by Sarah Neilson
Like every facet of life before March 2020, creatives had a very different relationship with their work and practice before the COVID-19 lockdowns started. This was true for the people who ran and participated in Whidbey Island-based literary nonprofit Hedgebrook. Hedgebrook is a global community of women and nonbinary writers and well-known in the literary world for its prestigious residency and retreat programs, as well as craft seminars and public events. One of Hedgebrook’s defining aspects is its strong network of alumni who often continue to cultivate a writing community long after their residencies are done.
It was this network of alumni who came together during the pandemic to create Flying Flounders, a unique group that ended up being a vital source of support and creativity during a time when virtual community was both a blessing and a burden.
Hedgebrook closed their 50-acre retreat center in March 2020 and shifted a lot of programming to a virtual format, including pay-what-you-can classes led by local and national writers. But one day, Amy Wheeler put out a call on the Hedgebrook alumni Facebook page to see if anyone wanted to join her to write. “Hedgebrook has been my writing community for nearly two decades, as an alum and executive director,” Wheeler says. “At the top of 2020, I’d moved on from the organization to focus on my own creative projects and was happily in my writing flow working on a new musical. Then we went into lockdown, and I suddenly found myself feeling isolated on Whidbey Island, where my wife Kate and I live — anxious and unable to get to my desk.” Alum Wendy Call responded right away, offering to host using Zoom. Fairly quickly, other writers jumped on board. “It was such a good feeling to share what was going on where we are and how we were doing, then dive into our writing, staying tethered to each other through a very uncertain time,” Wheeler says. “The group was inspired by the need for connection and community when the pandemic began and became a creative lifeline.”
The name Flying Flounders, says Janine Kovac, a co-leader of the group, came to participant Toni Mirosevich in a dream. “She had a dream of flounders coming out of the sea and flying in the air,” Kovac says. “On the call the next day, she mentioned her dream. It felt like such a metaphor for what we were going through — floundering but persevering. Another writer, Naomi Williams, who donates her Zoom channel on Fridays (which is also our BIPOC-only day), said, ‘That should be the name of our group!’ and it stuck.”
Call says that initially, the sessions lasted 90 minutes every day, but about a month in, Wheeler suggested they try a week where the sessions were longer — four and a half hours a day. The format includes a check-in at the beginning followed by time to write, with cameras and sound off, and a check-in at the end to talk about craft, life, and the intersections of both. This longer format stuck and has been happening five days a week ever since. Participants volunteer to host, but even if there is no host to facilitate, people show up anyway. People fade in and out of their level of participation based on what else is happening in their lives, but they remain dedicated to the space. “Most people that go to Hedgebrook really, really love it,” Call says. “Having been a Hedgebrook alum is sort of a strong filter in that it means that it’s people that are really committed to their writing practice and people who are also really committed to community and to being an inclusive community.”
Because Hedgebrook is an organization for women and nonbinary people, Call says, that also influenced how the alumni’s lives were affected by the pandemic. Domestic labor already disproportionately fell to women, and the pandemic exacerbated this. “Thinking about my life and the women that I worked with,” Call says, “I was teaching at a university through the pandemic, versus my partner who is a man. He works for T-Mobile. Most of the engineers he works with are men. His coworkers — they weren’t really taking care of their kids and making sure that homeschool was happening nearly as much as me and my female coworkers were.”
As the group collectively and individually experienced both devastating world events and personal losses and challenges, the Flying Flounders became a tether of sorts — a place of consistency and support. While at any given meeting it was rare to see more than 10 people, according to Theo Nestor, another participant and local writer, about 45 people participated over time, to varying degrees, from as far away as Alaska and Korea. Hosts/facilitators led a check-in and check-out process and discussions during which participants helped each other with their craft questions or listened and shared about their work and lives. The sense of community and accountability became profound for many of the writers.
“I was living alone for most of the pandemic,” Nestor says. “For those of us who are on our own, there’s this sort of sense, especially during the pandemic, times of heavy quarantine, that there’s a group of people out there that are semi-keeping tabs on you.”
Amber Flame, who is the program director at Hedgebrook and a participant in Flying Flounders, also valued the accountability. “It’s important for me to know I have access to accountability for my own creativity and joy,” she says. “Watching these mutual circles of support deepening relationships … it’s a model for encouraging a cohort’s consistency and prioritizing community.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt so steamrolled by a lot of jobs and responsibilities that went away or I had to reorganize,” says Kovac. “I needed a space that held me and all I needed to do was to show up. It was huge to have that — to be held in a creative way with other writers who valued writing and me. It put structure in a day that didn’t have it, and I didn’t need to put it there. Then I was in a place where I could give back and hold space.”
Something Kovac says comes up a lot is a sense of helplessness, and the group supports each other by reinforcing to themselves and each other that their stories matter. “That aligns with our inner compass in how we continue to write,” she says.
Many of the participants published work or landed book contracts during this time and credit the group with providing the space and motivation to continue to write. Toni Mirosevich sold her forthcoming short story collection Spell Heaven to Counterpoint Press; Theo Nestor and Janine Kovac each published an essay in Under the Sun magazine; Wendy Call contributed a short piece about the group to Rainier Writing Workshop’s Soundings.
Moving forward, the group continues to meet virtually, while some local members have also met up in person. “Now, with more things competing for space and time, it’ll have to change,” Kovac says. “I don’t know what it will look like, but there is interest in sustaining it because it’s meant so much to so many of us.” She likens the changes in the group to redwood trees: “A redwood grows, and when it dies, there are circles of daughter trees. I can envision how that will happen with this space and other spaces sprouting up.” Kovac also says that the egalitarian approach and the agency inherent in checking in from one’s own space has made her think about how that strengthened the ways in which they wrote. “That’s something I will carry into in-person spaces going forward,” she says. “What is left behind when we enter a common space, and what do we need to bring into a common space?”
It’s a question many people are asking, in a lot of contexts, as lockdowns ease. But one thing is certain: the creative community fostered by the Flying Flounders will leave a lasting impact on the writers who created it.
“It really became, I think for a lot of us, a touchstone of something that was going to be consistent, even as nothing else in our lives was consistent,” Call says. Echoing the sentiment, Wheeler says, “It was such a good feeling to share what was going on where we are and how we were doing, then dive into our writing, staying tethered to each other through a very uncertain time.”
While the group was selective — Hedgebrook alumni are usually quite dedicated to their writing and are able to make time during their days for it, however consistently — perhaps there is something profound to learn from the Flying Flounders: that especially during times of massive upheaval, grief, and fear, creative community can be cultivated and change the lives involved in it forever.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.
📸 Featured Image: A virtual happy hour for the Flying Founders, a group of Hedgebrook alumni who formed to support fellow writers during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Photo courtesy of Wendy Call.
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