It’s the last Monday of the month, and the regular crowd shuffles in at 6 p.m. Talk about your City of Subdued Excitement: here’s a crowd of 20 to 30 writers, greeting one another in hushed voices, with delighted smiles and waves. Virtual attendees wave from the large television screen at the front of the room. Village Books’ Open Mic, hosted by Seán Dwyer, is about to start, and writers ranging in age from teens to seniors have brought their work to read out loud.
There’s a combination of anticipation and dread as the writers wait for their names to be called. They all signed up for this, but there’s still that terror of public speaking and the fear that the piece you’re about to share won’t land the way you want it to.
“This is a safe place,” says emcee Seán Dwyer, who joined as a reader in 2012 and stepped up to lead the group in 2018. “The first time I attended this open mic, the quality of the readers struck me. I was so intimidated that I didn’t read there for a year, despite my prior reading experiences in other cities. It’s impossible for me to keep my readers’ inner critic from undermining them before they make their debut, but I try to make it clear that the atmosphere is supportive.”
Open mic means open; readers bring everything from poetry to opinion pieces, short stories, chapters from novels in progress, memoirs — anything goes. There have even been performance pieces: sung poems and slam poetry (spoken to a beat). The diversity of content comes from the group. People of different ages, ethnicities, and walks of life connect with one another through their work. One young member read a short story using characters from a video game, and after the session, a senior reader and fellow gamer talked with her about her use of the game’s object to drive the story.
The Open Mic group has become a supportive community for its regular members. Caity Scott celebrated earning her MFA (Master of Fine Arts) with cake for all. Other readers share major life events with the group through their writing. Published writers promote their work, and writers in the pre-publishing stage find “beta readers” within the group — readers who offer general feedback rather than specific editing. Reading out loud is a skill in itself, and over time readers develop comfort with public speaking.“It wasn’t so long ago that I was pretty nervous getting up in front of strangers,” says regular reader Jean Waight, “but not anymore.”
The Open Mic group has grown so large that it’s often hard to fit all the readers into the two-hour time period. Recently, Carla Shafer came to invite people to her Chuckanut Sandstone Writers Theater Open Mic group that meets mid-month. The group is named for the local stone, which, Shafer says, “looks hard from the outside, but breaks open easily and is full of grit.” Readers have up to seven minutes there, which allows for longer pieces. That group also allows the option to attend via Zoom.
One of Village Books’ three owners, Paul Hanson, tells me about the many writing groups hosted by Village Books where local writers can create content to read at the Open Mic groups. There are currently four groups that gather regularly: nonfiction and memoir, fiction, and newly added groups for children’s writing and environmental themes. The nonfiction and memoir group meets virtually but is looking for a facilitator who is interested in starting a nonfiction and memoir group to meet in person at the store — check with Hanson if you are interested). Most groups are still meeting online from the pandemic days, but some have returned to in-person meetings. The events calendar at Village gives the details for each group.
Village Books and Whatcom Community College formed a partnership to create the Chuckanut Writers Conference in 2011, with workshops and network opportunities. The conference went virtual during the pandemic and was canceled in 2022, but Hanson says they are busy “reimagining and restarting” the conference for live events in the future. Meanwhile, Chuckanut Writers offers classes year-round at WCC.
Hanson’s involvement with writing groups began on Bainbridge Island at Eagle Harbor Books, where he hosted and facilitated writing groups for 13 years. “I like the motivation and accountability that regular meetings offer,” he says. The group eventually created a story anthology to follow through the entire process from writing to publication. Some of the groups at Village Books have published anthologies, as well.
Local writing groups outside Village Books regularly publish anthologies with the help of Village’s Writers’ Corner resources. Open mic reader Jean Waight belongs to Red Wheelbarrow Writers, hosted by writer and teacher Cami Ostman. (Read a previous WhatcomTalk feature about Red Wheelbarrow Writers here.)
“The local loose association of writers known as Red Wheelbarrow Writers — named after the William Carlos William poem — has been the community that so much depends on for me,” says Waight. “I’ve even stretched myself to write a chapter in a day for their quirky and hilarious group novel — 30 days, 30 writers, no outline!”
As an independent bookstore, Village Books strives to build community, “Much like WhatcomTalk,” Hanson says with a smile. “Every writer is in a different part of their journey. Village Books attempts to help writers from generation to publication and beyond.”
The writing group anthologies are all available at Village Books. Pick one up. You might find there’s a whole lot more to your neighbors than you ever knew — you might even realize you have a story of your own to tell.