After spending time away from Nashville, accomplished writers Katie McDougall and Susannah Felts returned and met by chance in a writing group. They immediately clicked, and the women’s shared passion for service and stories eventually led them to begin their nonprofit. The concept behind their design? The ultimate Southern gathering place, and the nonprofit’s namesake: The Porch.
Equipped with their backgrounds of writing and teaching, Katie and Susannah set out to foster a creative space. At The Porch, they fuse community with independence, inspiration with collaboration, and tradition with new beginnings. Nashvillians and Middle Tennesseans are given the opportunity to attend workshops, literary events and writing retreats, where they can share their stories while learning and collaborating with others. Meet our newest Nashville FACES, Katie and Susannah!
Can you tell us about your backgrounds and Nashville roots?
Katie: We’re both Nashville natives who moved away from Nashville for several chapters in our lives before returning. For my part, I went to undergrad at Colorado College and then spent the next 18 years knocking around the Rockies, ski-bumming, getting my feet wet as a teacher, and earning an MFA in fiction writing.
Susannah: I grew up first on a dead-end roadway out by Percy Priest Lake, before my folks built a house in Hermitage, where they still live. I left Nashville after high school and spent many of my 20-odd years away in Chicago, where I earned my MFA and began freelance writing and teaching college. I loved Chicago and always will, but the South called me home. In 2009, my husband, our then-1-year-old, and I put down our own Nashville roots in a little bungalow on the east side. The city in ’09 already seemed so different from the place where I grew up — but look at it now!
How did you meet?
K: We were in a writing group. Ironically, the woman who connected us remained in the group for only one meeting, but in a way, performed a certain magic by bringing Susannah and me together.
S: It occurs to me that I ultimately have Margaret Renkl to thank for this crossing of paths. I was invited into that group by way of my writing for Chapter 16, of which Margaret was, of course, the esteemed founding editor; she invited me to write for the site upon its launch. One day, Chapter 16’s copy editor, Wayne Christeson, emailed me: “Are you interested in being in a writing group? I have a friend who wants to start one.”
Both of you have impressive resumes. Katie, I see that you’ve taught internationally in the Bahamas. What brought you there, and what was it like?
K: After making the decision to step away from the traditional classroom, I was hired as “Master Teacher in Residence” at The Island School in Eleuthera, Bahamas — a semester boarding program for high school students. As it turned out, the experience was more like Outward Bound than the beach vacation I’d envisioned, but in the end, sun and sea proved to be a good muse for my writing, and surviving Hurricane Irene, sand fleas, and a four-mile ocean swim have been a great source for braggadocio and bluster.
Susannah, your work has been featured in numerous literary publications. What has been your favorite thing to write about?
S: I’m going to be loyal to my current work in progress and say the world of that book. It’s set in Chicago and Nashville and focuses on a young woman in an indie-rock band. This book has made me think so deeply about music and performing and the struggles of making a creative life in our late-capitalist culture, and that has been a delicious challenge. I’ve always loved music but have had to think about it in a new way, as I don’t play or sing myself. It’s been fun transporting myself back to Chicago, too —especially wintry Chicago. I suppose it’s a much more hospitable place from the comfort of my brain.
Now you’re both back in Nashville! What brought you both back to The Music City after time away?
K: It’s funny — after falling hard for mountains, I never thought I’d come back to Nashville, but life lured me with a job as Ensworth High School’s first AP Lit. teacher, home in a brand-new midtown condo, and mostly by family, whom I’d missed for too many years. As it turns out, I’ve loved being in a vibrant, energetic city, and I’ve never regretted the move.
S: I liked the idea of our daughter having a close relationship with her grandparents and their farm in Hermitage. But I think Nashville specifically — not just the South — had a certain pull on me that I didn’t register consciously back then. I wasn’t at all sure what the city had in store for me, but now it seems like the gentle hand of fate, or a happy case of following your instincts.
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How did you both get the idea to start The Porch? What were your inspirations and/or motivations?
S: I’d been adjuncting and freelancing when my daughter was very young, and wondering, “What’s next?”… and I have a bit of an independent streak. So I started teaching my own creative writing workshops at my dinner table and upstairs at Portland Brew East on (what were then) quiet Sunday mornings. Meanwhile, I knew other cities had literary centers: places that offer creative writing classes, community, outreach, etc. Places like The Loft in Minneapolis and StoryStudioChicago and Hugo House in Seattle. And with Nashville starting to grow exponentially, I had an aha moment: Nashville was ready for its own literary center. I did my research, attended some panels about literary centers at AWP (Associated Writing Programs Conference, the annual gathering of creative writers and teachers of writing), and I started talking to my writing group about all these big ideas.
