Digging up the Roots: How one Entrepreneur’s idea Flourished into a Vibrant Writers’ Community
by Sherry Hinman
When Marjorie Green, first president and founding member of WCDR, decided to start up a writing workshop and seminar business in 1995, she knew there had to be hundreds of writers in Durham Region like her, who could benefit from workshops and training and from meeting with other writers. So she took her idea to create a writers’ organization to a friend and client, Esme Gotz, who owned the Oshawa and Pickering campuses of Toronto School of Business (TSB). At that time, the TSB was operating a Mentor Centre in Oshawa, and Esme told Marge to ask John Troop for his suggestions on how to start such a business.
John told her to put a write-up in the paper inviting writers and editors, and anyone else interested in meeting with writers and editors, to come to a networking breakfast meeting, and see who showed up. Networking, especially at breakfast, was big at the time, so she did what John suggested.
Around the same time, Marge had started up three writing circles: Durham Write-On, Volume Two and Trilogy. (“1,” “2,” and “3” they named themselves). She let each of these three groups know what she was planning to do, and said she hoped they would come.
In fact, she didn’t get much immediate support from those circles. (As Carl Clark would later say, “Who wants to go to a breakfast at 8 a.m. on a bitter cold Saturday in February?”) But one guy, miraculously, stepped forward, and Marge remembers his words to this day). “My God! Are you actually planning on doing all this yourself?” he said. “You’re going to need some help! Let me help you. What can I do?”
Roger Beckett insisted on supporting Marge in this – strictly as a volunteer – because he thought it was such a wonderful idea. He offered to record people’s names and take money at the door, so Marge would be able to contact them again later if it turned out to be a good idea. He roped in a photographer friend, Harvey, and that left Marge free to do everything else.
She paid the deposit and arranged for the hall upstairs in Swan’s Marina, at the foot of Liverpool Rd, went to Costco the night before and picked up the muffins and coffee, and delivered them to the restaurant downstairs. The guy from the restaurant set out the tables the following morning, but Marge had to arrive an hour early to set up the food and start the coffee. And she did so for the next several meetings.
Did they get 10, 15 people at that first breakfast meeting? No. WCDR never was the fabled “little writing circle that grew.” That first meeting, in February, 1995, attracted a large room full of people, about 65.
Because people had to call Marge to reserve their place at the breakfast, she took full advantage and asked them questions when they called. What were they writing? What would they like to see happen? They also filled out survey forms that Roger handed them at the door. People like Caroline Davidson, Carin Makuz, and Lucy Brennan were at that first meeting, among many other members still with us today.
Marge introduced herself and then introductions were made around the room so they could all discover who was there. She laid out what she was planning to do – having learned what they wanted in advance – and said, as we often say at current breakfasts, that she’d need volunteers to help make it all happen. She even told them what she planned to call the organization.
Elizabeth Riehle (Johns) told everyone at that first meeting that she had her own original idea for a children’s program, the Muse, which she wanted to run. Marge had Kidwriters firmly in mind. So she asked Elizabeth if she would like to get a children’s committee going, thus finding much-needed volunteers to make both programs possible.
Terry Day had been trying – to no avail – to get a poets’ group up and running. Marge suggested they might have a poetry ‘wing’ to their new organization. So they started up ‘Poets in the Pub,’ and drew a capacity crowd to their opening night, under Terry’s guiding hand.
This was a night Marge would never forget – not because of its tremendous success but because she watched death, up close and personal, for the one time in her life. Dan Sullivan, a member of Trilogy, sat facing her as he read, no more than three feet away. He suddenly slumped sideways at the end of his second poem (both on Sleep!) and died instantly. They thought he was clowning. Half the room knew CPR, and that gang of poets fought valiantly to bring him back to life – to no avail. Today, 10 years later, the Dan Sullivan Memorial Poetry contest helps hundreds of poets get their work out every year, and helps all of us remember his contribution.
Here’s how the name of the organization came about. The original name for one of the writing circles, Durham Write-On, had actually started off as “Durham Write-On: The Writers’ Circle of Durham Region.” This name had been suggested by Stuart Blower, an original member of that group. The circle chose Stuart’s from several suggestions, but only the first half.
