Founder of new writing school in Aalborg exemplifies what it takes to be an international entrepreneur
[This is the fourth post in a series on ‘immigrant innovators.’ To read the first three posts, click here.] Many people love to write. Some are good at it; a few, very good. While raw talent might play a role in becoming an author, any successful writer will tell you one important fact: writing well takes hard work and practice. And not just writing and revising page after page of text – it also requires practice reading other people’s work with a critical eye and practice having others critique yours. A brand new writing school in Aalborg offers exactly this experience and much more, thanks to the efforts and perseverance of an American writer and teacher who arrived in this city five years ago…
LeAnne Kline Christensen hails from the United States, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from Pennsylvania State University after a career in advertising, marketing and sales during which she enjoyed writing novels on the side. Following a conference in Amsterdam where she met her (now) husband Steen and a whirlwind long-distance relationship, LeAnne moved to Denmark and began to work in AAU’s humanities faculty English program.
While happy to be employed right from the start of her life in Aalborg, LeAnne realized over time that there was a niche she could fill outside of AAU. Students in the English program at the university are required to take one creative writing class, but LeAnne learned by talking to them that, in fact, many wanted to take more than one. She put two and two together (her love for teaching and creative writing and the lack of a creative writing school in Nordjylland) and decided to take the leap and start her own writing school.
She began the journey to founding The South Gate Society (SGS) * by investigating the other options in Denmark available to aspiring writers. In Copenhagen, for example, there is the Forfatterskolen in Copenhagen, which admits six students a year (between 300 and 500 apply) and offers only literary genres, i.e. not playwriting, children’s literature, screenwriting, science fiction, etc. Brønderslev runs a creative writing program every summer but only for young people. Vrå Højskole has a fantastic creative writing program but it only lasts a few weeks. One of the only realistic options for prospective writers in Denmark is to pursue a degree in journalism (there are a few such programs), but what if you don’t wish to be a journalist in the end? LeAnne wanted to offer a program in which students could focus on any one of several genres of creative writing (SGS offers seven) and get a degree to make it official. She decided to pursue the idea of an accredited four-year program recognized as a higher education degree, and designed what is comparable to a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in the US. In addition, she created a shorter, one year certificate program in creative writing.
Aware that she would need help along her journey to setting up The South Gate Society, she enlisted the help of over 100 people, including business owners, teachers, and other professionals – mostly Danes – who became the SGS advisory group. In posting questions to this group in the initial stages of her journey, she asked for a recommendation of someone who could give feedback on her business plan and it was then that she heard about Edin Hajder. Edin is the founder and owner of Plus Consult, a consulting company based in Hobro that provides services to both public and private organizations in the region. As such he acts as an external consultant for Aalborg Kommune, advising international citizens on aspects of starting a business in Denmark.** Edin was very supportive of LeAnne’s idea and told her ‘not to stop – whatever you do, don’t stop.’ Having seen many business ideas come through his door (in 2014 he held 175 entrepreneurship consultations with internationals in the kommune), he realized that what LeAnne wanted to do was special.
After discussions with Edin, LeAnne joined NIN (Nordjysk Iværksætter Netværk) and met with John Kærgaard of Business Aalborg, whose help she also found invaluable. Through the program NIN offers, an aspiring new business owner can pay 1000 kr. for 12 hours of professional help and with this support LeAnne was able to hire a lawyer and accountant, with whom she still works. ‘There was no way to put into words how valuable that was to me, especially as a foreigner,’ says LeAnne. ‘I had no clue how things work with taxes and finances in this country. As a foreigner I’m also excessively worried about following the law to a ‘T.’ If I were to be found not adhering to the laws, it could jeopardize my visa and residency status here so I do things here very carefully in order not to risk anything.’ A sentiment many, if not most, of us international residents probably understand well…
With the basic essentials taken care of, LeAnne began the hunt for a space to house the new school because she knew that a physical location for the school would increase SGS’s credibility. Aalborg as SGS’s home was not a foregone conclusion, although LeAnne lives here. She found the nature offered by Jammerbugt Kommune (northwest coast of Denmark) an inspiring place for writers and was initially inclined toward that part of Nordjylland. However, negotiations on a location there stalled so she continued her search for a place to house her fledgling school. When Claus Rene Pedersen, who works for Nordjyllands Kultur Aftale, contacted Michael Mansdottir, Director of Trekanten bibliotek & kulturhus in Aalborg Øst, to see if SGS could be based there a meeting was set up and it was ‘love at first sight,’ as LeAnne puts it. Without any income, they didn’t need office space at the beginning – just classroom space. ‘Everyone is happy to be here, to be in this building,’ gushes LeAnne. ‘Just by being here we have gotten a lot more press and awareness,’ in the form of several articles in Vejgaard Avis, for example. The school also wants to give back to the community. ‘Even though we’re a school, we want to do outreach with the Trekanten bibliotek & kulturhus community and get people who live in the area to join in on our activities,’ says LeAnne. One such initiative is a new partnership with Ung Aalborg to create free writing workshops for students between the ages of 16 and 18.