K: For my part, I’d had a sort of “mid-life revision session” with myself back in 2010 on my 40th birthday. Imagining what I’d ideally be doing if I wasn’t a high school teacher, the vision loosely involved teaching creative writing in the community, leading writing retreats to beautiful places, and generally putting my literary life in the front seat. A few years later when Susannah invited me to be a part of The Porch, my brain exploded with the potential realization of that dream. And in fact, the reality has far transcended what I’d envisioned.
What sorts of programs are available, and how can people get involved?
K: We teach creative writing workshops, both multi-week and one-offs — for example, Foundations of Fiction, Writing the Personal Essay, The Music of Language, Novel Jumpstart, Writing for Recovery, and many, many others, which are listed on our website, PorchTN.org. We also host monthly community-building literary events, including book clubs, happy hours, write-ins, brown-bag lunches, “Books, Bars, and Guitars,” literary trivia, etc. Our youth instructors work with young people from third grade to 12th. As outreach, we’ve run to date eight 8-week sessions of Creative Writing for Immigrants and Refugees and will publish an anthology from that program this summer. Finally, just this year, we launched an editorial and manuscript coaching service. A good first step toward engaging with The Porch is to sign up for our newsletter on our website.
S: Come to a reading, write-in, or open studio! And follow us on the socials: @porchtn. We will likely have an open house in late August, kicking off our fall classes.
What are your plans for the future of The Porch?
S: We want to keep doing what we’re doing and growing at a reasonable pace. This January we moved into our first “home of our own” in Berry Hill, and that has changed the game in good ways. We’d like to be able to grow into a larger space eventually, perhaps one we can share with another nonprofit or two and/or the right business(es), as affordable space is such a limited resource. There are some interesting models for this kind of community hub. I would like to see us bringing in more nationally recognized writers to teach and read.
Okay, I have to ask since you’re both writers— what books are you reading?
K: I suspect our answer for this might be the same as we are both reading for the July Better off Read Book Club, which The Porch hosts in partnership with The Bookshop in East Nashville. I’m reading The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, and it is knocking me out!
S: Yes, I’m loving The Mars Room so much. Fantastic writing and authentic voices. I’m also reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. Also great: meaty with ideas (my favorite part) but not without a twisty plot. After these, I’m cracking open Biloxi by Mary Miller, one of my favorite writers.
As native Nashvillians, what is your ideal day in Nashville, restaurants included?
K: Good coffee and a few hours of quiet, early-morning writing. A hike on the red trail at Percy Warner. I do love a good beer, and so if meeting a friend at one of Nashville’s many breweries is in the schedule, it’s a good day. Dinner at City House is hard to beat.
S: Honestly, much of the ideal Nashville day for me will be spent at home, writing and working on whatever needs my attention, with my cats nearby — and when I must venture forth, it won’t be far. Maybe there are some hours clocked at Portland Brew or Ugly Mugs; maybe I hop over to The Bookshop and indulge in yet another addition to the home library. Yoga at Kali Yuga always shines my day right up, and family time is essential, with dinner either chez nous or somewhere casual but delicious like Mas Tacos. And as the sun sets, a walk to Pearl Diver for their eponymous beverage, with a friend or two, would put a bow too perfect for fiction on this imaginary Nashville day.
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What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
K: That’s hard. [There have been] so many good people with good advice along the way … and also, words on a page. Passages from novels, lines of poetry, and meaningful quotes have always had staying power for me. This might be cheating, but I’m going to go with Socrates. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I’m fairly intentional about building space into my days for the “examined life,” — journaling, “Sunday reading,” long walks, soulful conversation, listening to On Being, hammocks …
S: Oh, I love that bit about the examined life — a thousand yeses to that! I can’t help but think of something my folks drilled into me: “Look for people’s toes, and don’t step on them.” It’s a good principle to live by, and I like to expand or modify it to thinking about people’s toes and what it’s like to have those particular toes. You know, empathy. The writer’s most necessary tool.
What are three things you can’t live without with the exception of faith, family and friends?
K: Quiet mornings at my desk, time in the outdoors, and DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time
S: Music, alone time, and cut and paste (Can I second all of Katie’s, too?)
Thanks for sharing your stories, Katie and Susannah! Interested in getting involved? See what The Porch has to offer HERE. And thank you to the super-talented Leila Grossman for today’s amazing photos.
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