The folks at the Seattle-based Clarion West Writers Workshop have long been planning to cautiously enter the world of online classes. Seems only fitting that a group that promotes speculative fiction as part of its mission join 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 maybe fall), the workshop thought it would take things virtual for the first time in April with 42 online courses.
As has been known to happen over the past few months, those with not a lot to do were prepared to pounce. Clarion West got 40,000 site visitors in the first hour of registration with aspiring writers from as far away as New Zealand vying for classes.
“We offered a lot of them for free and they’re all with our regular, pretty high-profile instructors,” said Marnee Chua, Clarion West executive director. “And, actually, our server went down the first day of registration. We hadn’t anticipated that they would be so popular — and I’ve been told since that we probably should have. We got up the first round and in fact loaded up a second round, and all were extremely popular.”
More online courses are on the way as organizers at Clarion West and other writing education programs lean into the pandemic. And it seems like there are more than enough wannabe writers to go around. (And writers of all ages, no less: Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Seattle Public Library, Centrum in Port Townsend, and the University of Washington, among others, offer writing courses of all kinds. Both Hugo House and Clarion West will offer teen writing camps and courses this summer, as will Seattle Public Schools.)
Clarion West, a group that advocates for emerging and underrepresented voices, has been forced to postpone its summer fiction workshop (more on that in a bit). In lieu of that program, organizers are now offering a suite of summer courses to the public as part of its annual “write-a-thon.”
Hugo House, which was founded by Seattle writers Frances McCue, Linda Breneman and Andrea Lewis to honor the Pacific Northwest poet Richard Hugo, and which has a mission of helping anyone who wants to learn to write, also has moved its entire summer course catalog online. Classes, taught by authors such as Honor Moore, Benjamin Percy and Steve Almond, will meet through the now-ubiquitous platform Zoom.
Tree Swenson, Hugo House executive director, calls interest “vibrant.”
“I think it’s because people really need to connect to each other and words are so powerful,” she said. “So it’s a way not only of communicating with other people, but also, I think words take us deep down inside because we all need to be making meaning out of this crazy time we’re living through.”
Author Cat Rambo, the West Seattle proprietor of The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, a 2005 graduate of the Clarion West summer workshop and a recent Nebula Award winner, said there’s a similar sort of feeding frenzy going on behind the scenes as organizers try to make sure they have the teaching power to move online.
“I can tell you that when it became clear that people were going to need to isolate, suddenly I had a whole bunch of different writing conferences and writing schools calling me to ask about moving online,” said Rambo, whose “Carpe Glitter” won best novelette on May 30 on the biggest night in science fiction writing. “So it’s A, the pressure of that stuff, of people not wanting to cancel. And B, I think people also want more stuff to do. I have been running all sorts of special events through my school, like co-working sessions and sessions where we talk about short stories, and they are hugely popular. I mean, maybe not hugely, but very popular with my students.”
Bainbridge Island author Kathleen Alcala, a 1987 graduate of Clarion West (a heady year that included Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany as instructors), teaches classes at both Clarion West and Hugo House. She recently wrapped up a spring class on writing craft for Clarion and will teach two courses on writing op-eds for eventual publication for Hugo House.
“In June I’m going to teach two classes on writing the opinion piece,” Alcala said. “I taught this class for Hugo House in January and it was so popular, the students just said, ‘Let’s just do this again. We want to meet again.’ So I’m going to teach an advanced one and I’m also going to teach the beginning class to, ideally, a different group of people.”
The author of six books said she’s not surprised online classes are gaining popularity, especially in the West.
“Distance and travel have always been a big impediment to teaching these classes and taking these classes,” Alcala said. “So doing work online, while we gripe about it in some ways, also really opens up the world to us.”
Asked the age-old question — if she thought writers can learn the craft through classwork — Alcala said she could name students who had used similar types of classes to sharpen their skills and advance to publication. The first name that came to mind was Seattle author Donna Miscolta.
Miscolta’s literary journey began nearly three decades ago when she attended a reading by Alcala.
“I was 39,” Miscolta said. “I had two small children. I was working a full-time job. But Kathleen was a friend of mine at the time, and I went to her reading of her first book. It was in 1992 and I think just realizing that here was a person that I knew who was a writer, it just seemed to be so much more accessible to me.”
Not long after, she enrolled in a continuing education class at the University of Washington, “and I really didn’t stop after that.”
Today, she’s the author of three books. And she still takes writing courses.
“In the past, almost all my classes have been fiction,” Miscolta said. “But the last couple of years I’ve been interested in writing nonfiction, so I started taking classes in nonfiction. For me, it’s a never-ending process of learning about writing.”
She now shares that knowledge with folks who were once like her. Miscolta was scheduled to teach at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in July, but like everything else, it’s been postponed to summer 2021.
Clarion West’s annual summer workshop suffered the same fate. The prestigious, six-week live-in event will now be held in 2021 with the same class and set of teachers. Known for churning out winners of science fiction, fantasy and horror awards, competition for a seat at the table each summer is fierce. The 2020 class — now 2021 — comes from all over the world, including India, China, Greece and Australia.
“We tried really hard to work with this class to give them a little bit of control over (the decision) and to discuss their concerns with either canceling or postponing, or just holding it,” Chua, the executive director, said. “But one big concern that we have is even if we open up more locally by summer, there’s a strong chance that many of the international students wouldn’t be able to attend. So that really encouraged us to look at other options.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Richard Hugo House 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.