You are sitting alone in a packed Baltimore coffee shop, engulfed in chatter, hiding in coffee. The dregs in your cup turned cold an hour ago, but there is still safety in holding it. It gives you a purpose, a reason for being there alone at this literary event. You both love and hate events like this: you crave human connection, but you are afraid of saying something stupid, and for everyone to discover how unintelligent you think you are.
Baltimore is so different from Oxford, but you remember that you were just as shy in Oxford. That much will never change. No matter where you are, you take yourself with you.
People are talking, laughing, writing in journals. Some stand on the edges looking as uncomfortable as you, but there is still a coolness about them that makes them belong. A dancer dubbed a Wildcard reads poetry while doing a headstand, their voice straining with each stanza. This does not seem out of place. There is more that is familiar here than just your shyness, and yet the warmth of the people in the room does nothing to assuage the fear that fills your stomach with snakes at the thought of attempting conversation.
That shy girl was me, and that literary event was Writers & Words, a reading series in Baltimore, Maryland, where I moved after completing my MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. Writers & Words features four writers: a fiction writer, a non-fiction writer, a poet, and the ineffable "Wildcard", on the second Tuesday of each month at Charmington's Cafe, a local coffee shop. The Wildcard is one of my favorite things about the reading. Wildcards can be anything – the dancer reading poetry in a headstand could have been two actors doing a ten-minute play, or a neuroscientist with a PowerPoint presentation about the science of creativity, or a singer handing out pompoms with toothpicks in them to represent her unrecorded love songs (the pompom IS the song). My favorite readings are the ones where all four writers are completely different (in style, subject matter, or presentation), and more often than not that’s what you’ll find.
Four years after the night I found safety in my coffee cup, after going to Writers & Words every month and being a Wildcard myself in 2015, I am now the managing editor of the series, and can attribute a great deal of the beauty I’ve found in Baltimore to the community of writers I have become a part of as a result. In October 2018, Writers & Words had its four-year anniversary reading, and I could not be more proud of what our team has been able to accomplish.
Over the years I’ve found myself stuck between two worlds, sitting on a Baltimore porch while daydreaming of Oxford cafes. I moved to Oxford in 2010 to pursue my MA, after which I was lucky enough to extend my visa and live, work, and write in England for another few years. This time in Oxford completely changed me, introduced me to some of the most important people in my life, and opened my eyes to what a writing community could be. When I left Oxford, that’s what I was looking for in Baltimore.
The thing that my time in Oxford taught me above all else (besides what I learned in my course, or that Magdalen is pronounced Maudlin, or that May Morning smells like bacon and stale beer) was about the importance of connection. I had five different jobs (including my favorite at The Story Museum), met a thousand interesting people, and made incredible friendships. I felt like I had an exclusive backstage pass to the city anytime I happened to score a free ticket to a theater event, or managed a storytelling performance at the museum, or got to see world-class classical music for free through one of my jobs, but what I really had were people.
At Writers & Words, we provide our readers with a platform and audience to share their work, connect writers with one another, and grow the writing community in Baltimore. The writing world in Baltimore is one of the city’s many hidden gems (like its cast of colorful characters, small-town feel, and intensely passionate network of charities), one I only found when I stumbled upon it. Beyond our regular readings, we are also planning our third writing retreat, affectionately called The Woods, which is open to writers who want to spend a long weekend of dedicated writing time in cozy cabins in Cacapon State Park. I love nothing more than connecting folks to one another and being connected myself, and The Woods does exactly this.
Once the last reader finished reading that first night at Writers & Words, applause twinkled around the coffee shop. The safety of their words and performances ended. That’s why I love art: you don’t have to worry about being wrong. Your job is to listen and take it in and if you zone out, there will not be a quiz. Art doesn't make me feel anxious, in a world where everything else so often does. The applause ended and I tensed, immediately looking for an exit plan. I was about to bail when someone came up to me and I snapped to attention. “Hi. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I’m one of the editors. Nice to meet you.”
This is probably why I love connecting people so much: I understand how hard making an introduction on your own can be. No matter how many times I tell myself, “You’ll have fun once you get there, you always have fun once you get there,” I still get nervous. But I go, because just like with art, human connection pulls me out of my own head, and makes me feel powerful. There are exactly two reasons I came back to the next Writers & Words after that first event: because the readers had been so amazing, and because someone shook my hand. Sometimes, we all need a little help finding our people, and calming our self-doubt.
When I learned about Oxford Writers House it immediately made me long for that beer smell on May Mornings, riding a bike up the High Street, and talking to my friends. As I clicked through the website, looking at all the events in Oxford and the opportunities OWH provides, the similarities between Oxford and Baltimore struck me in a way that had never dawned on me before. These are places full of people and stories, which bind us together and keep this whole world going. They are cities that become the extra character in any story you tell about them. These are places that give me hope when the news does not, because these are two cities that make connections happen through people, passion, writers, and their words.