Jessica Haney
Jessica Haney Credit: Mari Springer

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Back in March, at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, we began to focus on the basics. We worried about food and toilet paper, about helping our kids with virtual schooling. We prepared for a short period of sheltering in place.

But that time at home lengthened, and as our idea of normal slowly redefined itself, our need for the arts returned quickly and urgently. Nowhere was this more evident than the D.C. literary and storytelling scenes. With events canceled and bookstores closed, writers had to find new ways to find inspiration and share their work.

To the surprise of many, the literary arts are bouncing back quickly and in exciting new ways. The virtual landscape is shifting our collective idea of what an event even is, and with that change, D.C.’s literary scene is becoming more accessible to its writers and readers, some of whom cannot attend in-person events due to a variety of factors.

Zoom readings are packed now, drawing far more attendees than in-person events used to. Workshops and literary happy hours fill quickly. And virtual book launches continue to help authors reach readers.

These changes are good, opening doors that used to be locked. They also bring up difficult conversations and questions that are long overdue.

Laura Zam is a well-known D.C. writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column and Salon. Her candid new memoir, The Pleasure Plan, launched in early May, a time when many authors were struggling to find their footing.

“I came to realize that the restrictions presented by COVID-19 would be with my family, and our nation, for a very long time,” Zam says. “It was time to find solutions.”

Zam dove into her online literary communities on Facebook, one of which focused on books that were about to be released by women and nonbinary writers.

“I’d been semi-active in this group, but I quickly got really engaged,” she says. “Every day, I learned so much from others who were in a very similar boat—launching during a plague. We started creating opportunities for each other. Someone started author interviews on Twitter several times a week. Two other writers offered video interviews, even setting up panels, then streaming live on Facebook.”

She started Adopt Five Books, where 50 authors each chose 5 books to commit to reviewing and promoting. The authors came from a variety of backgrounds, with books ranging from memoirs to novels to essay collections.

“I don’t know if we ever would have created such a tight bond, or even come into close contact, without this crisis,” she says.

As the group grew, Zam learned about other virtual options, like online book clubs, giveaways, and virtual book tours. She discovered an entirely new type of community, one that began in a grassroots, DIY way. The results have been tremendous: Her own book hit bestseller status on Amazon, thanks to the buzz created from the snowballing PR of the virtual community.

 “I’m not glad the pandemic struck,” she says. “But I’m thrilled with what took place because of it. It’s more than a silver lining. It’s pure gold.”

Cara Foran is the producer and host of Perfect Liars Club, a monthly storytelling show at Bier Baron Tavern and DC Comedy Loft in Dupont Circle. She and her business partner, Pierce McManus, have been producing the show since 2015, and consistently sell out events. But COVID-19 stopped the performances in their tracks. Their shows rely on audience participation, so they were worried about the transition to virtual.

“We decided to pause and see what other folks were doing so we could learn from them,” Foran says.

That collaboration led to growth. They decided to work with Washington Improv Theater to do a free at-home edition of the show, and the combination of recorded stories and Zoom interaction worked well. They also started a free talk show called 6 Feet Apart with Cara and Pierce to keep in touch with the community. The experimentation has paid off, and now they’re working on pay-what-you-can shows that involve live stories and chat-run interrogation rounds.

“The storytelling community in D.C. is wonderful: tight-knit and supportive and just bursting with talent,” Foran says. “Keeping our connections with them has been great. Who knows, maybe we’ll be able to emerge from this crisis as a franchise in a couple years.”

She’s also found that going virtual has opened the D.C. scene up to people outside the area, which has been exciting in terms of both talent and visibility.

Jessica PiscitelliRobinson runs Better Said Than Done, a monthly storytelling show in both D.C. and Fairfax, and she’s had a similar gain in reach. Better Said Than Done is now performing three virtual shows a month, in addition to Robinson hosting story swaps (similar to open mics), and their workshops have more attendees than ever before.

“From a local show producer point of view, not only do I have the opportunity to support our local storytellers and put them in more shows than ever, but I am also able to have storytellers from all over the country—many of them famous in storytelling circles—join our shows,” Robinson says. “And because we are mixing nationally celebrated storytellers with local storytellers, we’re getting an international audience.”

The theme of geographical inclusivity continues across the spectrum of events, workshops, and classes. Writers, speakers, and teachers are all finding connections on a broader scale, working and attending events with people from all over the country and the world.

The accessibility aspect hits closer to home. Online readings don’t require wheelchair ramps or elevators. Virtual classes don’t involve crowds that heighten anxiety or threaten the health of someone who is immunocompromised.

Writer Jessica Haney is a single mom in Arlington. Child care needs mixed with her chronic health issues prevent her from attending many events. With literary offerings going virtual, she’s been able to attend book talks through Politics and Prose, participate in readings at The Writer’s Center, tune in to webinars and craft talks through groups like the Maryland Writers Association, and attend a variety of virtual literary events, such asNoir at the Bar.

“Every little bit of connection these days makes such a difference to my mental state and my sense of there being a place for me in the wider writing community,” Haney says. “I know my career will benefit from the opportunities I’ve had access to during the pandemic.”

From less visible needs, like medical and mental health challenges, to accommodating visual and hearing disabilities and mobility issues, accessibility is a topic that the literary scene has only begun to touch on. Older buildings, for example, often don’t have accessible entrances or spaces, and affordable event locations can be difficult to find. These needs often get pushed aside, and with that, writers and audience members get excluded from events that take place in brick-and-mortar establishments.

Haney would like to see these opportunities continue once in-person events restart.

“It would be terrific if some of these virtual offerings carried over into the future,” she says. “I will always enjoy attending events in person when I can, but I would love to see regular online offerings. I hope stores will add more virtual events and also offer a virtual option for many of their in-person events.”

At The Writer’s Center, hundreds of classes and events have gone virtual this spring.

“I was surprised with how quickly and easily people have adapted to the online format,” says Zach Powers, The Writer’s Center’s director of communications. “In fact, some workshops have better attendance than what I think we would have seen in person. This has me reconsidering how we define literary community. Yes, physical presence is great. But there are ableist assumptions in that kind of community building.” 

“We moved our offerings online out of necessity, but that’s made them available to people who wouldn’t have had access to them before,” he continues. “That said, we’re still working on so many aspects of how to increase accessibility within an online framework. One of our staffers is furiously transcribing our online events so we can caption the recordings. We’re trying to find ways to offer captioning or ASL live. So we’re not there yet. And I hope we always strive to do better.”

Powers wants to take what they’ve learned about better serving people and carry that knowledge into future planning: “The worst thing we could do would be to abandon all that we learned and return to the old model. Live online workshops are here to stay, and we are dedicated to the cause of increasing access.”