A Silver Lining to the Pandemic: Nashville Literary Center The Porch Leans Into Online Workshops

From left: Katie McDougall and Susannah Felts, co-founders of The Porch. Photo by Leila Grossman.

We think of ourselves as a community space as well as a bookstore, so it has been hard not to team up with fellow Nashvillians as we usually do. That includes The Porch, a literary center that does great work — we’ve co-hosted many author events with them in the past, including Lauren Groff, and Julia Phillips and Alexis Olin, to name just a couple. They also provide a wide variety of writing workshops, and we couldn’t help noticing that this fall’s slate is particularly strong. So we caught up with Porch co-founder Susannah Felts and asked about how they’ve taken their mission into the virtual space.

Parnassus Musing: For folks who may not be familiar, can you give a brief overview of the Porch and what you do?

Susannah Felts: We have been around since 2014. We think of ourselves as a literary center or literary arts organization. We have the full slate of classes for adults that is new every fall, spring and summer, and then we have a youth program that serves, really, students of all ages from elementary school kids to high school kids. We do the creative writing for immigrants and refugees program that will return this fall. In normal times we do a lot of literary events. We usually have at least one thing happening per month. It’s been slower lately, but we have a monthly series called Mirror House that we launched back in February, right before the pandemic, and we’re still doing that virtually. It’s kind of a hybrid music and lit series, and that’s been fun. Our mission statement is to inspire, educate and connect readers and writers of all ages and stages through classes and literary events — and that’s what we try to do.

PM: You mentioned going virtual on your events, and when did you know things were going to have to change, and can you talk about that process? Because so much of what you do is around in-person interaction.

SF: Around mid-March, when the world started to realize that COVID was in the United States and wasn’t going away, we had to quickly figure out what to do with our scheduled spring classes. Within two weeks we had made the decision to pivot to the online space as much as we could. We reached out to any instructors who had classes scheduled and asked if they’d be willing to teach online using Zoom. Most of them did, some didn’t. We decided to do that and see how it went. Maybe a few weeks after that, we added some additional spring classes, thinking we might as well give this a go.

And what we found actually was kind of a silver lining of the pandemic: We had a lot more registrations for spring than we ever anticipated, and we were getting people registering from all over the country, not just Nashville. That was wonderful and kind of surprising. We were like, “Wow, these people are finding us from California and Oregon and Maryland.” And that’s continued to be true. I would say our fall registrations are probably about 20-30 percent outside of Tennessee. And one thing that’s also been nice about the online classes is that we’ve heard that they live maybe an hour, two three hours from Nashville and there’s nothing like this where they are. They’ve known about the Porch for a while, but they are so excited because suddenly they can take whatever they want.

We’ve been pleased that having to go online has opened some doors for us and for our constituents. We of course miss in-person classes, because it is different. Once we’re able to meet again, we will, but we’ll keep online options as well.

PM: You mentioned the silver lining of the pandemic, and we’re all trying to find them where we can. It sounds like it’s been great in terms of finding students you might not have found otherwise. Has that also been true of instructors?

Claire Jimenez

SF: Yes. That was huge, especially when I started thinking about our fall programming. I was really excited, actually, because I thought now I can reach out to some of these folks who don’t live near us. I mean, really it started in the spring when we put out a call for instructors and realized that we were going to be adding some online classes. I reached out to a few folks who had taught for us, had been visiting authors who came through town and taught for us in person. One of whom was Megan Sielstra, who is just a fantastic teacher. That was a big success to have her and a few other people teach in the spring.

Once fall came around I thought, “This is exciting. I’m not bound by Tennessee at all.” We can work with talented writers who work elsewhere, and [that] has made it easier to diversify our teaching ranks, which is something we have been wanting to do. It’s always been top of mind and I don’t want to act like Nashville doesn’t have the resources — because I’m sure we could do a better job with people here on the ground — but it’s hard, you know? So just being able to go beyond Middle Tennessee for teaching artist has been huge both in terms of diversity of classes we can offer and the diversity of those individuals.

PM: Are there classes that you’re particularly excited about, maybe partly because it’s a class you might not have been able to offer otherwise?

SF: I’m really excited about a class we have coming up in September called “Creating Diverse Worlds in Fiction.” This is a class that was asked for by one of our former scholarship recipients. She’s a Black woman writer, and when the Black Lives Matter movement really heated up this summer, she wrote to us and said, “I really wish you would offer a class like this.” And we were like, “Yes, we’ve thought about it, and thank you for lighting the fire beneath us.” That one is going to be taught by Claire Jimenez, who was here, is a Vandy MFA grad … so we’re excited to be able to work with her and offer that class.

Minda Honey

We’ve got some really great personal essay or creative nonfiction classes. One is taught by Minda Honey; she’s teaching a class called “The Truth and Nothing But: How to Stop Writing Around What You Really Need to Say.” She’s a super dynamic young woman. She’s one of those people where you’re just like, “How do you do everything you do? Have you cloned yourself?”

And we have a memoir class by Sheree Greer, a writer out of Florida who runs a literary center there that’s specifically for Black women writers, so I’m really excited to have her in the fold. Those are just a few.

PM: You’re in this unique position where you’re following publishing, you’re following writers who are just getting established, and you’re a place for aspiring writers to come to. Is there anything you’re seeing that you could generalize, sort of about how this moment is affecting the way people approach writing or think about it?

SF: That’s a good question. Well, I think two things. I think that there is a strong desire to write about this time, to document what life feels like now, because we do recognize it’s so upside-down and strange. There’s that sense of someday — even though it feels awful now — we’ll want to remember what this is like. And the small joys of this time, too. I think people are really interested in documenting those things. So people are bringing a lot of that and trying to grapple with the moment in their work.

But secondly, I think there’s a strong subset of folks who are just — maybe they have more time on their hands right now, or they’re looking for something to kind of latch onto and give their attention to. So people are still wanting to pursue novel writing and pursue poetry. There’s the writing that takes you away from this world, too, which I think is important to give people the opportunity to explore.