COVID-19 vs. Hamilton’s art scene: How local authors were impacted by the pandemic

Published July 22, 2021 at 2:02 pm


Everyone has a story and some have dedicated their lives to doing so. But what happens when storytellers are faced with a global pandemic?

In October of 2019, Hamilton author Anne Bokma released her book, My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful–One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life. She had a book launch with roughly 250 people and spoke at different writer’s festivals.

However, March 14, 2020, was Bokma’s last in-person event.

“I was on a GO Train on my way to the Toronto Public Library to give a talk and there were like five people there because the warnings had just come out,” Bokma told intheHammer. “I did have quite a few events cancelled.”

Despite this, Bokma said COVID has opened a few doors for her.

“I launched an online writing memoir workshop series last September and it’s been sold out every month,” Bokma said. “I have some [students] across the country and some are from the U.S. and that never would have happened without COVID. People are looking for a way to be creative during COVID, they’re reflecting on their lives. It’s been the most joyous thing I’ve ever done – leading these memoir writing workshops.”

Although Bokma never held in-person workshops prior to the pandemic, she did describe the experience as being intimate and confidential.

“When I did use to speak at literary festivals, you know there were often people who would get up in the audience, who were more assertive and confident,” Bokma recalled. “On Zoom, people can ask questions in the chatbox. It just makes it easier for them to approach you and ask you questions than having to stand up in a hall of people.”

Along with running workshops, Bokma has been virtually running the ‘Six Minute Memoir Storytelling Event’ – an event that has been running in Hamilton for eight years. The last in-person event raised about $5,000 for charity and attracted 250 people. The most recent Zoom event, meanwhile, was attended by more than 400 people and raised about $7,000.

While switching to the virtual world was an adjustment, Bokma says COVID-19 forced her to re-assess her workload.

“I feel a bit guilty saying this because I know so many people have suffered during COVID, for me it’s allowed me to slow down,” Bokma said. “I have scaled back and focused more on my work and brought it into a whole new direction. It’s very fulfilling, I feel like one of the lucky ones. I’m doing less writing because I’m doing more teaching, and leading.”

Bokma added that she’s still passionate about journalism while also revealing she has another idea for a book.

Gary Barwin is another writer, multidisciplinary artist, and composer in Hamilton. And throughout the pandemic, Barwin has found himself writing a lot more. And similar to Bokma, he has been connecting with people virtually.

“I think I wrote a lot more partially because I couldn’t change the world,” Barwin revealed. “I couldn’t have agency with what was happening, but I could write. So that was something I felt I did. Maybe it was about control, maybe it was about communication, maybe it was about just trying to grapple with what is going on?”

Barwin, like Bokma and many other individuals in other industries, has had to adjust to online events.

“I miss just being with people together and there’s something about what it means to perform for an audience in a space, and what it means to be part of an audience together experiencing something in an embodied way,” Barwin said. “But at the same time, there’s something great about being able to attend things from your home, from your bed from the bath, you know, and also things around the world.”

“I’ve been to many things that I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to go to. And you find ways of connecting, like through the chat or something where you see people you know who. I think there can be a kind of intimacy with performances that are online because you see close up to the person and you kind of are sitting in, and they’re right at your desks right in your room, you’re in their room. And there’s that kind of connection,” he added.

Along with events, Barwin was a writer in residence and has done a lot of online teaching this year. But in general, Barwin recalled that he is doing much of the same thing that he used to do pre-pandemic.

“I have been doing much of the same thing that I always do,” Barwin noted. “But I’m hoping the new normal is about really valuing some of those things that that we maybe forgot about.”

So, what happens when storytellers are faced with a global pandemic? For these two Hamilton writers specfically, the answer seems to come fairly easy – they keep telling stories and help others in doing so as well.

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