The Whidbey Island Writers Association is probably going to close. The ‘probably’ is in there because miracles happen, but saving the name and the organization will take tens of thousands of dollars soon. I checked my Powerball ticket. I’m not WIWA’s financial saviour. There are plenty of ironies around a writers association closing partly from miscommunications. The story is deep, rich, and filled with passions; but, I’ll leave that material for others to delve into and cover elsewhere. I’m more interested in the future than the past, and am drawn to the parallels that must apply to other small towns as they go through transitions. I have my black tea martini beside me; let’s see how the story unfolds.
I give credit to the Whidbey Island Writers Association (hereafter called WIWA because why use 34 characters more than once when 4 will do – especially for retweets). Thanks to WIWA my writing improved from the simple action of attending a well-run writers group every other week for a few years. Writers groups span the range from unfailingly supportive (Congratulations! You wrote something, anything!) to rigorously exacting (how else can prize winners improve other than to have every mistake highlighted?). I was glad to drop into a group that sat in the middle. My favorite bit of feedback was; “That was so beautiful we missed the point.” Positive and constructive in one line; which was an impressive bit of extemporaneous verbal wordsmithing. Now I write so much, and get paid for much of it, that I don’t have time to attend the writers group. (Check Amazon and Curbed Seattle for some of my books and articles.)
WIWA and other writers associations are known for writers groups, conference, classes, seminars, workshops, publications, and general support. Each community requires a unique mix. Whidbey Island’s writing community is so strong that people move here because of it. It was strong enough that it actually inspired and created the first Master of Fine Arts program for literary arts that was accredited without being associated with another college or university. An impressive feat. (I put a sentence fragment in here to make sure my editing friends had something to chew on, as if my writing style isn’t already a rich vein to tap.) Saying you’re a writer to someone else on Whidbey is as welcoming as saying you’re well-paid professional at a party in Seattle – welcoming, but without the expectation of wealth.
Small towns have long memories. Missteps that are quickly put in the past in the dynamic world of urban America tend to linger because the people persist and remember in small towns. Artists are passionate people. The emotions persist as well. The closure of the MFA program (called the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, aka NILA) and the subsequent closure of WIWA generated understandably strong emotions. For some, the news wasn’t new. They knew or suspected for months. It’s hard to hide for long in a small town. For others, the news of the meeting was the first sign of anything amiss, when it is effectively too late. It’s easy to concentrate on nothing else than your writing when you’re a writer. What? Donald Trump gave up his TV show and is running for President? And is winning? Fiction writers rarely are brave enough to write such narratives. Reality doesn’t have that constraint. But I digress.
Tuesday, April 26th (yesterday as I write this) included a meeting held at 3:30PM so WIWA members could learn about the transition. Understandably, not everyone could attend in the middle of a work day. Writers tend to have day jobs that have nothing to do with writing, and fit the writing in as they can. I was lucky and interested enough that I finished my gigs for the day and settled into the lowest and comfiest seat in the far back corner and hoped to listen instead of talk. I learn more when my mouth is closed. There was that one comment that slipped, but that simply proved that I was human. The people impressed me. There was obvious contention and friction, but people acted as adults by revealing their emotions but not letting them interfere with the meeting.
The overly-simplistic version is that a writers association can be recreated, but it has to start as an idea. Nothing except inspiration can be brought forward. No money. No name. No contacts lists. No assets. No offices.
One moment that made me sit up was when the topic of the new name of the writers association was mentioned. Whatever follows legally can’t use the old name unless it pays for the old debts (evidently), so it was suggested that we use the name I came up with for a Facebook group that was created on a whim one afternoon a few years ago: Whidbey Authors. I never considered that possibility. Okay. Writers questioned the distinctions between Author versus Writer. I didn’t engage because I was recovering from someone suggesting that something I did could help. Happy to help. Surprise!
For a number of reasons, I’ve found myself fielding several threads of messages since the meeting. While I take it as an honor that I’m included, I also suspect that messages are directed to me because I’ve been a WIWA member for a long time, have written extensively in a variety of forms, have never been on the board of WIWA or NILA and therefore have little history there, enjoy communicating, and was able to attend the meeting. Who was it that really said most of life is showing up?
If I followed all of the advice and direction I’ve received within the last 24 hours I’d have to give up all of my other jobs and devote my life to whatever WIWA becomes. My bills suggest otherwise. I’m willing to act as a communications conduit – to a point.
So far, the news is good. People who were dedicated to WIWA are dedicated to creating something new. There’s interest in reviving the conference, publishing anthologies of local works, sustaining writers groups, and providing lists of resources for finding editors and such. There’s also interest in launching initiatives that may be old, revived, or new – many of which involve being more public, more social, more digital, and emphasizing local. Coworks and drinking with your tribe come to mind. One crowd understands listserves, and has never heard of meetups. And, of course, the other crowd expects meetups and hasn’t heard of listserves. I sit in the middle, knowing of both, using neither but just because I have other options.
As much fun as it is to dream of what else the writing community can do, the trickier part is the procedural, financial, and legal part. An official non-profit with 501(c)(3) status can be generated readily, as long as there’s a name, board, and bylaws agreed to be enough people. Non-profits don’t have to become tax-deductible entities, which is simpler, but it makes it harder to raise funds. Some groups on the island don’t even have official structure, but are completely ad hoc creating events by almost accidental group consent and also rarely collecting money.
Money makes things complicated and is the root of when NILA and WIWA are going through this transition. (See, this blog is about finance, after all.)
As I write this, I know of a few threads of energy aimed at recreating a writers association on Whidbey. Some are in stealth mode. Others are more public. For those who seek a somewhat public forum, I’ve opened up the Whidbey Authors Facebook group as an online venue. We could probably do something similar on LinkedIn or Google+, but that may take too much training to be inclusive.
Amidst the chaos of energy, my inclination is to listen. I write this post as more of a prompt than as a detailed plan. Pattie Beaven has already posted about what she wants. I look forward to others doing the same. If they don’t already have a blog (come on, writers are the best people for blogging, get busy) I’m willing to host some guest posts, and maybe spin off a separate blog if necessary.
To anyone who is not on Whidbey who has read this far, thanks. There’s a message and a lesson that isn’t tied to the island. Small towns are necessarily aware and mutually charitable; otherwise, they don’t survive. I’ve been watching the transitions throughout South Whidbey and wonder how the various non-profits will shift or survive. Good ideas tend to persist. It isn’t guaranteed (how did we build the pyramids?) but watching the energy flow has been encouraging. It may not be controllable, but it is inevitable – and I trust it. That’s true for WIWA, and also for greater issues like our society, government, economy, and civilization.
To the rest of us interested in building a new organization, formal or not, I look forward to hearing the full breadth of the ideas, new approaches, and then narrowing down to what we can afford, accomplish, and sustain.
A couple of disclosures that I would normally break out separately, but don’t want to de-emphasize: 1) I teach classes and workshops for WIWA, the last of which is a workshop about Social Media for Writers on April 27th; and 2) once or twice upon a time I was interviewed for various management positions within WIWA which never resulted in a paid position. I admit to wondering if things would’ve been different for NILA, WIWA, and myself if things had worked out otherwise. That, however, is the classic retrospective trap, and also not the path to the future, whatever that may be.
Thanks to everyone for their efforts. Now, what comes next?
One more disclosure: to anyone who is proficient enough with Twitter, I live tweeted the meeting. Follow the hashtags #WIWAmeet &#WIWAnews for my notes. If that concept doesn’t make sense, well, hey; do you know I teach classes in that?