It is hard to tell the truth about the house at 1634 11th Avenue. At 16,000 square feet, the early-20th-century Victorian--a former funeral home--is huge and unremarkable. Muted and bulky, looming over a gloomy porch and a blanched garden, it shelters a cafe, a cabaret space, several offices, some classrooms, a spacious entryway, a basement, a library, and a black box theater. There are rooms that its current resident, Richard Hugo House, doesn't seem to know what to do with--which is indicative. Hugo House has other resources it doesn't seem to know what to do with, either.

An obscurity surrounds the place. It is commonly regarded, among people on the outside (and on the inside), with various degrees of acrimony and bafflement. Six years after its founding, there are a lot of people--book people, people in the know--unclear about Hugo House's purpose. It is a busy, multifaceted, multidisciplinary literary arts center. What does that mean? It employs seven full-time and several part-time staff members. What do they do? Its yearly budget exceeds $800,000. Where does it go?

What have they done? What are they doing?

Things could stand to be clarified.

And so I was dispatched to the dull gray house--a place beclouded in creative energy and not a little conflict--the way a home inspector is: I sought out structural hazards. I took a look at the foundation. And I asked a lot of questions.

"Have you ever written about how Hugo House is ineffectual and ridiculous and no one knows what they do?" someone in the local book world asked me recently. Hugo House's mission--"to develop and sustain practicing writers doing essential work"--seems purposeless, almost deliberately unclear. But ask enough questions, or the same question again and again, and a vaguely consistent answer to what Hugo House does eventually emerges: Hugo House is teaching people how to write.

In the spring of this year, according to Hugo House's Inquiry Through Writing brochure, students paid $170 for a course called "You're Writing the Manuscript, Now What?" and $190 for "Exploring Theatrical Worlds Without a Compass." They paid $190 for "I Spy for Writers" ("Put on your spyglasses and prepare to cultivate your ability to look, listen, touch, taste, and smell your way into sharper, more detailed writing") and $100 for "The Spring Garden" (an "all-day workshop on garden writing. We'll use all our senses to observe and describe flowers, vegetables, and landscapes"). Author Emily White taught a class on plot; novelist Rebecca Brown, on style. There were other classes--a buffet of offerings triggering specific interests, particularly attractive to writers who believe their shortcoming is a single deficiency: Need to improve your description of vegetables? Look no further.

Placing artistic (or "writerly") value on the classes is difficult. The best way to assess them would be to evaluate output--the stories, poems, and books generated in class--but Hugo House's writing classes are strictly "process-oriented," so there's nothing to look at. The goal of the classes isn't to finish a piece but merely to begin a writing practice that's sustainable; to always have something in process, which--if you take the cynical view--is a handy way of doing away with results. The only goal of the writing classes is to get people to write, and classes consist of in-class writing. In this way, they are never not successful.

The most tangible--and telling--way to measure the success of the writing classes may be to measure their success as a revenue stream. In 1997, Hugo House earned less than $10,000 in writing-class fees; by 2002, that figure had ballooned to $115,767, according to tax forms. The exponential revenue growth can be attributed, in part, to the incidence of recurrent students--students who take one class and are so taken with the "nurturance" and "encouragement" they receive in class that they decide to enroll in more.

"Nurturance" and "encouragement" are words satisfied students use to talk about Hugo House. They describe the house and the classes as "supportive," "safe," "cozy," "enchanted," "cooperative," "uncompetitive," "a haven," "a great place," "fun," "self-inspiring," "affirming without judging," and "not hierarchical." It is "an atmosphere of acceptance," an atmosphere that offers "the opportunity to connect with a group of people," that facilitates "laughter, some profound moments of silence, and breaking through the isolation that can come with writing quietly, alone, for a long time." (I am quoting from feedback I solicited in this paper a few months ago.) One student said, "The classes I have taken and the people who have taught them have all made me want to keep coming back." Another student described Hugo House as "essential."

