Winchester’s 1455 Summer Literary Festival Goes Virtual

Despite the pandemic dampening in-person plans for the festival’s second year, the team has moved all workshops, speakers and more online, and it’s entirely free.

By Jennifer Zeleski June 29, 2020

Calling all writers: Sean Murphy wants you to find your community. Not just any community, one that is dedicated to getting the most out of your craft, and one that isn’t prohibited by high costs or other factors of inaccessibility. 

That’s why the executive director of 1455, a writing residency in Winchester, has transitioned the location’s summer literary festival to an entirely virtual experience this year. 

It was supposed to be the Summer LitFest’s second year, filled with workshops, keynote speakers and more, but the pandemic dampened the efforts to have an in-person event. Now, the event will be hosted through Zoom and Facebook Live from Thursday, July 16 to Saturday, July 18. 

The event has three tracks, with speakers, panels and workshops for each one, ranging in themes from inspiration and advocacy, to timely and topical. Registration is open to all. 

To find out more about the inspiration behind the event, as well as what virtual attendees can expect, we caught up with Murphy. Highlights from our conversation below. 

Before we get into the Summer LitFest, what was your inspiration to start 1455, and what do you hope it can be to writers?

I had the opportunity to spend 2016 as the writer-in-residence at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts in Martha’s Vineyard. What I experienced, every single day, was transformative. Serious writers need, and more importantly, want feedback and constructive criticism, ideally within an intimate environment wherein they can test-drive their prose and poems in progress. What I felt and heard expressed by visiting writers was a type of energy, that distinctive vibe typically otherwise available only within academia. For those of us not surrounded by students and faculty on a regular basis, opportunities to interact and learn from others are rare and to be cherished.

1455’s practical goal is to provide an authentic location enabling writers to focus and thrive for a defined period. The larger mission is initiating a micro-community via the two-week residencies and/or weekly workshops, as well as a macro-community wherein, via social media, a vibrant website and regular events, artists can connect, network and, above all, nurture one another. In addition, 1455 will be a venue for readings, author talks and other artistic events and we’ll partner with local businesses to promote the appreciation of fine food, drink, entertainment and culture.

How did you go about moving the second Summer LitFest to online this year?

I recognized—and accepted—many months ago that this year’s festival would likely need to be a virtual event, and started planning accordingly. Until 2020, the online meeting or webinar tended to be the exclusive domain of the corporate world; we’ve since seen the ways writers and even musicians can utilize this same technology, and there’s the added bonus of reaching a wider audience. You can’t approximate the unique energy of an in-person event, but an online program can be truly inclusive. As such, we’ve been able to expand the scope of programming compared to last year, and intend to make this a national, if not global, celebration. A free, online event, provided it has compelling content, should be able to attract a diverse and enthusiastic range of people.

Speaking of diversity, the workshops, panels and online events for the Summer LitFest cover quite a range of topics. What should attendees look out for this year?

Once we realized this year’s festival had the potential to be bigger (and dare I say even better) than last year’s, it made sense to organize the programming strategically. And so we are offering three distinct tracks: Inspiration & Advocacy, Timely & Topical and Craft & Community. In that first track we have more than 10 free workshops and seminars for genres ranging from fiction, poetry, memoir and building an author platform. The second track has several panel discussions addressing current events, such as “The Post-COVID classroom,” social justice and several live readings. I’m particularly excited about the Black Lives Matter poetry reading we’re organizing. Finally, we’re welcoming some notable figures, such as our keynote speaker Adrienne Miller (former literary editor of Esquire and author of the memoir In the Land of Men), famous character actor, author and podcast host Stephen Tobolowsky, and local writer Angie Kim (Edgar Award winner for her novel Miracle Creek). I encourage everyone to visit our festival site to check out the wide range of programming! 

You also mentioned that the programming is all free. What was your inspiration for that?

From the outset, my goal has been to make all of 1455’s public events free and open to the public. This includes the literary festival, because I believe to be a truly inclusive operation the events should be accessible and everyone should have an opportunity to participate. I think, with all the uncertainty in our world right now, celebrating creativity and building community has never been more vital, and I want to do everything possible to eliminate obstacles. If any part of our programming has a positive impact on a single individual who may not have been able to attend in person or afford a ticket price, it validates all this effort.

What will you miss most about not having the event in-person this year?

As I mentioned earlier, you certainly can’t replace the energy and intimacy of an in-person gathering. As an optimist, I’m certain in the months (or certainly years) ahead, we’ll have opportunities to once again gather for live events. In the meantime—and speaking again as an optimist—I absolutely believe in being opportunistic. I’m delighted that we have more than a handful of amazing artists from around the country who may have been unable to participate if this year’s festival was not virtual. Speaking as both a writer and primary organizer of this event, there’s nothing like an honest, spontaneous reaction from a live audience. On the other hand, speaking as both a writer and organizer, it’s exciting to think about reaching even more people—which is a win-win for all involved.

Overall, why is it important to reach writers through this event and the writing residency of 1455?

I’ll tell you a true story: As a recovering grad student (Masters of Arts in Literary Studies) who passed up the opportunity of further studies, in part because I wanted to really figure out how to write (hint: by doing a lot of it and failing, a lot), I nevertheless came to miss the unique vibe of a graduate seminar (or writing workshop). The one-word concept I kept trying to come up with, year after year, was community. It’s certainly true that writers need readers (and vice versa) but writers also need writers. Writers can benefit in myriad ways from supporting, networking with and being inspired by creative peers. 

Aside from academia, book clubs and the camaraderie available via the internet, where can a writer find their community (or better still, communities)? Until a better model emerges, writer residencies—where one can focus and create for a sustained period, be it two weeks or several months—serve as arguably the best forum for combining kinship and creativity. 1455 aims to provide a world-class environment featuring collaboration, imagination and inspiration, boasting a business model that’s inclusive by design. Adding to that a vibrant website and regular (free) events, there are viable opportunities for positive connections to occur. I also think it’s imperative to break down the barriers between artist and audience, and facilitate this kind of community building.

It’s important to note the Summer LitFest isn’t just for adults, since you are having a Teen Poetry Contest, which this year was inspired by the pandemic. Have you received good submissions, and why have you found it important to welcome young writers into this type of event?

We had a teen poetry contest last year and I’m pleased to say I was absolutely blown away, both by the volume and quality of submissions we received. It was genuinely difficult to narrow down the list of finalists, and that’s the best problem you can have as the person judging the entries. The pandemic is a heavy topic, but it’s undeniably topical, and one that should resonate with pretty much anyone. I also believe we’ve heard a lot from the usual suspects (journalists, politicians, even established writers). I think learning what our younger poets are thinking and feeling is both necessary and useful. And thinking about inclusivity, I’d be remiss to not recognize—and encourage—the many talented teen writers in our world. As I said before, writers need readers and writers, but all of us, no matter our age or number of publications, can always use recognition and encouragement.

Is there anything else readers should know about 1455 and the upcoming Summer LitFest?

Yes! Stay tuned for our new feature, “The 14:55 Interview,” where I’ll talk to writers about a variety of topics, all in under 15 minutes. I’m also very excited to announce that, immediately after the festival, we’ll be rolling out a series of formal workshops. These will be conducted online by established authors, and—by design—competitively priced. We’ll be offering premium but affordable professional instruction, and attendees can participate from the comfort of their own homes. And one final thought: It’s never been more crucial to support the people making all this amazing art. If you enjoy any part of this year’s festival, please consider buying some of these authors’ books! 

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