2020: A Year of Being Together, Writing, and Sharing Our Stories
2020 was a year in which all plans, personal and professional, fell apart.
I was set to go on sabbatical as a Barr Fellow over the summer, part of a two-year program run by the Barr Foundation to invest in and create a network of civic leaders committed to Greater Boston. My plans included spending at least a month in Dublin digging into my parent’s dramatic love story with an eye toward writing about it. Against the wishes of bishops, rabbis, and family, my parents somehow got special permission from Pope John XXIII to get married in Dublin in 1962. Right after getting married, they got on a boat, leaving behind their home for America. This fall, I decided I didn’t have to wait and started interviewing my parents every Sunday via Zoom.
At GrubStreet, we had big plans for 2020, too. Before the pandemic hit, we were on track to open our doors and launch our new home in the Seaport in the summer. We were looking forward to a series of community events in our new home designed to highlight our literary stage, bookstore partnership, our expanded community space and our community partnerships. We were excited to welcome Viet Thanh Nguyen as our Muse and the Marketplace 2020 conference keynote, to host monthly Boston Writers of Color (BWOC) writing retreats, to listen to our Teen Fellows read from our own stage, and so much more.
It was hard to let go until we realized that we didn’t have to let go of what matters most: being together as we write and share our stories. It’s no accident that the book market has grown during this time. In challenging moments like these, we turn to books of all kinds to help us better understand our history and our problems, to learn new skills, to find deeper meaning, to appreciate beauty, and to escape and relax.
In late March, our staff and instructors got to work innovating, learning new skills and technologies, and pulling off a year of programming that reached and supported more students than ever before. We were forced to cancel the Muse as the city went into lockdown, but the team pivoted to keep the Manuscript Mart — a highlight of every Muse conference in which participants meet one-on-one with an agent or editor to receive direct feedback on their manuscripts — in place via telephone and created a hugely popular low-cost virtual seminar series over the summer. When we learned members of our community were losing jobs, we raised more money to increase scholarships and we added more no-cost opportunities to engage with our instructors. Though we couldn’t host Boston Writer of Color retreats in-person, the BWOC team curated virtual movie nights, author interviews, agent and YA publishing nights, and more. For students who didn’t have secure connection to the Internet, we used email and the postal service to stay connected with writing prompts, books, and journals. And just this month, we are piloting a program to better support Boston Public School students. We’ll be dropping off sets of creative writing kits to free lunch sites for students to pick up as they grab their meals.
When GrubStreet closed our physical offices in March, I wasn’t sure what our future held, but I certainly didn’t imagine we’d see historic participation and engagement in our programs. And one beautiful result? An historic output of creative work, too. Members of our community reported 385 publications, including 53 books. Essays, poems and stories appeared in a range of publications including the L.A Times, The New York Times, Glamour, Michigan Quarterly, Longreads, HerStry, Black Enterprise Magazine, Solstice Magazine, AGNI, and so many others. Forty-four of our writers either won or were finalists for awards, including a Memoir Incubator alum whose book was long-listed for a National Book Award. Eight members of our community won fellowships, including two coveted National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.
When I think of these publications, which cover topics as varied as processing grief and the impacts of this pandemic on low-income workers to the 50 rappers who changed the world and an essay in praise of mud, I am reminded of a recent Sunday session in which my father told me about his grandfather. He was a “rag-and-bone” man, and much to his wife’s annoyance, he didn’t get his horse and wagon moving most mornings until 11 am, hours later than all the other dealers. He didn’t find any joy in his work, but he had a deep passion for horticulture and befriended the head gardener at the National Botanical Gardens who took him under his wing. As a result, his garden was full of horticultural experiments and he even managed to successfully grow peaches.
It’s no small feat to grow peaches in Dublin, where it rarely gets hot and the sky is often a gray ceiling even through summer. And it is no small feat to write through loss, injustice, and uncertainty. Every publication represents a vision that was carefully nurtured and pruned through hard work, dedication, and faith. Even those who struggled to write this year have let us know what a lifeline it’s been to stay connected and to read and write in the company of others.
I want to thank everyone in our community — our staff, our instructors, our board, our donors, and our students — for being there for one another this year. Collectively, we managed to support all that goes into writing: the classes, the mentorship, the professional development, and the friendships and networks that encourage us to keep at it even when it feels impossible.
I also want to thank our Board, our Capital Campaign Committee, and our donors. Thanks to your leadership and the generous support of so many people in our community, we were able to continue our plans to build and launch our new home in the Seaport. As I type, I am tucked away in our new offices, with the sound of drills just outside my door. We have more work to do before we can open our doors, but we’re close enough to vividly imagine spoken word poets on our stage, students sharing writing in our community space, and the smell of coffee in our new cafe. I look forward to seeing you there when our home is complete and it’s safe for us all to gather.
Thank you again for being a part of this beloved community.
Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. After leaving to work as a literary agent, Eve returned to GrubStreet in 2010. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston and securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. The Barr Foundation recently named her a 2019 Barr Fellow in recognition of her leadership. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.See other articles by Eve Bridburg