There's that word again. To develop and sustain practicing writers doing essential work. Essential work, Richard Hugo House Artistic Director Frances McCue told me, includes anything that "means something culturally" or "is a story that no one else can tell." Since virtually all writing falls into those categories, "essential work" essentially means everything. Or, put another way, it means nothing. All classes consist of writing practice, so anyone who shows up is a "practicing writer." Moreover, whatever is being written likely "means something culturally" or "is a story that no one else can tell."

So while Hugo House's mission to support "practicing writers doing essential work" implies, on first reading, that Hugo House is creating and supporting writing that is important, necessary, or promising, an "essential writer," it should be clear, is simply someone who signs up for a class.

Other words that arise in conversations about Hugo House get at something deeper than "nurturance" and "encouragement." "Therapeutic" is one and "healing" is another. Hugo House is commonly criticized as a place where writing is a "therapeutic" process, a "healing" process, and this is what was going through my mind one afternoon I spent with Frances McCue. McCue had recently traveled to Smith College to see the private papers of Sylvia Plath, a poet for whom the act of writing seems to have been a self-destructive force--certainly it wasn't "healing"--and McCue had long struck me (incorrectly, it turns out) as a person who would disparage the idea of writing as "healing" as opposed to, say, laborious, harrowing.

"One thing I'm out to do is to dispute the workshop model in the teaching of creative writing," McCue said. (She has a doctorate in education from Columbia.) Under the workshop model, prevalent in universities, students read their work and the class critiques it--a dulling, sometimes damaging process because classroom criticism tends to be fueled by personal issues and poor judgment. A workshop is "a fix-it chamber," McCue says, and an "inquiry" (her invention) is "about sustaining a writing process." Hugo House offers inquiry-based classes. The sole purpose of such classes is to encourage students to write and write and write. Students never critique each other on their craft. McCue believes that "the more people sustain a writing process over time, the better chance they have of improving their craft. That's a big leap," she says. "A lot of people won't believe me."

I, for one, don't believe her. The inquiry approach is oppositely misguided (and no less annoying) than the workshop approach. It takes the emphasis off the craft and emphasizes the craftsperson; it is not about the writing but about how the writer feels while writing; it is about making writers feel so good about their writing that they want to keep writing, no matter how the sentences are turning out; it is about really expressing yourself.

This, evidently, appeals to a certain kind of person.

One common perception of Hugo House is that it is run by middle-aged, middle-class white women and it appeals to middle-aged, middle-class white women, and that most classes offered are about travel writing or memoir or journaling. It is a perception that is almost exactly accurate. Hugo House was founded by three white women--Frances McCue, Andrea Lewis, and Linda Breneman. (Although Breneman, who funded Hugo House entirely at the outset--her ex-husband is a software millionaire and her last name used to be Jaech--can't be called middle-class. When I asked her how much money she has, she said, without flinching, "Twenty-eight million.") Most of Hugo House's employees are white women, most of its instructors are white women, and every student I've talked to has cited an imbalanced ratio of female students to male students--12 to 0, 15 to 1. "It was embarrassing to look around and see that everyone could have been me. It was all healthy white women with BAs," one female student told me. "There were some guys in the class but they stopped coming."

"Enchanted," "cozy," "safe," and "supportive" are wonderful descriptions for a venue in which to express yourself--and ideal qualities if you are trying to attract a clientele of, say, quilters--but I wonder if they are the best qualities in a place where some people expect (and pay money) to learn to write. A student whose aspiration is to write professionally said, "I didn't feel like the feedback was challenging. It was mutual encouragement and support.... I come from a more critically thinking culture where it wasn't about affirmation so much."

