as many cats as her husband and three children allow.

Helen Kampion writes poetry, picture books, and middle grade novels. She has published stories in magazines and written non-fiction articles for The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA, where she serves as Treasurer. In addition to an MBA from Boston University, Helen holds an MFA in WCYA from Vermont College.

Her debut picture book bio, co-authored with fellow Vermont College grad, Renee Lyons, is scheduled for launch Fall 2024 by Sleeping Bear Press. She lives with her husband and two cats (her “mews”) in Massachusetts. When she is not scribbling away, you will find her curled up with a book, a cat, and a nice hot cup of tea.