Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

Writer-in-Residence: A Year in Review

By Caitlin Dwyer

It has been a joy to serve as Writer-in-Residence this year. The position has given me an excuse to ignore dirty dishes, not change the laundry, and willfully refuse to do the hundred other things that need doing, in favor of doing something that gives me great satisfaction: writing.

You see, when I’m not teaching, I’m parenting two children under five. Writing usually fits in the cracks between that paid work and that unpaid work, always pushed aside by other, more pressing tasks to attend to.

But serving as Writer-in-Residence this year pushed writing up on the priority list. It gave me a reason to sit down each week and spend time researching, erasing, editing, and reading. I wrote — and some of what I wrote is below — but I mostly credit this year with offering a mental shift, a deliberate break in routine which allowed art to emerge from the detritus of dishes and grading. This year, I allowed writing to demand my attention.

And we have limited attention— because we have limited time. The writer Oliver Burkeman published a book in which he calculated that the average lifespan of a human being is four thousand weeks. That seems absurdly short. In light of that inevitable limit, Burkeman asserts, we can’t do it all; we have to make choices. The key is “to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead focus on doing a few things that count,” he writes.

This year, I got to do a few things that counted.

Part of my charge was to reflect on and reflect back experiences of the PCC community. To engage students in the arts, I ran four public workshops that were open to the PCC community. These were generative workshops, designed to offer opportunities to read and write without the stress of grades or expectation. I was astonished by the quality of work produced in these workshops, as well as the camaraderie that formed among participants.

I also thought deeply about community. My position was done remotely; I sincerely hope that future writers will be able to step foot in classrooms and interact with students face-to-face. The remote modality has made me think about what it means to be a community. How do we care for and care about each other in these times? How do we connect to each other? What are our shared values and common goals?

This year, I interviewed staff, faculty and students from PCC about their pandemic experiences. Their stories ranged from tragic to hopeful to contemplative. I think of these stories as a quilt: each square represents a single life, a single thread in our collective. They are diverse and distinct, and yet they are all stitched together through the institution of our college. Some of these folks critiqued the institution; others praised it. All are invested in some way in PCC. Read their stories here at Voices from the Pandemic.

In addition, I wrote articles that were published around town, about the drive to re-imagine Portland’s monuments and isolation and community in healthcare. I wrote poems about raising children in a warming climate, where the future of life seems increasingly precarious. I revised a huge essay on risk and risk aversion, reflecting on what it means to perceive danger in our own animal bodies. I spend many hours interviewing and finished a book proposal based on those conversations. And I kept up the Two Deep Breaths blog that had been started by my predecessor, Justin Rigamonti.

There are a great many ways to spend your weeks; it has been a delight to spend my time as the Writer-in-Residence this year.


Photo credit: National Parks Service