Rarely do students who like their experience at Hugo House describe it as rigorous or critical. Charles Mudede, former Hugo House writer-in-residence and one of the more unpopular teachers in Hugo House's history (as well as my colleague at The Stranger), told me, "Students dropped out because I wasn't holding their hand. I wasn't showing them the warmth of literature, its teddy-bear-ness. You want to talk about writing and memories. They want to talk about writing and mammaries. They want a suckle to suck on." Mudede shared this frustration with other teachers, including Emily White, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Novelist Matthew Stadler, Hugo House's first writing instructor, told me, "If a teacher tells me they're sick of their therapeutic students--well, who's running the classroom?" I told him that Mudede frequently received negative evaluations. Stadler said, "I don't like supporting people's egos in classes and I'm not interested in people's personal problems. Given that, I don't spend time on those things. Maybe if I continued teaching at Hugo House, people would stop taking my classes, I don't know."

It is a tricky criticism--the criticism that Hugo House's classes are "therapeutic," "cozy," and "safe"--because those words are code for something else: They connote gender. Stadler thinks the criticism that Hugo House is "emotionally supportive" or "touchy-feely" is really about the question, "What's up with all these women?"

Maybe so. Certainly it's dismissive and misogynistic to criticize Hugo House's classes on these terms--writing has been a man's game for centuries; perhaps women learn differently, have different values, and so on. But to classify certain kinds of writing as women's writing would be, well, just about the most dismissive and misogynistic thing you could do. Still, it is uncontestable that some writing is better than other writing, and that the inquiry model willfully obliterates the distinction. There is emotional-dumping-ground writing, which is all about the process; and there is well-crafted writing, which is about the product. It is the well- crafted stuff that holds together, that holds its own, that would be considered--beyond the walls of Hugo House--"good."

At a community center like Hugo House there is rampant disdain for a word like "good," because it constitutes a judgment, and judgments aren't "safe" or "supportive" or "cozy." If you take an interest in how much of the writing Hugo House's classes generate is "good" then you are an "elitist." If you ask whether any writers to come out of Hugo House have achieved "commercial success," people look at you as if you've just punched a baby.

"I think that's a really insidious, nasty, stupid goal," local author Rebecca Brown said when I observed that Hugo House has not launched the careers of writers of the caliber that emerge from creative-writing programs at Stanford, UCI, and the University of Iowa. She said, "We don't need another Iowa story, we don't need another New Yorker story." Brown's perspective may be honorable in that Northwest way, but it doesn't translate into reality. I'll bet most people who attend writing classes at Hugo House are aware of the New Yorker's fiction and would like to learn to write that well.

Frances McCue doesn't share Brown's disdain for success on this level and implicitly acknowledges it as a goal. "Our classes have only gone on for five years. And the Georgia Review takes two years to send a rejection. Hugo House is still relatively young." She added, "I think it's a bit of a numbers game. I think the more people you accept [into your classes], the better your chances."

In any event, it's not something she thinks too deeply about. McCue says her prevailing mission isn't to foster good writing so much as to foster a cultural dialogue through writing within the local community--an unambitious and determinedly parochial goal that, conveniently, preempts both criticism and the possibility of failure. A "cultural dialogue" can be anything. And while there's arguably nothing wrong with offering strictly supportive classes--you should be allowed to pay for nurturance and encouragement, if that's what you want--why not offer other classes, too? A few rigorous, craft-focused classes whose entry process is competitive--requiring, say, a writing sample--might damage some egos, but would bolster Hugo House's credibility, lending it the status of a serious and robust writing institution with offerings for writers at every level of talent and ambition.

All of which leads to this intrinsic issue: whether writing can be taught in the first place. When I asked Matthew Stadler if he thinks writing can be taught, he said, "No, not at all. I think writing is something you do by yourself." Hugo House's programs and education manager Trisha Ready (also a journalist), Sherman Alexie (the local novelist), and Skye Moody (a thriller writer) all said they learned to write by reading. When I asked Moody if writing can be taught, she said, "Absolutely not." When I reminded her that she earns a paycheck teaching at Hugo House, she said, "I'm probably the worst person to ask about Hugo House," adding, "Everything I'm saying is antithetical to what they're all about."

