By Kassie J Runyan kassiejrunyan.com
Cassie Cartaginese is a fiction writer and cohost of the Hudson Valley Writers Center’s Open Write night. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Purchase College in 2013. She is the author of the short story collection, We Shall Thrive Now and Other Stories, and her first novel, Dreamers and Believers, will be released in early 2021. Cassie has also been a judge in the Writer's Digest self-published book award contest, and has a passion for not only writing, but also guiding others on their own journeys (as writers or otherwise). When she isn’t reading or writing fiction, you can find her teaching yoga, working in the special education program at a local high school, curled up with a good book and a cup of coffee, or trying to keep up with her tiny dog, Effie.
Michelle Thomas is a fiction writer and cohost of the Hudson Valley Writers Center's Open Write Night. Her work, Neverland Questions, was one of the winning pieces for the Hudson Valley Writers Center Pros(e) of Pie contest. She juggles working in an Elementary Special Education Containment room and being a T.A. at a Daycare Center during the week. On the weekends you can find her at her local library working as a Library Clerk for the past 12 years. Once in a blue moon, when she does find time for herself, she is usually drinking mint tea, pondering and jotting down the plot for her next story, relaxing during the ambiance of a thunderstorm or cuddling her guinea pig, Plum.
In the age of Covid, interviews are done over Zoom and rely heavily on technology. Something relatively new and painstakingly obvious as I scramble to connect my phone and computer to the same Zoom meeting that I setup as my computer speakers started acting up about a month ago. I can see Michelle and Cassie talking amongst themselves, both with large smiles across their faces as these two friends and neighbors chat while waiting for me to get to a point where I can hear them. I finally have sound working, just as both of their videos freeze due to loss of Wi-Fi for a moment where they live in Sleepy Hallow, NY. We have a comfortable five minutes of me saying “Can you hear me?” before hanging up to start the process all over again. And we are back on, up and running, and off we go with clear instruction to let the conversation be our guide in this world.
I was introduced to Michelle and Cassie as I started exploring the virtual options for Open Mics early in the pandemic. Then I found the Hudson Valley Writers Center. From there, I was also introduced to the Open Write that these two amazing women run, and I was immediately fascinated by how they got started and curious on how the transition went from in-person to virtual – as our lives have all shifted over the past year.
Kassie: How did you get started with the Hudson Valley Open Write?
Cassie: The Open Write was around for about 6 months before Michelle and I took it over. Krista Madsen who is the managing director of the Writers Center, it was actually her brainchild, and she had two other writers initially who were helping run it. Soon though, they had other commitments and there was a fear it was going to fizzle out. Michelle and I went to almost every Open Write as we’ve been volunteering at the Writers Center for a while and we did a lot with Bill Buschel at the Open Mic Nights so we often joke that we are already a part of the woodwork there. Krista saw we were there and invested and asked if it was something that we would like to take over. And we didn’t hesitate “Yes! Of course!”
Michelle: We volunteered for a while and the reason why I had heard of the Writers Center was through Cassie. We both loved writing and were already doing writing prompts together at home. She mentioned that she had this place that she would go to write and asked if I wanted to come and as soon as set foot in that place, I never left. Even virtually.
Cassie: What I love about Open Write as an event is that writing is such a lonely and solitary thing, and it can get lonely. Being able to create a community where people can get together, even silently writing, is beneficial when done with friends or people who will become your friends.
Michelle: It’s a space where introverts can unite and feed off each others creative energy while helping to bolster the energy and courage that it is all right to write. It is a rough thing to look at a blank page and say, “I have a story inside of me and how do I get it out?”
Cassie: A challenge as facilitate a space for that and help people face that blank page. We give them a prompt. Most people take it and run with it – but the prompt is just a suggestion. Anyone who has written knows that, most often, where you end up is not where you started.
Kassie: How has it been going moving it virtual?
Michelle: Like most things, if not all things, virtual when the intranet works it is fantastic. But if the intranet decides “I’m done” and it freezes – that can be frustrating. However, this time can be liberating because if you live too far to make it in person to get to our safe space to write. If distance was your one problem – now you have the opportunity to make it virtually. You can sit in the comfort of your own home and with your own supplies and write amongst new faces and common faces.
Cassie: The Open Write has been going on for a year and a half and it has always had this sense of community that I thought would be lost when we switched over as so many other things did not translate that well to Zoom. You are not limited to Sleepy Hallow anymore. Not even New York. You could be anywhere in the country or the world and join. That’s been really neat to discover new people that have joined since the pandemic started as well as new faces who don’t want to lose that connection.
Michelle: (laughing) It is now a place where introverts can still unite… separately.
Cassie: Also we sold out almost every month since going into the pandemic. We’ve had to turn people away for the first time, but we don’t want it to get too big because then it becomes unwieldly. That alone tells us that there is a need and to be able to supply that for people is awesome.
Kassie: What are some of your favorite prompts that you’ve given?
Michelle: When we were meeting in person – I loved doing the exquisite corpse – a way to make a collage of everyone's words. You have 30 seconds to 2 minutes to write one sentence and then slide that paper to the next person who will only read that sentence before writing the next sentence so by the time it gets back to the original owner, you have a whole piece that is created by everyone. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s part of the fun.
Cassie: Yeah, that’s also a great icebreaker. There are a lot of laughs with people loosening up and laughing with people they just make, which is nice because writing is so serious. I also like prompts where you have to pick something out of a hat or a fishbowl and they are themes. Like quotes or one work. This time last year we did fall words. You pick your paper and what you get, you write.
Kassie: Do you think that once the pandemic is over, do you have concern about losing the wider spread crowd?
Cassie: I think that going back to in-person will be a transition. I am open to moving towards a hybrid model where people are both in person and on Zoom.
Michelle: I think we will have to get used to being back in the same room without the fear. The hybrid model will have to be how it works moving forward. We haven’t crossed that bridge yet. It’s still being built. But once that is done, we will figure out how to cross that when it’s right.
Please check out Cassie and Michelle with the Hudson Valley Writers Center Open Write – as a safe space to write and create “separately” through zoom each month. In addition, HVWC offers a monthly Open Mic and many other virtual events that you can find at WritersCenter.org