I was first introduced to Lighthouse when I was a PhD student at the University of Denver. It was made known (likely by word of mouth, which is how much information is disseminated in Denver’s robust literary scene) that Lighthouse was not just a community of writers, but also an institution dedicated to exploring the potential of the literary arts for making change in our city and beyond. It was this mission that encouraged me to make the seventeen-minute walk from my apartment to the massive mansion that is the “house” of the Lighthouse, the envelope inside which hundreds of books have been conceived of and born. That first day I walked past the free little library and through the small front gate, up the stairs and onto the gaping porch, into the red brick building and toward what felt instantly like a kind of home.
I was lucky enough to teach several classes at Lighthouse, ranging from the short story and the novella to the personal essay and the novel, and I can guarantee that the students I met in that building have shaped who I am as a writer more than I shaped them. There is the student who told me she could not write about being at Columbine the day of the shooting because when she tried to record the events in present tense, the story resisted transcription—that her mind and her body needed it to surface on the page in a tense that protected her: it needed to stay in the past. There is the student who looked at me with a face I will never forget, a face that told me writing is a way of exercising our humanhood, when I asked him, “What are you trying not to say?” There is the student who gave me four volumes of Proust when I left to take a job in another city, because, he said, fiction is just a very elegant exercise in time keeping and managing and maintaining. Good luck, he said, and tapped his watch and walked away.
I have lived many places—in a tiny studio apartment near the old furniture factories of Grand Rapids, Michigan; in a two-bedroom place around the corner from the studio that tapes Jeopardy! in Culver City, California; in a cut-up building on the road where REO Speedwagon was formed in Champaign, Illinois; in the attic of a mansion that is rumored to have been owned by one of the few late-19th century abolitionist families in Charleston, South Carolina—and I can say without question that the place I have felt most at home as a writer, as a person who works with words, is inside that house on Race Street in Denver. I taught in the attic, the grotto, and every room in between, and the conversation that unfolded in those spaces will stay with me as long as I put pen to page.
Lighthouse now has projects unfolding that range from a hugely popular summer Lit Fest (this year’s featured writers include Eileen Miles, Geoff Dyer, and Ada Limón, to name just a few), to collaborations with the Art Students League of Denver on the intersections of visual art and literature, to the Fort Lyon Writer-In-Residence program, which offers hands-on creative writing instruction to homeless veterans in the state. And in a time when funding for the arts is under threat, Lighthouse is working smarter and savvier to find innovative ways to make literature matter, and matter to more.
I was often the last instructor to leave the building at night when our class would conclude, because I would continue to probe my students about their work and their writing lives until they could bear me no longer. And as those who have taught there know, the last to leave locks up. I cannot count the number of evenings I went through the rooms of that house, checking to ensure no writers were left still scribbling, no lights were left still humming, no books were left spread open and overturned and under threat of broken spines. As I moved through the rooms of that house, a house that harbors the slight musk of hard work and old books, I felt like I belonged in a way I have not been able to reproduce since leaving there. After setting the alarm, locking up the back door, and closing the parking lot gate, I would walk home, in the dark, through a park that was once a cemetery. I could sense something spectral hovering in the air on those walks, but it was not the ghosts from former graves. I was thinking of my students’ stories. I was thinking that those stories would one day grow into books that would meet future readerships of grand sizes, and that I had been part of a very sacred thing in seeing these projects in their raw and embryonic stage. I was thinking that when these books ultimately come into being, I would know that I had the privilege of being haunted first. I was thinking and I was beginning to believe that Muriel Rukeyser was right; in fact, the universe is not made of atoms—the universe is made of stories.