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Literary evolution: Madwomen in the Attic shakes up the model for creative writing workshops

Madwomen in the Attic logo

Madwomen in the Attic's 19th anthology cover

Jan Beatty, director of Madwomen in the Attic.


All it takes is one look at their logo, and you have a good idea of what to expect from the Madwomen in the Attic. The black and white image features a woman—race, age, and class indistinguishable—hunched over a writing desk. This is the point of Madwomen: a writer can be anyone, no matter her background. For 35 years, the Madwomen in the Attic have grown this mission, and while women writers are still underrepresented in literature, the group is still committed to helping female authors find their place. 
 
Madwomen in the Attic was started in 1979 at Carlow University after visiting writer Tillie Olsen was bombarded with women asking questions about writing and sharing their stories and poems. The group is named after Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's scholarly work about 19th century women writers.
 
Originally, Madwomen offered two workshops to a small group of women. Today, there are 10 workshops in three genres (fiction, nonfiction and poetry), nine teachers and 228 members ranging in age from 18 to 92, says Jan Beatty, director of Madwomen in the Attic.
 
The workshops continue to take place at Carlow, and are open to the public as well as Carlow undergraduates. Madwomen in the Attic also hosts two reading series, offers mentoring, publishes the annual anthology Voices in the Attic, operates the small press, MadBooks, and sponsors the national Patricia Dobler Award.

A safe space for sharing
Over the years, esteemed writers such as Maggie Anderson, Alicia Ostriker, Patricia Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye and Maxine Kumin have joined the Madwomen to read and share their expertise.
 
Recently, the group received the Dorothy Louise Holley Endowment from her daughter, Beth Piraino, to help underwrite costs related to hosting the aforementioned authors. Holley, who passed away in 2010, joined Madwomen in her 80s, during which time she published four volumes of poetry.
 
Beatty fondly remembers her first interaction with Holley, who asked her to look over some poems outside of the workshop setting. Beatty agreed and was stunned when Holley brought her a big stack of powerful poetry.
 
“There are women who come to Madwomen who haven’t written in 20 years,” Beatty says. “People who are afraid to share their work. They don’t believe in themselves, usually because of fear, misogyny, sexism—these things can infiltrate a person’s psyche.”
 
Empowering female authors
Feeling empowered is a common thread among the Madwomen.
 
Wendy Scott, author of the recently released collection of poems, Soon I Will Build an Ark, agrees. She came to Madwomen in 1994 seeking feedback on the portfolio she was submitting with her Master’s of Fine Arts application. 
 
Scott says she will never forget her first workshop.
 
“The women in the program were supportive, willing to give feedback and critique,” she recalls. “The group was unique and different. It broke down my sense of what people can do at different ages.”
 
Beatty says women have traveled from West Virginia and Maryland to attend the Pittsburgh workshops. 

One of these women was Lori Wilson. When her commute from Morgantown, W. Va., was getting to be too much, she approached Beatty about starting her own branch of Madwomen in the Attic. Beatty agreed, as long as it emulated the Pittsburgh organization.
 
“We’re about to complete our third semester," Wilson says of the Morgantown Madwomen. "We’re small… but the workshops have been animated and productive, and I suspect that they’ll grow. Already there is a bond among the women who’ve participated.”
 
Smart growth
As interest in the program grows, Beatty is determined to keep up with the demand.
 
“We’re moving slowly, though, because that’s the best way to move to stay solid,” she says. “Plenty of ventures grow too fast and die. We want to be around forever.”
 
Last year, Beatty formed a committee of Madwomen with experience in development and public relations to create a fundraising plan. The committee, called the MadFunders, in conjunction with Carlow’s development office, is applying for grants, soliciting donors and considering Madwomen memorabilia. 
 
So far, the MadFunders’ efforts are paying off. They secured funding from the Carlow University Grace Ann Geibel Institute for Justice and Social Responsibility to help host Aracelis Girmay, an African American writer, who read and lectured in March.
 
And fundraising isn't the only way the Madwomen are looking to the future. A long list of goals includes expanding the types of classes offered, hosting webinars and global online workshops, and building a center that would allow women to schedule writing time. 
 
When asked what’s central to the longevity of Madwomen, Beatty gives credit to participants over the years:
 
“Madwomen supports womens' writing through classes and readings, but the support also happens between women in classes,” she says. “People splinter off and form their own writing groups. They form friendships and a support system. It’s all about women helping women.
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