When I asked McCue if she thinks writing can be taught, she dodged the question. "That question has been so overasked. The question that I really like is, 'What do writers want? What drives them into class?'" She added, "Writers come into my office and shove a manuscript in my face and say, 'Rip it up! Rip it up!' And, you know, if I did rip it up? Well," she smiled, "that wouldn't work out so well."

Looking back on that conversation now, I wonder what she meant--whether she meant that it "wouldn't work out so well" for the writer, because that person's hopes would be dashed, or that it "wouldn't work out so well" for Hugo House, because it would lose a paying customer.

Frances McCue wears bright scarves and big sunglasses and is unequivocally the brain of the organization. She is a leader and, in every way, a poet. (Her first and only collection, The Stenographer's Breakfast, which is reviewed this week in Nightstand, won the 1991 Barnard New Women Poets Prize.) In her office, an autographed poem by David Wagoner hangs next to a handwritten note from William Stafford. She gives lectures with titles like "The Atonal Gentility: Wanderings of a Feminist Flaneur" and "Narrative False Starts and Other Mishaps." In addition to conceptualizing and overseeing Hugo House's writing classes, she is responsible for the artistic content of the organization, which is substantial.

McCue has "the ego and poetic vision necessary to get the whole thing off the ground and make it grow," as one person I interviewed put it. She has a poetic vision, certainly--even if it's not entirely clear to many (including me)--and though the point about her ego misunderstands her, it underscores something else, the biggest and most persistent criticism of Hugo House: That it is a clique.

"It seems like a mafia," a prominent member of the local book community said about Hugo House, naming McCue, Matthew Stadler, Rebecca Brown, Charles Mudede, Emily White, and Stacey Levine as the mafia's core. Because of a perceived favored-writer status, these authors are talked about with disdain by people outside of Hugo House's social circles--e.g., "Get them all in one room and just slap them around. They're windbags, all of them."

(By the way, if I ever have to write another story in which so many people with negative comments refuse to let me print their names, I will start slapping people around.)

The "mafia" reputation, I'm happy to report, is fairly bogus. In an open field, the more famous names simply tend to dominate--and, in some cases, rightfully so: I understand the irritation about Matthew Stadler being tapped to interview visiting author Lydia Davis onstage this past spring, because Stadler seems tied to every major Hugo House event, but his questions were fluent and insightful, more so than what a less accomplished writer would have asked. The suspicion that the mafia's involvement in Hugo House precludes others from being involved in the artistic programming is simply without foundation. Look at Hugo House's event schedule, booked with events from now to next year, and you realize that it's a venue for countless writers and artists: too many, way too many.

In fact, I would say the problem with Hugo House's programming is one of extreme openness to the community. McCue sees Hugo House as "an open pavilion." It's an ideal venue for cross-disciplinary art projects--all those rooms, all that space--and McCue's vision from the beginning has been that the house should "be open to what other people want to do." Therefore, very few events at Hugo House are expressly curated--the Stadler/Davis conversation being one of the few exceptions. (That event was designed by Emily White.) Artistically speaking, Hugo House exists primarily as an empty vessel.

An empty vessel for the community is an honorable, magnanimous goal, but it makes for horrible programming. It undermines McCue's terrific opportunity to provoke and surprise the community, and it advocates--God save us--the notion that every writer is as good as the next writer, that every voice should be heard, which is democratically sound but artistically enervating. "I tend to like curated things more, personally, because I'm interested in order, but it's a great selfless thing to offer them a pavilion," Matthew Stadler told me. He added, "When I go out at night, I tend not to go to venues where the door has been thrown wide open."

This explains why, for many people, Hugo House's artistic programming is so hard to define: It is a blank slate. And it amplifies what's wrong with the rest of the organization. Threaded through all of Hugo House's efforts is a certain small-town mentality, a we're-all-equals-here spirit, and a persistent resistance to guidelines and concrete, qualitative products. The goal of the writing classes is nonspecific: Just write. The goal of the artistic programming is amorphous: The house is whatever the community makes it. All this is compelling insofar as it is freeform and irreducible, but no wonder no one outside of Hugo House can articulate precisely what Hugo House does or is about.

