Compose Writing Conference goes digital



  Clackamas Community College, a campus previously teeming with life and happenings, has met a stretch of desolation on campus. With events being cancelled left and right the idea of hosting a workshop with twelve talented writers, illustrators and filmmakers seems out of the question. This was not the case for this year’s free Compose Writing Conference on May 16 which was hosted entirely through Zoom.

     Future department chair Amanda Coffey coordinated with College Relations and Marketing, Associate Dean of Institutional Effectiveness Katrina Boone and Dean of Academic Foundations and Connections Tara Sprehe in order to get the go-ahead to host online. English instructor Sue Mach then got in touch with those scheduled to host workshops and many agreed to use Zoom as the hosting platform; the conference aimed to raise money for the Craig Lesley Scholarship fund as well as the COVID-19 student support fund. 

    “The department discussed whether to hold [the conference] at all this year and decided to look into whether holding it online would even be feasible,” said administrative assistant Rita Shaw. “It’s a great way to bring together a community of writers during a time when so many events have had to be canceled.” 

   The workshops offered a wide variety of subjects to study — utilizing meditation to clear writing blocks, visual and poetic storytelling, putting humor in writing — the list goes on. Workshop host Kate Gray is an active author and was an english instructor at CCC for 25 years. Gray has won numerous awards for her writing and poetry and she hosted an afternoon session on packing a punch in poetry as well as building tension and enticing the reader. 

   Gray has taught in an online setting plenty of times and sees both pros and cons with the online teaching format.  

      “Synchronous teaching through Zoom is wonderful because you can engage students with your enthusiasm and style, but it’s more difficult to get a sense of what resonates with them,” Gray said. “It’s harder to be responsive in the moment without being able to read body language and expressions. The advantage to online instruction is that you can prepare to use multimedia and spontaneously address questions as they arise. It can be very fluid and responsive.”

      Gray created an open space for learning by having students do freewrite, engaging them with powerpoints and having them ask questions. She equates properly paced poetry to the motions of a diving board. “Don’t break your lines at conventional units of grammar, which are expected places and hold no tension,” said Gray. “Think of the ends of your lines as a diving board — you spring off an active word, rise up in the air, and land on a solid word on the beginning of the next line.”

     Having a chance to revisit CCC’s english department gave Gray a fresh look at her former home. “I was reminded of how hardworking and dedicated the entire English department is. They were all there, working together as a team to create the best experience for all participants.”

    A workshop on creating immersive utopias was held by Arwen Spicer, an avid science fiction author, educator and filmmaker. She has spent years studying, writing and publishing science fiction with an emphasis on utopian literature. She views health as one of the main things to keep in mind when building a utopia be it fictional or reality.

     “This encompasses letting the human mind and body function in ways consistent with human needs and instincts (ex. having adequate food and companionship) and rarely requiring people to endure intense distress.” said Spicer. “It also encompasses living within environmental means in such a way that ecosystems are healthy too with reasonable biodiversity, low extinction rates, little pollution, and so on. It encompasses respect for the world in general: plants, animals, weather, rocks, systems, etc.”

    Spicer also prefers in person education, though she considers Zoom to be a suitable substitute.

    “There’s no substitute for being able to be in a space with people, feel the room, read body language, and so on. But Zoom provides some advantages, like allowing quieter people to communicate by chat.” said Spicer. “It’s also oddly comforting to see my own face when I speak. I can gauge if I seem plausible in a whole new way. And it’s wonderful to get participants from far away.”

 The event hit its maximum capacity of 150 people several days before the event took place, signalling an overwhelming success. Should the lockdown continue into next year, the event will be held online again. “We will certainly have conversations about whether to offer virtual workshops in addition to the regular face-to-face offerings, assuming we can have face-to-face workshops next year,” Coffey said.

Jared Preble