The Magnificent Seven: Northwest Authors Reach Out to Their Communites

In Features, Non-fiction on November 10, 2013 at 7:38 am


Written by Alex Ashley

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing,” Benjamin Franklin once said.  It’s rare these days to encounter those who seek to accomplish both of those things—to write words not easily forgotten, and have an impact on the world that surrounds them.  But nestled in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, a collective of Seattle-based, award-winning authors is doing just that.

As do many great things in Seattle, it all started over a cup of coffee.

“We were a coffee klatch that met regularly to celebrate and commiserate the writing life,” says New York Times best-selling author Jennie Shortridge of her Fridays with fellow author, Garth Stein (“The Art of Racing in the Rain”) back in 2006.  “We eventually realized we could use our powers for good in the community, so we formalized as a non-profit.” Shortridge speaks of what is now known as Seattle 7 Writers, a team of authors who have come together with a common objective.  “Our mission was and remains two-fold,” Shortridge continues, “to raise awareness of Northwest literature and further the cause of literacy in the Northwest.”

Over the next year, they met for coffee on the last Friday of every month, each time inviting a few more local authors.  What was once a java fix and a few words of pleasant conversation between two friends had now grown into something more: a board meeting.  It wasn’t long before authors Stephanie Kallos, Kit Bakke, Randy Sue Coburn, Heather Barbieri, and Mary Guterson were all part of the group.

Introducing: Seattle 7 Writers.

They shared ideas about marketing, publicizing and promoting their work, yes.  But it also became a consultation on how to energize their reading communities.  Soon, Erica Bauermeister, Carol Cassella and Maria Semple were added to the ranks, making the group an even ten, although the name of the group retained the number seven.

In the spring of 2009, the literary entourage pledged to undertake several outreach initiatives with the hope of having an impact on Pacific Northwest communities.

“Pocket Libraries”

Today, the bookish brood is accomplishing great things in the name of literary excellence.  An example of this can be found in the group’s efforts to produce what they call “pocket libraries,” collecting books, both new and used, from participating bookstores, and donating them to various sites around the Puget Sound region.  “We take donated books from bookstores, individuals and book drives and redistribute them to established bookshelves at homeless shelters, food banks, juvenile detention and addiction recovery centers, low-income senior housing—you name it,” says Erica Bauermeister, acclaimed author of “School of Essential Ingredients,” “Joy for Beginners,” and “The Lost Art of Mixing.” Bauermeister works within the Seattle 7 Writers group to coordinate these “pocket libraries” around the community.

In 2011, Seattle 7 Writers donated 3,683 books under their “Pocket Libraries” program.  In 2012, they donated 7,074.  This year, they are already into the hundreds.

“In so many ways, it is the perfect system,” she continues.  “We take advance reader’s copies from bookstores, which would otherwise be pulped, or books from people’s libraries they no longer need, and get them to people who want to read but don’t have access to books.  No money changes hands, and all labor is volunteered.  It is a simple and elegant system that makes everyone happy.”

Reaching Out to the Community

Aside from that, though, the elite group of literary masterminds are reaching out in other ways to benefit the communities that surround them, facilitating events throughout the year that encourage literacy.  These include panels and workshops designed to further the purpose of Seattle 7 Writers: helping people.

For example: Once a year, they present a one-day writing intensive open to writers of all levels of skill and experience, called “Write Here, Write Now.” The curriculum, devised by Seattle 7 Writers, includes nine hours of concentrated writing and consultation sessions with some of the Northwest’s most successful authors.

Says Shortridge, quoted earlier: “I think we’ve raised the level of awareness in our community about how rich we are in literary resources, including independent booksellers and events, as well as the sheer number of publishing authors.”

One Book, 36 Voices

Another milestone in the 7-year lifespan of Seattle 7 Writers was a project undertaken by 36 Northwest authors, one that personifies the sense of comradery and community amongst those in the Pacific Northwest literary community.

Last fall, Seattle 7 Writers organized an unprecedented, week-long writing marathon called “The Novel: Live!” 36 accomplished authors gathered live on stage at Hugo House in Seattle, and took turns writing their parts—one after another—to what became a work entitled “Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices.”

Jennie Shortridge explains: “Ask any of those who participated and the first thing you’ll hear is ‘It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.’ For six days we were a community of artists working toward a common goal, to make this tiny little story take wing, make sense, and be enjoyable for the audience as we wrote it. People read along online and in person at Hugo House.”

All proceeds that would normally have gone to the authors went into a fund to support literacy.

Kevin O’Brien, yet another New York Times best-selling author and member of Seattle 7 Writers’ core group, was a part of this event as well.” One of my favorite ‘author moments’ was when Nancy Pearl auctioned off the rights to name a character that would be killed by me.  The highest bidder picked the name.

It is apropos that O’Brien would be chosen to kill of the character, seeing as how he is an acclaimed mystery and thriller novelist.

“When my turn came,” he continues, “it was so intense, yet tremendously fun.  Everyone knew I had to kill off this character, but of course, I had to build up to that moment, squeezing the maximum suspense, dread and drama from the situation.  With fifteen minutes remaining in my session, I still hadn’t killed the character.  So the audience started chanting, ‘Kill him, kill him!’  It was like the Roman Coliseum or something—very funny, but kind of disturbing.   Anyway, the character died magnificently.  When ‘The Novel: Live!’ wrapped, I was really kind of blue.  I’d made these intense friendships—and then we all scattered our separate ways.  Thank God it wasn’t for long.

Such a unique experience highlights the potential of the Northwest literary community to common together toward a single, common objective.

Looking Ahead to the Future

However, this is not a group that rests on their laurels and past accomplishments.  They are remaining active in keeping their purpose in sharp focus.

“Each year we decide what our focus will be,” explains Shortridge.  “It usually involves re-granting money we raise to literary organizations and providing programming for other groups.  We teach writing.  We put on panels that talk about writing.  We put on our annual, one-day writing conference (“Write Here, Write Now”) and we continue to collect thousands of books to redistribute through our Pocket Library program.  But our mission is always to give back to our community in some meaningful way around literacy and connecting readers and writers.”

Dave Boling, journalist and author of “Guernica” adds: “Literacy is such a fundamental building block in allowing people to understand their rights and express their needs.  The response [of Seattle 7 Writers] has been very positive; the effect hard to measure.  How many people can you reach with a book? Maybe a few kids in detention are inspired and learn to express their experiences, their anger or frustration in a positive way.  Maybe a good book does nothing more than help somebody make it through a difficult day.

“If we can do that well into the future,” says Jennie Shortridge, “we’ll be happy.”

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