This left the second half available, as well as a cool logo, which Stuart had also dreamed up. So, when she decided to start up the workshops and seminars business sometime later, Marge asked Stuart if she could use that last half of the name and the cool logo, and he said yes.
The business idea involved offering monthly networking breakfasts so writers could meet editors (and possibly find work). By the second meeting, Roger had decided to write a newsletter, and Marge asked her friend Carl if he’d create a cartoon to go in it. (Little did she know at that time that Carl had once written a best-seller.) Carl not only said yes to the cartoon, he faxed her 16 cartoons – a page full.
When she realized how big the organization threatened to be, Marge was scared stiff. She recalls feeling insecure, as though she’d been bluffing. She asked Roger if he would be her business partner, but he wanted no part of a business (even though he did love the regular newsletter aspect).
Her friend Esme had suggested all along that Marge would be better advised to make this a non-profit organization rather than running it as a sole proprietorship. Marge could see she wasn’t going to make a fortune at it as a business and she also knew that they’d need to be non-profit if they were ever to apply for government funding. But the major factor in turning non-profit, was that her idea had taken off and her “little club” notion had proven too successful too fast.
She also knew she couldn’t do it alone. She asked Roger if he would be vice president, then asked Carl if he would be second. Carl threw himself into every single committee they formed. Gabrielle Bauer had insisted, from the first phone call, that she wanted to be totally involved.
Karen Bigelow, who came out that first morning and insisted that she absolutely had to be involved, became secretary-treasurer, and, during her time in office personally saw to it that WCDR became incorporated. Having worked in a lawyer’s office for years, she knew exactly what was involved. Together, Karen and Marge wrote the first bylaws, and together they made a registered non-profit happen.
The WCDR did everything you can imagine in that first year. Elizabeth got her Muse program off the ground, Kidwriters got started and the poets continued in the pub, despite a litany of problems. They began poetry readings at local events, celebrated their first festival and published their first newsletter (with its name later contributed by Gabrielle Bauer).
Marge remembers well all the furniture they had to move around before and after those early breakfast meetings. And they were memorable breakfasts; she still recalls, around St. Patrick’s Day that first year, when Lucy Brennan baked up some wonderful Irish Soda Bread and added it to their usual cold buffet of muffins and such.
Marge also began running writing workshops: finding excellent presenters (Edo van Belkom was one of the first), taking phone calls and answering questions, keeping the lists, arranging for the room, buying and laying out the refreshments, locking and unlocking the door, arriving early, signing everyone in (Roger or Karen would help with name badges), introducing the speaker, and doing anything else the speaker needed done.
When Marge began getting phone calls from all over the place asking about this new group that was making waves, she knew she’d done something useful. Writers were getting published and, surrounded by their friends, they were having a wonderful time.
She invited enthusiastic volunteers onto that first board, based on what they hoped to get from the organization and what they were willing to do to make it happen. When she asked her friend Dorothea Helms to consider it, Marge says, “She turned me down flat! Typical of Dorothea, however, she did say, ‘If ever you need anything, I’ll be happy to volunteer – anything at all. Just don’t ask me to sit on a board or attend any meetings – I can’t fit any more into my calendar.’ ”
True to her word, Dorothea did volunteer consistently for whatever needed doing. She baked hundreds of cookies that year for that first festival (she remembers it as “96 dozen cookies”) and over the years has done more for WCDR than any other member Marge can think of. Marge describes her as one of the most generous people, and probably the best cook, she’s ever known. Eventually, Dorothea did end up on the board, and her tremendous contribution was recognized when Dorothea was named Member of the Year for 2004-2005.
In looking back over the past 10 years, Marge says, “What a wonderful feeling it is to know that we can affect people’s lives in such a positive way – and all it takes is the courage and the willingness to lead.”
What she told that roomful of people, from the very first meeting, was that if they had any bright ideas they wanted to try, to tell her about them, and that somehow they would make them happen. That singly, all we have is dreams. But with a large, supportive group to appeal to, just about anything is possible.