When Centrum announced the suspension of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 in April, George Marie, program director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference, said that she felt a deep sense of loss …
When Centrum announced the suspension of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 in April, George Marie, program director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference, said that she felt a deep sense of loss — a sentiment she saw reflected across the program’s faculty and enrolled participants.
However, that sense of loss soon turned to one of inspiration when she realized that creating a virtual version of the conference would not only be feasible, but well suited for the craft.
“Writers already know how to connect with each other over vast distances, because that’s what we’ve been doing our whole careers,” Marie said.
“We write by ourselves in our little lonely vacuum of space and we put that writing out in the world to be found and to be read and to have people connect to it.”
Marie and artistic director Sam Ligon spent the months of May and June creating a scaled-back, virtual program, much like that of Centrum’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in June.
“It was put together pretty last-minute, and what we decided to do was offer a completely different structure than what we usually offer,” Marie said.
Ligon and Marie created a five-day series of writing intensives consisting of morning and afternoon workshops, along with four readings and an open mic, all over Zoom.
There were six courses offered — two fiction, two nonfiction and two poetry courses — with 10 available slots each. There were 54 overall participants, most of whom signed up for one course for the week. The Writers Conference usually offers dozens of workshops and “craft lectures,” as well as nightly readings and open mics over the course of the week-long program.
Ligon felt confident that the strong community of writers developed over the conference’s 47 years would come together to make this year’s program successful.
“We’ve got an incredibly strong culture that has been developed over almost 50 years that just keeps feeding itself. Many of the same people come back year after year and contribute to that culture, and new people come to contribute to the evolution of the culture. What’s so strong about it is that we’re together.”
However, Ligon and Marie knew that the sense of community would not be as tangible as in years past without the face-to-face interaction. There would be no hand-on editing sessions or group readings going late into the night, no meals together at the Fort Worden Commons or drinks shared at Taps at the Guardhouse.
Marie added that participants usually venture through the state park and find places to write in the forest, fields, and sandy beach not far from the classrooms.
“Without that physical space, the question was: Can we get anywhere close without that kind of experience?” he recalled. “I think we did pretty well with limitations that we had.”
They also braced for the challenges in technology and communication that could derail class sessions. Ligon had recruited professors who had previous experience running Zoom classes, but, as he said, “with Zoom you never know how it’s gonna go.”
Both Ligon and Marie were pleased with what they saw over the course of the week.
“I was surprised by how good it was,” said Ligon of the class that he taught on writing list stories.
“The students were fantastic and the interactions in the classroom were fantastic, and in my class, better than I thought they would be.” He said that not only was his students’ work as good as any he has seen, but so were their class discussions.
“All the students are excited and very bright and very engaged,” Marie said. She said that one of the readings was the best she’s witnessed in her time as program director, and that the engaging Q&A sessions were inspiring.
Ligon attributes this motivation of his students partially to a “hunger” he feels many writers share at the moment to write, with months of isolation and national debates on racial justice and the shortcomings of the American political system consuming many people’s minds.
“To lose the community of the conference at that time is a profound loss and yet the students that I had, maybe because of that loss, rose to the occasion and created some of the better work that I’ve ever seen,’ he said.
Marie also attributes the dedication of the participants to create and engage each other to the social isolation of the past few months.
“People are just really seeking ... reaching out and engaging themselves in ways that they normally perhaps wouldn’t,” she said.
Marie noted another upside to the virtual workshops: the intimacy of writers calling in from their homes.
“One of the things that has really been a kind of blessing in disguise is that for all intents and purposes, we’re being invited into people’s homes. We’re looking into their homes and we’re seeing them in ways that we’ve never seen them before.”
Marie believes this experience might help build a level of trust and support among this year’s conference participants that wasn’t there before.
Another plus of a virtual conference is that participants and faculty can join from anywhere in the world. However, this does mean some people were up writing at 3 a.m.
The conference’s original 2020 schedule was postponed until summer 2021, and most of its 19 invited faculty members have been retained.
In the meantime, the success of the online conference has inspired Ligon and Marie to look into recreating the intensive virtual program in the fall, and perhaps making it a seasonal program that complements the in-person summer conference.
“It feels like there’s an opportunity here that can rise out of what feels also like a loss,” Ligon said. The biggest benefit would be attracting writers from around the world who wouldn’t have to worry about transportation to Port Townsend.
“It’s not face-to-face, and frankly I don’t think it will be good as face-to-face, but it provides access to a whole new world of people,” he said.
For this idea to succeed, he added, class sizes would have to remain small to maximize interaction, and costs would have to be low for participants.
Marie said that she is excited to explore the creation of an online writing intensive series and how the program can both grow and adapt to any roadblocks thrown its way.
“What I would like to see is a vision for the writing program that is as flexible as possible and holds true the vision of the conference for the past 47 years, and that is we that we give rigorous attention to craft and we help build community — help writers find support for each other, help them hone skills and find techniques to do work and do it well. And none of that is predicated on being in person.”
Marie and Ligon both hope that the conference returns in person next summer, but for Marie, this past week showed her that no matter what, the writing community will push through.
“I know that writers can handle this, that we can figure a way to make this work, because this is what we do,” she said.