Spreading the Word

The Writers Room cultivates a community of wordsmiths in Doylestown, Pa.

By: Amy Brummer
   Some say you can never go home again. Times change, people move on, and the realities of today rarely live up to the nostalgia of youth.
   For Doylestown, Pa., native Foster Winans, returning home not only lived up to his expectations, it gave him the opportunity to add to the town’s famed arts legacy. In 1999, Mr. Winans founded The Writers Room in the same locale where he started his own writing career.
   Mr. Winans, author of the 1986 memoir Trading Secrets (St. Martin’s Press), began developing his journalistic instincts during his school days, moving on to reporting jobs that started with the Doylestown Intelligencer and took him around the country before landing him at The Wall Street Journal.
   It turned out to be a journey of self-discovery for Mr. Winans. After riding a wave of successes and pitfalls, he felt ready to return to the bucolic charm of Bucks County.
   "Community is everything, knowing your neighbors more that just nodding at them at the checkout counter, having resources that you didn’t know were out there, finding them through community," Mr. Winans says. "I grew up here. I am very grateful to be able to come back to my hometown and find it not only the way it was but find it better than the way it was. To come back and find it more prosperous, the cultural activity heightened and growing. The center of gravity growing here in Doylestown is very exciting."
   Mr. Winans will discuss the rich literary and artistic heritage of the region in a lecture at the New Hope-Solebury Library March 4. Once called "the genius belt," the greater Doylestown area has been home to creative giants such as Pearl S. Buck, James A. Michener, Dorothy Parker and Oscar Hammerstein.
   "I guess I will be talking about the writer in Bucks County and my experience as a native son," he says. "I like to talk about the whole experience of art and geography intersecting. We live in area that has this heritage, that heritage inspired me and I have come back and I am adding to the heritage, and I like the idea of the community aspect to it. But also people are fascinated by what happened to me at ‘The Wall Street Journal’ — an endless fascination, so I’ll talk a little about that and about The Writers Room and how it’s growing."
   Mr. Winans’ experience at The Wall Street Journal was at one point a hot topic in national news. In 1984, he was accused of capitalizing on information that he was privy to while writing the column "Heard on the Street." While he quickly apologized for the transgression, the case sparked a complex debate over journalistic and business ethics as well as insider trading. Convicted of 59 counts of mail, wire and securities fraud, Mr. Winans was sentenced to jail and served eight months.
   During that time he wrote daily, keeping detailed accounts of his environment and what was going on around him. In addition, he put his writing skills to good use helping other inmates. He recalls sitting in the law library at the prison when one of the inmates came in needing to write a letter to the judge who had sentenced him. After talking with him, Mr. Winans realized he could put his journalistic talents to good use by taking what this man had to say and conveying it in writing. When he finished writing the letter, the man read it and began to cry.
   "This was a big revelation for me," Mr. Winans says. "When you’re writing for a newspaper and you write an article about business, probably nobody cries when they read it — there is nothing intimate or personal. This was a whole new experience, and it became kind of a calling that continues to this day."
   Drawing on that inspiration, Mr. Winans embarked on a successful career as a ghost writer. He has written books for people who had knowledge and information they wanted to convey but lacked the skills to put it into words. The topics ranged from business issues to historical fiction, as well as publications for groups whose mission he supported such as land preservation.
   But when he moved back to Doylestown, he found that the life of a free-lance writer in the outer suburbs was a lonely one. Using money he had inherited from his mother’s estate, he founded The Writers Room, based on a similar model in New York City, which could be a place for writers to share space and network. Officially opened in 1999, The Writers Room transcended its original intention by hosting salons and workshops, as well as providing resources and programs for writers to advance their career goals.
   "I didn’t start The Writers Room with the intention that it was going to be an act of redemption, but it has become that, very much so," Mr. Winans says. "As I got further and further into it and put more and more money into it, it became almost an obsession because people were really responding. I may be driven a little harder than someone else might be. The way I like to put it is that I spent the first part of my life seeing what I could get out of it and am now spending the rest of the time seeing what I can put into it."
   Not only has Mr. Winans made a considerable contribution to the community through his efforts, The Writers Room has had a significant personal impact on many people.
   He recalls asking a woman what her impressions were of her first visit to The Writers Room. "She said, ‘I felt like a key that had finally found its lock.’ She went on to describe this sense of being among people who understood what she meant, were interested in what she was interested in, which was poetry, wanted to hear what she had written, she wanted to hear what they had written, and she felt like she belonged."
   That sense of belonging and purpose has extended to the teen-age community as well. In February 2002, The Writers Room launched Underage Thinking, a literary magazine devoted to the writing and artwork of Doylestown area youth.
   "What we learned is that we had a teen workshop going," Mr. Winans says. "Kids were coming here and reading their poetry, and they had so much to say. They really wanted to share it with someone, but not someone they knew. They could come here once a month, share their poetry, get some feedback from a facilitator, who at the time was me, and the next day could go back to school and not have to face these people in the hallway.
   "And it wasn’t family who would have a tendency to overly praise or criticize, to question what they meant by certain things. It is a completely neutral environment, and a professional environment. The students overwhelmingly felt that their work was too controversial for the newspaper and too weird for the literary publication. So I got thinking ‘Too controversial, too weird, I can deal with that,’ so that was the genesis of ‘Underage Thinking.’"
   The Writers Room also publishes The Bucks County Writer, a literary quarterly containing fiction, poetry and artwork. The group has developed a project that pairs high school and college students with seniors who share their life stories. These oral histories are turned into memoirs by the students and then published.
   Mr. Winans believes that getting published is a great reward for a writer, but he stresses that it is not a prerequisite to getting involved at The Writers Room. He also adds that while memberships are available, it is open to anyone who is interested in what they have to offer.
   "When I first started The Writers Room, the prevailing wisdom was that either you were getting published or you were getting paid or weren’t a writer," he says. "That is not true, if it was ever true, but it is generally not. Lots of people come in here who are emerging writers, and they may or may not be looking for an audience but we treat them all the same. At a lot of our events in the same room, you will have an audience who range from professionals to somebody who woke up this morning and decided they wanted to try whatever it is."
   In the past year, The Writers Room has hosted workshops with Hollywood screenwriter Mark Rosenthal, who wrote The Silence of the Lambs, best-selling author James McBride, syndicated food columnist Pam Anderson, Anne Rice biographer Katherine Ramsland and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Weiner, to name a few.
   "We set our program up to have one major event a month in each of the four major genres, poetry, fiction, nonfiction and screenwriting. " Mr. Winans says. "With my background in national journalism, I am not satisfied with someone who doesn’t have real experience and has a lot to say. I have encouraged the people who are looking for program speakers to look for someone who has written a lot of books and people who have many years working in different fields who have a lot of experience and really have something to offer."
   As they continue to build their reputation by attracting quality speakers and teachers, the interest keeps growing. Having recently received grants from the Janet Annenberg Hooker Charitable Trust and the Five County Arts Fund, The Writers Room keeps taking greater strides to securing its future in the cultural landscape of Doylestown.
   "The Writers Room is at a very exciting juncture," Mr. Winans says. "We are being considered for a grant from a major national foundation. The community has really adopted The Writers Room with a vengeance, and we are becoming a major prized resource in the community, and that to me is the ultimate payback."
Foster Winans will speak at the New Hope-Solebury Library, 93 W. Ferry St., New Hope, Pa., March 4, 7:30 p.m. For information, call (215) 348-1663, or visit The Writers Room, 4 W. Oakland Ave., Doylestown, Pa. On the Web: www.writersroom.net