UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

More than 900 join 54th annual UND Writers Conference

‘The Healing Arts’ can promote both action and a sense of calm

Xavier Pastrano (left) and Alejandro Varela share a light moment during a panel discussion called “Artistic Beginnings” at the 54th annual UND Writers Conference. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

For some, healing happens with chicken soup and rest. For others, it happens when they forget the rest and stop being chicken.

Write. Draw. Create. Do it your way, and don’t worry what others think. You’ll eventually find your community, and your community will find you.

That was just one of the messages the headliners had for the 900-plus guests at last week’s 54th annual UND Writers Conference. People participated both in person and online — some from as far away as Massachusetts and California, British Columbia and even France.

Crystal Alberts, English professor and longtime director of the Writers Conference, said the idea for this year’s theme, “The Healing Arts,” came to her during the thick of the COVID pandemic in the summer of 2021.

“Everything I was watching and reading at the time was saying to start art projects, take up gardening, get baking or cooking. It was all about doing any number of things to make life better in the midst of everything bad that was going on,” Alberts said. “I’d been thinking about the mind/body connection for years, so this idea formed, and it seemed to be the perfect time to have a wider discussion.”

And that discussion became inspiration for the many guests taking part in the three-day event featuring a mix of renowned literary and visual artists, including Ingrid Rojas Contreras (Fruit of the Drunken Tree), Alejandro Varela (The Town of Babylon), Tracy K. Smith (Life on Mars) and Morgan Talty (Night of the Living Rez). Plus, Xavier Pastrano (Hey Kid and Zentangle artist), Juliet Patterson (Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide) and Niki Tsukamoto (stitchwork and weaving artist).

Aspiring writer and Grand Forks Red River High School senior Mary Flynn was attending the UND Writers Conference for the first time. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Inspiring veterans and newcomers alike

On the opening day of the conference, Mary Flynn was at the ready with a yellow spiral notebook and a brand-new Varela hardcover at her side. The senior from Grand Forks Red River High School wasn’t playing hooky. She said she had asked for work-study so she could attend her very first UND Writers Conference.

“This is what I want to do, so I’m excited to hear people talk about their craft,” Flynn said. “It’s especially nice to hear what all they go through and how their art has helped them.”

And the whole healing concept was not lost on her. Rather, she said, it resonated deeply.

“(A family member) is kind of sick right now, so I wrote a poem about it, and it honestly made me feel better,” Flynn said. “It may feel intense and all jumble-y while you’re doing it, but when you have a finished poem, you just feel so much more at peace. You’re better able to understand your feelings because you have them written down on paper. Even just dedicating the time to think about it helps you feel better.”

Xavier Pastrano shares how his writing and Zentangle artwork offer infinite ways to express himself. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Growing into a passion

For Pastrano — a UND master’s graduate, musician, poet and now high school English and college composition teacher — it may have taken a little longer to appreciate that connection.

During Thursday’s panel discussion called “Artistic Beginnings,” Pastrano told the crowd inside the Memorial Union Ballroom that the start of his writing journey probably began in high school, but it didn’t fully take root until years later.

He shared that he always had stuck pretty much to his assignments and didn’t write much for himself until a professor in a poetry capstone course challenged him.

Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

“She told me I needed to push beyond that — not just write for class, but write, just write,” he said. “I was like, OK, I will occasionally do that and kind of build on that creativity.”

And he did. From that moment on, every time he pulled out his phone to mindlessly scroll social media, he’d catch himself and put the phone away. That was a time to write.

His love for movies and music fueled his ideas, and by his late 20s, he had amassed a “collection of poems, improperly formatted screenplays and incomplete manuscripts.”

“My wife and I were married, and we had just had our son. I was a new dad, and I was kind of going through some pretty big changes. Life was throwing all kinds of crazy curveballs,” Pastrano said. “I realized I had this list of goals I wanted to accomplish, but I always had been coming up with excuses to put them on the back burner.

