This article is an op-ed/essay. Learn more about how to contribute to The Land here.
In March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, the future of Literary Cleveland looked bleak.
Our then four-year-old nonprofit was growing rapidly, gaining new members, and offering more programs than ever before, but our savings were waning and our future hinged on income that suddenly seemed unlikely to materialize.
In addition to pressing pause on 14 paid programs, we also had to postpone our June fundraiser to the fall. This was a problem, as one of our financial models showed us running out of money by the end of May.
I was sleepless, like many people in those early days. Every night I tried reading, listening to music or podcasts, or experimenting with how much ZzzQuil is safe to take, but nothing worked. In addition to the universal worries about health, safety, livelihood, the future of America, I felt deep personal responsibility for the survival of Literary Cleveland.
In my darkest moments, I found myself wondering whether any of it mattered. Given the rising number of deaths, historic layoffs, profound racial injustices, and the crumbling foundation of democracy, why did our small literary arts nonprofit matter? What use is a book when you’re falling from the sky? In other words: why write?
But then something simple but remarkable happened: I taught my first online class.
This was possible thanks to a government loan that came through at just the right time. On top of that came emergency donations from our board and the community (gifts that to this day move me to tears). Together, these bought us time to figure out our next step. As a small nonprofit, we were nimble enough to move nearly all our programs online in less than two weeks.
That’s how I found myself leading my first online fiction class, in April 2020.
I still remember that first meeting. After that initial Zoom awkwardness that has since become cliché — Can you hear me? You’re on mute. Am I doing this right? You’re frozen — we got to know each other, talked about our goals, discussed an example story, and began working on a writing prompt. It was all typical intro class stuff, but there was human connection and genuine care, for each other and for literature. We formed a community greater than the sum of its parts. After weeks of stress, uncertainty, fear, and isolation, these simple actions felt miraculous, life-giving. For the first time in weeks, I got a full night’s sleep.
That changed everything for me. After that class, I realized that virtual literary arts programs during COVID were not only possible. They were necessary. Art can sometimes seem superfluous in an emergency, but that’s also when it becomes essential.
To quote Toni Morisson about art during crises: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Thus inspired, we got to work.
In March and April of 2020, we began sharing free writing prompts in our weekly newsletter and publishing what our members wrote in response. In May, we launched “Documenting Cleveland: May 12, 2020,” a project in which the public wrote about what it saw and experienced on an ordinary Cleveland during an extraordinary time.
The response was overwhelming: 140 people from all across the city submitted a combined 95,880 words and 346 photos. In other words, they wrote the equivalent of a novel. We created a chronological, interactive map of the responses and published excerpts from select submissions in a longform article in Scene Magazine.
What I loved about this project, as I wrote back then, was that “each individual joy, sorrow, frustration, love and loss combined to form a mosaic that speaks with more beauty and complexity than any one person could accomplish alone. Our hope was to provide a unique account of this historic time for those in the future as well as an opportunity to bring all of us closer together right now.”
That summer, in June, we began developing a larger project to give essential workers the opportunity to process their experiences through writing and share their stories with the public. That program became “Voices from the Edge.” It launched in April 2021, near the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, and culminated in the publication of an online anthology that fall.
The doctors, ICU nurses, caregivers, and food service workers who participated don’t necessarily aspire to be professional writers, but by providing them an opportunity to write and amplifying their stories, we made a real difference in their lives. As one participant told us, writing with other essential workers helped combat isolation. It helps not to feel alone in the struggle.
To our surprise and delight, this new focus on public impact has generated more than artistic vitality. It has also provided financial stability. As a result of our outreach, funders provided support, partners stepped up, and new participants joined from all over Northeast Ohio and beyond. When we held an online fundraiser in fall 2020, the community gave back to us, donating the most money in our organization’s history. As a result, we’ve started saving, bolstering ourselves against future emergencies and creating a more sustainable organization that can serve Cleveland for years to come.
In other words, the pandemic reinvented Literary Cleveland. We expanded from a community of writers to an organization that uses writing to build community. We still help authors improve their skills and advance their careers, but we also work with them to draft a new future for our city.
That is why we write: community, connection, empowerment, change. Like the letters that form words or the words that form stories, we can do more when we come together. I hope you will join us. We are just getting started.
Learn more about Literary Cleveland on their website.
Matt Weinkam is Executive Director of Literary Cleveland.