The day it first began may be lost to time (or more likely, just temporarily forgotten) but the Fort Frances Writer’s Group continues to run strong, through years of award-winning work, new members and even a worldwide pandemic.
The long-running group still does what it always has; joins together like-minded authors with a passion for the written word, every second Wednesday of the month. Participants can share their work and – through constructive conversations and criticism – bring everyone’s pieces to the next level. Each monthly meeting also features an assignment of sorts; a writing prompt or idea that members take home to work on and bring to share at the next meeting. Among those who have taken part in the Writer’s Group in the past include local published authors Al Hunter and Frances Shelfantook.
The current iteration of the group sits at around 15 members who have attended monthly meetings. Though like any other group, the total number of attendees waxes and wanes when other commitments come up.
“We’ve had a pretty good number of people who have come pretty consistently,” says member and retired Fort Frances Museum curator Sherry George.
The group also includes some members from other parts of the district like Rainy River, and even from International Falls, though it has been much more difficult for them to join in-person meetings due to COVID restrictions.
However, also like every other community group in town, the majority of Writer’s Group meetings have been moved online since the pandemic began, to keep members safely distanced. While plans were made to begin meeting in-person again in the Shaw Room at the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre as restrictions began to ease in early March, last week’s announcement of further stay-at-home orders have pushed the group back to the online only format.
Still, meeting online is certainly doable. The group has been holding virtual meetings since the pandemic began and while it isn’t ideal, it’s preferable to not meeting at all. Current museum curator Bev Cochrane, who organizes the Writer’s Group meetings and is also a group member, recalled that as the pandemic began, George was still the curator at the museum, so there’s been a learning curve to her taking on the job and responsibilities like this one. One big challenge was in figuring out how to keep the group alive at a distance.
“I wanted the group to continue and I had already attended a Zoom meeting for something else, and I thought this would be the perfect thing, so I had to learn Zoom,” Cochrane said.
With the format of the meetings taken care of, the members then turned to what they were there for in the first place. George noted that in the early days of the pandemic, some of the group’s writing focused on what was going on in the world around them, before moving on to other topics. However, many of the members shared that all of the turmoil brought about by COVID has had an impact on their writing, whether in the content or their productivity.
“I feel that sometimes I can focus, but I don’t feel that I’m terribly focused as much as I used to be,” George said.
“I think COVID has interfered with that, because I don’t feel like I’m really zeroing in on [the writing].”
Lenore Cates is another accomplished member of the group, having recently received a Judge’s Choice award in the 2020 Dr. William Henry Drummond Poetry Contest. Cates echoed George’s comments and shared that, in the beginning, she was also feeling creatively impacted by COVID.
“I had a time where I couldn’t focus and just couldn’t write at all, and then something happened,” Cates said.
“Two group members sent me pieces they had written, and it inspired me to start writing again, and I did. I had times where I would write for 20 or 30 minutes then lose interest and I’d have to go do something else, but now it’s getting better.”
On the other hand, for Diane Clifford, the impact of the pandemic has had an unexpected benefit, especially for writers and those living in more remote areas of the country like the Rainy River District.
“Zoom has opened up incredible doors,” she said.
“I’ve taken courses, a lot of stuff is being offered free. I did an 11-week course through the University of Alberta, so it’s encouraged the creativity and contact. COVID has opened up more doors and I’ve met people from all over the world.”
Former Fort Frances Times book reviewer Judith “J.J.” Johanson said she likes the structure of the group and their monthly assignments. She said she benefits when given a prompt of some kind.
“I find I write more and better when I have a specific assignment to write for,” Johanson said.
“If there are contests that come up and you have to have something by a certain date, it pushes me.”
Now that the entire world has become familiar with Zoom, and especially as Ontario enters its second stay-at-home lockdown, the Writer’s Group will remain virtual until such a time as they can meet in person again. New members are always welcome to meetings and can message the Fort Frances Museum Facebook page or call 274-7891 in order to get the Zoom link and that month’s assignment. However, Cochrane and other members stressed that new members don’t need to worry about not having the assignment completed at their first meeting.
“Even with the assignment, I don’t want new members to get intimidated,” Cochrane said.
“I still want people to come and join even if they don’t have something to contribute. Come and check it out. I was working at the museum for a few months before I actually joined.”
“Nobody has to do the assignment,” George added.
“They can do something totally different. If they’re working on a project and want to bring a section of it, that’s fine.”
The next meeting of the Fort Frances Writer’s Group is May 12 at 4:30 p.m.