The South Gate Society’s first year of operation is this academic year, 2015-16. The four year degree program includes, in addition to seminar courses on writing and critiquing, several interesting and innovative requirements. For example, the students must take a business class every semester in order to learn how to write query letters, book proposals, marketing plans, and CVs, as well as how to blog. The students are also required to take whatever their nerdiest interest is (comics, Tolkien, etc.) and turn it into a course that they can teach in the form of a 4-week workshop. They must then deliver the course as an elective to students in one of the first three years; this way they learn curriculum development and work on their teaching skills. All students have to write a full-length book in their fourth year. LeAnne has designed the program such that students will have publications as well as professional experience when they finish the program, as the school also requires an internship in the fourth year, about which the student has to write. This qualifies as the final project, depending on the individual’s focus.
Semesters at SGS are 10 weeks long. The curriculum demands have been set higher than those of AAU’s English program, which has seen some classes cut over the past couple of years from 8-10 sessions per semester to, in some cases, only 5. For each class completed, a student receives five ECTS points. The program is set up so that a student can easily transfer to any Danish university’s English, literary, or comparative literature program, whether from the 1-year certificate program or the 4-year Bachelor degree program. SGS has also recently incorporated in the program two drama clubs (The Playhouse and The Experimental Performance Group), a film club called The Shutter Gate Society, and a writers workshop (SoGaWriMo: South Gate Write More).
The price to attend South Gate Society’s writing program is not inconsequential; however, it is the lowest tuition you’ll find at tuition-based programs in DK. ‘Our tuition is less than European Film College tuition. If students choose to pay on a monthly basis it’s about 4200 kr./month,’ explains LeAnne. SGS has been accredited by the European Association of Creative Writing Programs and is in the process of applying for SU, as well as getting international accreditation for the 4-year program.
In addition to increasing the school’s online presence, LeAnne and her (up to now) volunteer staff are working hard to publicize the school at conferences and conventions such as UUG (Uddanelse Uden Grænse), New to North Denmark Fair, Fantasy Festival, Crime Festival in Horstens, and Ordkraft. They have also placed ads in Anglofiles (a Danish magazine that goes out to gymnasium English teachers in Denmark), Tjeck Magazine, Vejgaard Avis, 9220’s publication, and the Danish Authors Guild newsletter, among other publications. And in September, you’ll start seeing ads for SGS in the Aalborg Center movie theater.
At this point South Gate Society, while founded and led by LeAnne, has only an army of volunteers and interns behind it. No one will begin to receive a salary until the degree program starts at the end of this month. While SGS has gotten some income through workshops, that money has gone into advertising. Depending on the number of students who register, LeAnne can then decide how many staff she can hire. However, she is grateful for the help she has received up to now. For the SU application, for example, Camilia Elias (Roskilde University), Bent Sorensen (AAU), and Sarah Nygaard (AAU) agreed to be external censors on the application process. A number of authors around Denmark, including Glenn Ringtved and Mads Nygaard, are also on board. And Region Nordylland and Ordkraft partnered with SGS for a year-long creative writing project for aspiring authors in 2015 called Nøglen til Ord, which will be offered again (for free) in February 2016. ‘We have a lot of supporters in the literary community who are pushing for us to be successful and I think that is why SGS has been successful up to this point and will continue to be – so many people in the literary community are behind us,’ says LeAnne. Although I am not a professional writer, I count myself as one of them!
Of course, this all begs the question – “To enter such a fantastic program, am I in time to register for the autumn semester?” And the answer is yes! SGS is accepting applications right up until September 1! Find out more here.
* LeAnne named her school The South Gate Society because she considers it ‘a representation of unlocking the gate to your creativity, giving yourself permission to pursue the dream of writing, and everyone who goes through this proverbial gate enters into their own world of imagination.’
** Through Plus Consult, Edin holds consultation hours several days each month in Aalborg Kommune. These consultations are free of charge and open to anyone exploring the idea of starting a business or already on their way to opening one. The consultations, which used to be held at Business Aalborg, are now held at International House North Denmark, Rantzausgade 4, on the 2nd floor. Edin sets up Doodles each month and people can just sign up for a day and time that suits them. Here is a link to Edin’s schedule for September 2015 (appointments still available, as of 21 August!), for example. If you would like to stay abreast of his consultation hours, check out Plus Consult’s Facebook page.
Just a personal note: I met with Edin two or three times when I was investigating how to accept payment and pay taxes on money I was making for freelance editing work. He talked me through the regulations and procedures (it turns out I had to set up a business and register for a CVR number) and was extremely helpful with explaining things and showing me where to go on the web. I can highly recommend talking with Edin!