Onward and Upward with the House Lissa Richardson Feature

whatshot Onward and Upward with the House

by Lissa Richardson

Published in Issue No. 159 ~ August, 2010

On Monday, August 16th, Richard Hugo House’s 2010-2011 Literary Series tickets go on sale (http://www.hugohouse.org/content/hugo-literary-series). Each season, the House hosts four events, commissioning three authors and a song writer or a band to write on a theme and prompt dreamt up by the Hugo House staff.  The series sits at the core of the House’s commitment to fostering new writing; thus, new perspectives, and unexpected styles abound as writers are encouraged to take risks, preforming their work without any editing or even reviewing from Hugo House staff.  According to Richard Hugo House’s website, “[a]t the Hugo Literary Series, you will meet writers willing to take risks, to work without the safety net of editors, publishers or reviewers affirming the work before they stand in front of an audience and read it aloud. They are writers who share the exhilaration of creating something new and sharing it with an audience for the first time before the work appears in a book, between the glossy covers of a magazine or within the shrink wrap of a compact disc.” This past week I corresponded, via email, to a few of the Series past contributors: Keri Healey, Matt Smith, and Ryan Boudinot.

Boudinot is currently one of Hugo House’s Writers in Residence. As mentioned in my column for Pif’s July 2010 issue, “Hello Mr. Hugo” (http://www.pifmagazine.com/2010/07/hello-mr-hugo/), Boudinot wrote a couple interviews for Pif a decade or so ago, which he remembers fondly as sparking a lasting friendship with acclaimed author, Aimee Bender. When asked to share his thoughts on being one of the House’s Writer’s in Residence, he commented on the opportunity to work with a vast and varied group of writers in the community: “I enjoy the work I do as a writer in residence at the house a lot. I’ve had a variety of people seek my counsel in the past year, including a heart surgeon, a former Olympic athlete, college students. I was most proud of the fact three people who asked for advice about applying to MFA programs got into programs,” a tribute to the service the House provides to the Seattle writing community.

I also asked each writer, Boudinot, Healey, and Smith, to comment on teaching Hugo House classes, a question I, as a long time writing teacher, am personally attached to and curious about myself. Boudinot, who just taught a class at the House in July, replied, “I suppose it’s the same with teaching anything–thoroughly prepare and be prepared to abandon the lesson plan at any moment,” which reminds me of most artistic endeavors: they have an uncanny ability to take on a life of their own. Teaching, along with writing, painting, and anything else associated with creating, really requires an unnameable quality thats only defining characteristic is its nebulous nature. Here’s Smith: “[w]hat makes an effective writing coach?  Dunno! Different people are drawn to different teachers. Some students want structure, some need renewed permission, some gentle prodding.  It’s a balancing act. My job is to NOT be the one who convinces them that they ‘can’t do this’; to tell the truth about their writing and to offer one avenue for action – something to try – to make [their writing] better, or different.” Smith’s response touches on the importance of finesse when working with students, as does Healey’s: “I’ve been trying to figure out what makes a writing teacher good.  I don’t feel like I’m a teacher at all.  I’m a playwright and director and the environment I work best in is the rehearsal room where it’s not my job to ‘teach’ anyone anything. What I generally do is work with what people bring to the table…listening to where the piece is working and figuring out why it’s not working when it falls flat. I guess in that sense I’m more of a coach.  And I think a good coach listens/reads objectively, asks precise questions of the writer, and always keeps her eyes on the writer’s goals (for each new piece of writing).  It can be easy to want to ‘fix’ things on someone else’s draft, but that’s not the job.  I think the job is to help [writers] begin to ask the right questions about their own work.” So, teaching writing involves a conglomeration of variables infinitely rearranged to accommodate a motley mix of students, ideas, styles. And, once again we are back to creating. With teaching, it’s knowledge or confidence we are creating, which in turn, opens up worlds for writers to create.  In giving teachers and coaches the space and the freedom to not only express themselves, but also to be creative, Richard Hugo House facilitates the creative process for both teachers and writers.

Hugo House clearly is not only an inspiration to many writers but also an “impetus,” to use Healey’s words. She clearly appreciates the community the House has created, saying, “getting to listen to other writers sharing their work at public readings or sharing their insights in a class inspires me and really encourages me to be more productive.  That there’s a community-based place where writing is at the center of the mission is exciting to me.  There’s also something very encouraging about being invited to the table.  The staff there pays attention to people who are out in the community creating interesting work and they reach out to them to bring them into Hugo House.  For instance, just being invited to write for the Literary Series (we’re given a theme to work with for that event), pushed me to create a new short story that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.  Pressure and the fear of failure in front of other writers and readers provides tremendous impetus to me.” But, for other’s it’s the seclusion Hugo House offers that makes it such a prolific venue. Boudinot claims, “[t]he thing that fosters creativity is a quiet room where you can be alone, to distantly paraphrase Virginia Woolf. I have such a room where I can go at Hugo House.” So, again, like teaching or creating, inspiration means different things to different writers, and fortunately Hugo House recognizes the importance of providing space to work and freedom to create, which manages to imbibe the shifting quality of creation and inspiration for many different authors.

Smith’s response reflects this idea that inspiration comes in various forms, “[w]hat is it about [Hugo House] that fosters creativity? . . . Money, commitment to writers and readers (through writers), a magical legacy for a location (I myself have experienced this space as a Mortuary – grandmother’s death –  then my best friend lived there in college, answering the phone at night – and as New City Theatre, where I debuted most of my early work), an army of supporters, smart and focused fund raising, generosity (much of the money goes to writers, and teachers), momentum, a structure into which writers are happy to plug…This is attractive to many people.” Smith continues by describing in part his experience at the House:  “It is empowering and enervating to get any kind of combination of invitation and money.  [Hugo House] offered me and at least 15 others a small grant ($2,000), a date to perform 20 minutes, and a theme from which to work. $2,000 might not seem to be a game changing amount, but it can be, when thus leveraged. I credit [Hugo House] for getting me off my butt to write, focus and dig in to a project. There is no meddling, just all out permission.    After The Literary Series, where I read “Act 1” of “All My Children” (the place was packed –a real event – a captivation mix of readers), they commissioned me to finish the piece, and again gave us (me and Bret Fetzer, my director/dramaturg) a date to perform six times.   They put their resources (small budget, connections, community goodwill and persistence) behind the marketing, and every performance was sold out.”

Smith mentions, in his response above, a critical aspect of the House’s philosophy in working with authors in the Literary Series, the sort of Laissez-faire attitude towards writers’ work that Richard Hugo House adapts, letting writers run with whatever works for them. In using its resources to support writer’s creative urges, not to control or contain them, the House has built a true home to writers, connecting them to each other and to audiences, thus promoting the literary arts.