No writer stands alone: a conversation about community with Rita Wirkala and Jeffrey Cheatham

A little over a week ago, I moderated a panel on DIY culture for Literary Career Day at the Seattle Public Library downtown. The panel conversation was between myself, author Jeffrey Cheatham of the Seattle Urban Book Expo, and poet Rita Wirkala of Seattle Escribe, but many of the dozens of young aspiring authors in the room took part in the conversation, which covered a wide array of topics.

Cheatham talked about his surprising success with the first Urban Book Expo, and his current attempts to turn the festival into "an actual movement, a culture" that represents writers and readers of color in Seattle. Wirkala discussed her history as a writer and a publisher and a published poet, as well as her work with Escribe, which she describes as an organization featuring readings, "classes, and workshops for people who are writing" in the Seattle area.

Most of the questions centered around how they manged to build a community, and how they kept the community going once it got started. Wirkala said "I'm not very good at finding people, but people have found me" because she kept herself available as a publisher and a writer. Putting her name out and maintaining a presence in the city meant that like-minded could easily find her. As to maintaining the community, she attributes that to the "self-generated energy" created when "you find people who are on the same wavelength and you fit with them."

Cheatham said when he created the first Expo, he went on a listening tour. "I listened to potential clients, because they'll tell you what you're looking for when they go to events," and then he took it upon himself to "mold the show to fit what they wanted." And in order to more than double the size of the second Expo, he says he kept his ears open after the first one. "I just listened to my customers. They told me what they wanted."

Putting on an event is hard work, Cheatham notes, but if you listen and create a space, people "as human beings want to find something they can call their own and work together on." Everyone's looking for their people, and they're willing to work to keep their community together.

Those groups are important for writers and publishers, Wirkala agreed, because "when you write, or when you're engaging with work, you are too close to it as an idea. You always need somebody to help you" gain some distance from the work. "And you learn a lot from other people who are in the same field. That's really important," she added.