We know that Houston is home to many writers. Writespace offers members of Houston’s diverse writing community to gather annually at the Writers’ Family Reunion. This year’s Reunion comes up this Saturday, November 11, 9 am – 5 pm at Writespace in Silver Street Studios at 2000 Edwards, southeast of the Heights. We are one of the co-sponsors, along with Houstonia Magazine, ArtHouston Magazine, Women in the Visual and Literary Arts (WiVLA), Houston Writers House, Public Poetry, Houston Writers Guild, Writers’ League of Texas, Grackle and Grackle. Use the code PAPERPOWER to save $20 on admission. Click here for more information.
We had the chance to catch up with Writespace founder and director Elizabeth White-Olsen this week to ask her more about the Writers’ Family Reunion and what attendees can expect on Saturday.
INPRINT: How did the Writers Family Reunion first get started, whose idea was it, is it based on a model conducted in another city?
ELIZABETH WHITE-OLSEN: Writing can be a lonely occupation, but when writers feel embraced and supported by community, this can catapult our sense of confidence and success. At Writespace, we seek to offer a place where writers can easily come write, hone their craft, and develop new skills, while feeling celebrated and accepted. Our upcoming literary arts festival, the Writers’ Family Reunion, is designed to strengthen the local writing community by giving writers a sense of homecoming and an understanding that all writers, regardless of the genres we write in, are like a family. The event schedule includes panels and presentations, first page feedback sessions, and Q&As with professional writers. This is Writespace’s second year to host the event. Many of our ideas are borrowed from other literary arts centers around the country. As Writespace’s director, I regularly receive guidance from the founders of literary arts centers in other big cities, such as Denver’s Lighthouse Writers and Boston’s Grub Street. Many of our workshops and the way that we do things—such as reliance partially on staff and partially on volunteers and budgeting at a 65% earned income and 35% contributed income split–has come directly from the literary arts center model. Even specific events, such as Writespace’s Saturday 600s Write-Ins, come directly from other nonprofit literary arts centers—with permission.
But the Writers’ Family Reunion is sui generis. The idea came to me in spring 2016, following the great success of Writespace’s first large literary festival, Writefest. Writefest was a challenge to pull off. In six months, Writespace went from hosting events with about 20 people to hosting events that served almost 200. Writefest was a blast, though, and afterwards, we were all a little high on the bliss of having done so much good for writers. We longed to do something as wonderful again.
INPRINT: How will this year’s Reunion be different from the first one Writespace conducted?
ELIZABETH: The main question we heard repeated at Writefest was, “How can I find a critique group?” Our answer was to use Google. But later it occurred to me that, while it was great that Writefest has a national focus—meaning that we bring in editors from across the United States and connect them with emerging writers in Houston—I realized that we really could do a better job of connecting local writers with local writers. We claim to be grassroots, so what more could we do to nourish local connections?
I’d heard that during its amazing summer conference in Austin, the Writers’ League of Texas had offered the chance for writers of different genres to separate out from the larger group and meet-and-greet, I felt like we needed something similar in Houston and that we needed to add some fun to help get writers past their innate shyness. Thus, the idea of “critique group speed dating” was born. This year we are offering a new-and-improved version of last year’s attempt, and it involves a sixty-foot map of Houston taped to the floor. Writers will be asked to stand on their neighborhood, and their first “speed dates” will be with people who live close by. We’re using a bullhorn and a ridiculously loud bell to get people to transition through five different phases so that writers will be able to make as many new writing buddies as possible in order to better support their writing development after the event.
In accordance with our mission of serving locally, we wanted to support local literary arts organizations and share the event with them in some way. We are excited to have Inprint and other wonderful literary arts organizations and publications supporting the event as co-sponsors, and we look forward to connecting attendees with the many fantastic local opportunities for writers being offered by like-minded organizations in our city.
INPRINT: Can you share some Writespace and Writers’ Family Reunio success stories with us?
ELIZABETH: When I think back to where I was three years ago, having just founded Writespace, I can see that we—because it soon was not just “I,” but “we,” an ever-expanding group of volunteers with a shared mission—have grown so much so quickly.
There is an art to serving others’ needs. For instance, with one person—a spouse or a child—we develop the ability to listen, to know what is needed, and to stretch to serve the need. As the director of Writespace, I am trying to serve many people, some of whom I may never meet. I am trying to pay attention to hundreds of different conversations, both in depth and in passing, and to pick up on what it is that the thousands of new and experienced writers in Houston need. As I grow in the capacity to listen and serve, I grow as a person, which is to say that I grow in my capacity to love both the writers I meet and those I don’t get to meet. Nonprofit administration—literary or otherwise—always involves cultivating an appreciation for a certain invisibility, a total contentment to be behind the scenes, fulfilling one’s commitment to love and give, regardless of whether the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes is ever seen. There’s a joy in the silence of helping people who do not know you and in feeling the immensity of your reach.
I write every week, and I will always write, because I love it, but I am just as richly filled by building a groundwork for other writers to succeed, both now and, I hope, many decades from now. My art has morphed from a solely literary endeavor to the art of orchestrating harmonies amongst people—writers, specifically. These harmonies are designed to lead writers to succeed, and we have seen many successes thus far. It’s fulfilling to see how many writers have been catalyzed by our efforts, how many previously unpublished writers have been published by magazines, journals, and anthologies. Earlier this year an attendee at Writefest was even nominated for a Pushcart based on a piece she read at an open mic; an attending editor in the audience heard the piece and asked her to submit. Native talent was at play, of course, but I love that Writespace helped to provide a place for a harmony between people to lead to good things.
We hope that similar magic is kindled at the Writers’ Family Reunion.
INPRINT: How many people are registered so far?
ELIZABETH: We predict that we will have just over a hundred attendees, which is down from last year, largely due to Hurricane Harvey.
INPRINT: We know that the date of the Reunion had to be changed because of Harvey and recovery efforts. How has this impacted the event?
ELIZABETH: The impact of Harvey has been tremendous, but it hasn’t stopped us from moving forward. It took many hours to notify all the writers who would have been attending on September 5th that we were rescheduling, rearrange the panels according to who could still come, and update our site, social media, and local and national calendars with the new dates. We had to refund many participants who were planning to come or who had been affected by Harvey. The refunds posed a challenge, because a new event that hasn’t been in existence long will always operate from a small budget.
But as a Houstonian who has been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, I will have a special message to share at the event with others who have lost their homes or who are dealing with significant damage from Harvey. Home is the place where you belong, but belonging is larger than this. You can also belong to your work, you can belong to your mission, you can belong to your people. And, as writers with a shared mission to make the world more livable and human through the act of writing, we hope that you realize a sense of belonging at the Writers’ Family Reunion, because all of us in the room understand, respect, and love your mission.