- Fabien Hernandez
In the early days of the pandemic last spring, it became something of a cliché to suggest that quarantine would offer the opportunity for people to do all the creating they'd put off because of their busy lives—writing that novel they always thought they'd get around to, or that screenplay idea they had in their back pocket. Fortunately for any such enterprising would-be artists, the Community Writing Center has continued serving writers of all kinds virtually throughout the pandemic.
According to the CWC's director, Melissa Helquist, the organization really took only a couple of weeks to re-group once the pandemic hit in March. Prior to that time, the CWC typically served about 300 clients each week with 30 hours of scheduled programming covering a wide range of services, including small-group classes, one-on-one coaching, and work with community partners like senior centers and the Salt Lake County Jail. It was necessary to step back and consider what parts of that programming could be adjusted for the "new normal," and what parts couldn't.
"Most of our community outreach stuff, there really weren't any options for" doing virtually, Helquist says, "and we're only at the point right now of reconnecting with community partners. Then in terms of programs that we do on our own, we started offering everything online."
"Everything" isn't too broad a term, as the CWC's classes cover topics ranging from songwriting and poetry to college application essays and "food memoirs." As those classes moved into the virtual space—including ideas like an Instagram-based workshop for youth—Helquist says the CWC has actually been able to serve more people. Where the CWC's in-person space at Library Square might typically only be able to fit 10-15 people, the online classes offer the opportunity for unlimited capacity. "We still keep it relatively small, because we want that interaction," Helquist says. "But online workshops have been anywhere from 15-30 participants."
Changing the model to working with students virtually hasn't required a tremendous amount of adaptation, according to Helquist. She notes that as an instructor for SLCC, she had already been teaching online learning even before the pandemic, and that the model for such instruction was already well-established. "I think they're more similar than people assume they are," she says. "In person, we make a lot of assumptions about engagement based on, say, how people are sitting. ... Online, you can't make those assumptions. You can create that same, maybe even better engagement, because you have to be more purposeful about that.
"One thing that is different, is sometimes people are hesitant to engage online in the same way, especially in a live session, because the cues for when to jump in are different. So you have to do a little more direct calling on people. It takes a little more finessing."
Helquist does believe that the demographics of the clients they serve has changed somewhat as a result of the move to virtual instruction. Previously, she says, a significant percentage of their student base might have high school education or less, and need assistance working on areas like résumé writing and writing in English as a second language. "Now, I think we've switched, because you have to have technology access and technology comfort," Helquist notes. "Some of the people we used to work with, we don't have the way to connect with them directly. Workshops know might have a higher education dynamic."
On the other hand, CWC services that had focused on folks in Salt Lake County are now available to folks throughout the state. "We had a grant-writing class recently, and there was someone from King County," Helquist says. "That wouldn't have happened before."
As far as that notion of people deciding to use time stuck at home to work on long-delayed writing projects, Helquist observes that while there might be some evidence of an uptick in participation specifically relating to fiction and other commercial writing, it's not clear that idea has driven the increase in participation, at least based on her anecdotal information. The same services that CWC has always provided remain appealing—the helpful feedback of other writers, and an opportunity to connect. And that latter part might be particularly crucial at this time, even for introverted types like writers.
"Even though Zoom is the medium [for the classes], there's still another person, other writers; it's still a chance to connect with a community," Helquist says. "It's very supportive and affirmative. We're all lacking a little bit in community right now, and there are still ways to create new connections."