Patricia Weaver Francisco has worn a lot of hats at the Loft Literary Center.
Like many of the Loft’s alumni, the Minnesota Book Award-winning author began as a mentee at the literary center, and now as the nation’s largest literary center celebrates its 40th anniversary, she returns, critiquing the work of young writers and celebrating the community built around the Loft.
“The Loft has been around long enough that the circle has been completed for a number of writers in town,” Francisco said. “It has served me through every stage of my writing life.”
Since being incorporated Aug. 22, 1975, the Loft has gone from an assortment of poets in Dinkytown to a national model for literary centers, launching the careers of countless writers and publishers along the way.
The Loft runs educational programs, gives out grants and hosts dozens of events each year out of Downtown East’s Open Book, an umbrella organization for the building’s literary tenants. After four decades of these programs, the Loft now sees its students, readers and staff becoming celebrated authors and teachers, from John Irving to Brian Malloy to founding member Patricia Hampl.
“One thing the Loft has been awfully good at is grabbing people before they’re famous,” said Executive Director Jocelyn Hale.
And many give back to the Loft through its mentor series or teaching classes.
One of the Loft’s longtime teachers, Rosanne Bane has taught students how to conquer writer’s block for 25 years and has written two books based off her classes.
“I’ll have people, 10, 15 years later, who say ‘I’m still writing,’” Bane said. “I could not have built the career that I have in another city. It’s a phenomenon.”
The Loft and its writers have also inspired similar organizations, such as Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, Baltimore’s CityLit and Boston’s GrubStreet. “When we started, for the first 10 or 20 years there really wasn’t a whole lot out there,” Hale said.
The Loft continues to be a leader as it evolves with the literary world. Hale remembers the recession hitting the Loft in her first week on the job in 2007, and an organization poorly equipped for the future.
“You had the economy changing the same time as the entire world changing,” she said. “We had a strong reputation, but we were really behind on technology. Every classroom had a pencil sharpener, and had one outlet and no Wi-Fi.”
Though writing changed decades into its history, the Loft changed too, investing in its own sophisticated online education program, which now serves writers-in-training all over the world via online classes.
Paying writers for their work continues be the Loft’s priority as the economic model for publishing shifts. The nonprofit still pays out more than $400,000 each year to its teaching artists.
“What happened here 40 years ago was an understanding that writers could create a place for other writers,” Francisco said. “We’ve been known nationally as the people who figured out how to do this.”
To celebrate its teachers, students and staff, the Loft is throwing itself a birthday party, celebrating 40 years with 40 events in 40 hours. From Aug. 21-22, the Loft will be showcasing its history and community through events all around the city, as well as introducing its new executive director, Britt Udesen.
Udesen will be taking over the Loft in September, leaving a director position at The Cabin, a literary center in Boise, Idaho.
Hale announced in January that she would take a personal sabbatical year following eight years leading the nonprofit. Hale and a hiring committee conveniently sought national applications when Minneapolis hosted the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference — the country’s largest literary conference — in April.
Udesen isn’t a stranger to Minneapolis, having lived near the Twin Cities and graduated from Macalester College. It’s going to be a big year for Udesen, who in addition to getting her dream job, getting married and turning 40 herself, will be attending most, if not all, the 40 for 40 anniversary events with Hale.
“I’m incredibly excited to move back to Minneapolis. It’s going to be fun—it’s going to be exhausting—but it’s going to be fun,” she said.
Udesen, though not much of a writer herself, will continue Hale’s love of storytelling and reading, which Hale jokes could be the key to world peace. Under her leadership, the Loft will support another circle of writers.
“I believe storytelling is essential. It’s been important to me as long as I can remember,” she said.