Oh, sure, there are people on the outside and people on the inside. But it is less a mafia than a meritocracy, and less a meritocracy than a communal heart: a group of people who seem to share a vision. In this way, Hugo House is like any other organization. Its champions--the mafia--just happen to be among the most talented and prolific writers in the city.

(Ah, prolific. Hugo House's relationship to The Stranger is incestuous and well known. To wit, Emily White and Matthew Stadler, former Stranger employees, and Charles Mudede, a current Stranger employee, have all previously been on the payroll at Hugo House. Rebecca Brown and Stacey Levine are veteran Stranger contributors. Trisha Ready and Frances McCue have also written for this newspaper. I am a rare bird: a Stranger writer lacking a Hugo House-related conflict of interest.)

Is Hugo House resonating in the world at large? It styles itself as the local literary community's center, but so much confusion about its programs and purpose indicates that Hugo House hasn't established itself as being as central (or as useful) as it could and wants to be. Hugo House is "completely vague" and "takes different forms and can be anything," an employee at another arts nonprofit told me recently. "I feel like I don't know what goes on there most of the time. I feel like they're not part of our world."

A general lack of faith in the value and tangibility of Hugo House's programs was reinforced recently--resoundingly--when a grant to support Hugo House's youth programs was rejected by the National Endowment for the Arts. "There's very little money," Linda Breneman, Hugo House's primary patron, told me when I asked for her theory on why the grant was rejected. "It can be pretty capricious how it works." (When I pointed out that NEA funding for Writers in the Schools, a youth-focused program of Seattle Arts & Lectures, has doubled in the last three years, Breneman said, "Writers in the Schools is great, but it's not a deep experience like what we do.")

McCue attributes not getting the NEA grant to "a lack of imagination on the panel." Hmm. A lack of imagination. If Hugo House is going to grow into a community thing--beyond the reputations of the few famous writers attached to it--it will need public support, and one of the contingencies of support is that members of the public have to understand, they have to be able to imagine, what they are supporting.

The reason any of this matters is that Hugo House has tremendous potential on a scale that most people don't realize. Consider the other major literary arts organizations in town. Seattle Arts & Lectures has the same budget--$800,000--but is confined by what it can do: Filling Benaroya Hall requires events to have broad mainstream appeal. Northwest Bookfest is a longstanding tradition, but blink and you miss it; same with Bumbershoot's literary fair. Elliott Bay Book Company and University Bookstore host readings nightly, but they are tied not to promoting literature as much as to promoting book sales.

"The literary arts have done a pretty bad job of standing up to the other arts in this culture," McCue told me. We were talking about other institutions around the country comparable to Hugo House. Prominent or promising literary centers, places supporting not just an appreciation of literature but the creation of it, are so scarce that only a few outside New York City come to mind. (The Loft, in Minneapolis, is one; 826 Valencia, in San Francisco, is another.) As overblown and grandiose as it sounds, Richard Hugo House--if it renovates its educational programs to include rigorous classes for ambitious writers, and takes a stronger curatorial stance in its artistic programming efforts--could become, and I don't say this lightly, one of the most effective literary arts organizations in America.

And there's something else Hugo House has going for itself: a genuine openness to criticism. In my short time as a writer and reporter I have been up against some pretty hostile and defensive organizations (hello, Northwest Bookfest), and Hugo House, contrary to popular perception, is not one of them. It is not guided by the kind of obtuse stubbornness that threatens to drive Bookfest, for example, into the ground. I mentioned to co-founder Linda Breneman how surprised I was by the staff's responsiveness to my inquiries: how Frances McCue was happy to photocopy failed grant proposals for me, how Trisha Ready was so invested in my programming ideas that at times I felt like she was interviewing me.

"We try to walk the talk," Breneman said. "What's writing if it isn't open to...." She struggled for the word. "You know, new ideas."

"Revision?" I said.

"Revision," she said. "Exactly." recommended