Seattle folks Clarion West Writers Workshop have long considered entering the world of online courses cautiously. It only seems that a group that promotes speculative fiction as part of its mission is joining the internet age, after all.
So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing the cancellation of all in-person classes this spring and summer (and possibly fall), the workshop thought it would take things virtual. for the first time in April with 42 online courses.
As has happened over the past few months, those with little to do were ready to pounce. Clarion West received 40,000 visitors to the site in the first hour of registration with aspiring writers from as far away as New Zealand vying for courses.
“We’ve given away a lot of them for free and they’re all with our regular, fairly well-known instructors,” said Marnee Chua, executive director of Clarion West. “And, in fact, our server went down on the first day of recording. We didn’t expect them to be so popular – and I’ve since been told that we probably should have. We raised the first round and actually loaded a second round, and all of them were extremely popular.
More online classes are underway as organizers from Clarion West and other writing training programs address the pandemic. And it seems there are more than enough aspiring writers for everyone. (And writers of all ages, no less: Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Seattle Public Library, Center in Port Townsend, and the University of Washington, among others, offer writing courses of all kinds. Hugo House and Clarion West will be offering writing camps and classes for teens this summer, as will Seattle Public Schools.)
Clarion West, a group that champions emerging and underrepresented voices, has been forced to postpone its summer fiction workshop (more on that in a moment). Instead of that program, the organizers now offer a series of summer courses to the public as part of its annual “writing thon.”
Hugo House, which was founded by Seattle writers Frances McCue, Linda Breneman and Andrea Lewis to honor Pacific Northwest poet Richard Hugo, and which has a mission to help anyone who wants to learn to write, also posted online. its entire catalog of summer courses. Classes, taught by authors such as Honor Moore, Benjamin Percy and Steve Almond, will come together via the now ubiquitous Zoom platform.
Tree Swenson, executive director of Hugo House, calls the interest “vibrant”.
“I think it’s because people really need to connect with each other and words are so powerful,” she said. “So it’s a way to not only communicate with others, but also, I think words take us deep inside because we all need to make sense of this crazy time that we’re going through.”
Author Cat Rambo, owner of West Seattle The Rambo Academy for finicky writersgraduate of Clarion West’s 2005 summer workshop and recent Nebula award winner, said there was a similar kind of frenzy behind the scenes as organizers tried to make sure they had the power to teach to move online.
“I can tell you that when it became clear that people were going to have to self-isolate, all of a sudden I had a whole bunch of different writing conferences and writing schools calling me for me. ask to go online,” said Rambo, whose “Carpe Glitter” won Best Short Story on May 30 at Science Fiction’s Biggest Night in Writing. “So it’s A, the pressure of that stuff, people not wanting to cancel. And B, I think people also want more things to do. I’ve organized all kinds of special events in my school, like co-working sessions and sessions where we talk about short stories, and they’re extremely popular, I mean, maybe not hugely, but very popular with my students.
Bainbridge Island author Kathleen Alcala, who graduated from Clarion West in 1987 (a heady year that included Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany as instructors), teaches at Clarion West and Hugo House. She recently completed a spring course on writing craft for Clarion and will be teaching two courses on writing opinion pieces for possible publication for Hugo House.
“In June, I’m going to teach two classes on op-ed writing,” Alcala said. “I taught this class for Hugo House in January and it was so popular, the students just said, ‘Let’s do it again. We want to meet again. So I’m going to teach an advanced course and I’m also going to teach the beginner course to, ideally, a different group of people.
The six-book author said she was not surprised that online courses are growing in popularity, especially in the West.
“Distance and travel have always been a major barrier to teaching these classes and taking these classes,” Alcala said. “So working online, even though we complain about it in some ways, also really opens up the world for us.”
When asked the age-old question — whether she thinks writers can learn the craft in the classroom — Alcala said she can name students who have used similar types of courses to hone their skills and transition into publishing. . The first name that came to mind was Seattle author Donna Miscolta.
Miscolta’s literary journey began nearly three decades ago when she attended an Alcala reading.
“I was 39,” Miscolta said. “I had two small children. I was working full time. But Kathleen was a friend of mine at the time, and I went to her reading her first book. It was 1992 and I think just realizing that there was someone I knew who was a writer, it felt so much more accessible to me.
Soon after, she enrolled in a continuing education course at the University of Washington, “and I really didn’t quit after that.”
Today, she is the author of three books. And she’s still taking writing lessons.
“In the past, almost all of my classes were fiction,” Miscolta said. “But for the past couple of years I’ve been interested in writing non-fiction, so I started taking non-fiction classes. For me, it’s a never-ending process of learning to write.
She now shares this knowledge with people who once looked like her. Miscolta was to teach at Port Townsend Writers Conference in July, but like everything else, it has been postponed to summer 2021.
Clarion West’s annual summer workshop suffered the same fate. The prestigious six-week live event will now be held in 2021 with the same class and set of teachers. Known for producing award winners in sci-fi, fantasy and horror, the competition for a spot at the table each summer is fierce. The class of 2020 – now 2021 – come from all over the world, including India, China, Greece and Australia.
“We have been trying to work with this class to give them a bit of control over (the decision) and to discuss their concerns about canceling or postponing, or just keeping it going,” said Chua, the executive director. “But a big concern we have is that even if we open more locally by summer, there’s a good chance that many international students won’t be able to attend. So that really encouraged us to look at other options.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Maison Richard Hugo was founded by Richard Hugo. It was founded by Seattle writers Frances McCue, Linda Breneman and Andrea Lewis to honor Pacific Northwest poet Richard Hugo. The story has been updated to reflect this change.