“Then, I turned 30, and all of a sudden, it was like this veil lifted, and I was like, ‘Wow. I am who I am. I love my life. There are so many things I want to do, and if people are going to put me down for this and that, I don’t care.’ I’m a 30-year-old guy who loves heavy metal and loves to write. People might think I don’t act my age, but whatever. I want to do what I want to do. So, I adopted this motto, how about a little less ‘maybe later’ and a little more ‘why not now?’ And that’s what motivated me to get my first chapbook published.”

One thing leads to another

At a time when his whole family was down with COVID and cooped up at home over the Christmas holidays, Pastrano said he discovered yet another way to unwind and let go of his anxiety and stress.

“I’m the kind of person who enjoys mowing the lawn because it’s just lines and it’s very Zen,” he explained. “I needed a creative outlet to help me get through what we all were going through, and I kind of just stumbled on this art form called Zentangle on Instagram.”

Zentangle is a relatively new art style created in 2004 by monk Rick Roberts and artist Maria Thomas. It’s basically lines, curves and orbs. Not familiar? Think of all the relaxing comfort of doodling and the calming effects of Spirograph repetition but without the popping pins and crappy pens.

“It started off as kind of a cathartic way of processing the holidays and being sick,” Pastrano said. “And now it’s turned into this serious passion. I’m now working on a new poetry manuscript that’s horror-themed, and I’m doing artwork for that as well.”

Pastrano created a special Zentangle piece for this year’s UND Writers Conference poster, too. And he happily obliged when he was asked to host a hands-on workshop inside the Memorial Union Gallery.

“The art workshop was a huge success,” Alberts said. “I think everyone was really happy with the laid-back atmosphere of this year’s event.”

Finding peace inside the lines

Participant Hannah Diers can attest to that. She was one of about 30 people who squeezed into the small gallery Saturday morning to sit elbow to elbow at the crowded tables splayed with thick paper, fine-tipped Sharpies, pencils, protractors and rulers.

The session was so popular, Diers said, that some people had to be turned away because there simply was not enough space.

“I’ve always been a creative person, and I also tend to be a very anxious person, which is why Xavier’s workshop appealed to me so much,” Diers said. “Zentangle is a very meditative art form, and it proved to be very therapeutic for me.”

Although Pastrano’s intricate artwork and poetry were on display throughout the gallery (and will be through April 15), she said he made Zentangle seem very accessible to people of all artistic abilities.

“Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. So much so, that while the workshop was scheduled for only an hour, most people stayed well after to continue working on their own projects and to walk around the gallery to view Xavier’s artwork as well as his beautiful and moving poetry,” Diers said. “I found the whole experience to be truly wonderful — from listening to Xavier talk about his artistic journey to being able to walk away with my own artwork that I am admittedly very proud of. This is definitely something I will continue to work on in the future — I even went out and bought the recommended markers!”

Longtime UND Writers Conference patron Sam Johnson takes a closer look at the work of artist and poet Xavier Pastrano inside the Memorial Union Gallery. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

If you stopped to talk to almost anyone taking part in the conference, you would hear similar comments on how it was healing for the soul.

That was certainly true for longtime conference supporter and veteran Sam Johnson, who said he’d been taking part since 1971, almost the beginning of the marquee event on campus.

And just like first-timer Flynn, the semi-retired high school English teacher and college professor had brought along a little notebook filled with snips, scribbles and scraps of ideas.

“The fact that the whole community has access to these writers has always been unique,” Johnson said. “I’ve been to other conferences where you can go to a reading, get a book signed and maybe say a word or two in line, but you don’t get a chance to go to a reception and really talk to the writers like you do here. That’s always been the beauty of the UND Writers Conference.”

Johnson had a few words of his own to share about this year’s theme, too.

“For me, the arts always have been a source of healing. Literature and art are powerful that way. You can read a story and identify with characters and experience what they’re experiencing and learn from it,” he said. “I think most artists and writers would say that, hopefully, you come away with some kind of understanding and identification. You can find community there. And one of the biggest things you can find is the power of healing.

“My notes I keep for possible ideas down the road. I think most of us always come away from this energized. That’s just what happens when a group of people are thinking about things deeply and are not afraid to express themselves. It’s been a joy and wonderful experience over the years.”

Moderator Casey Fuller (left) introduces writers Xavier Pastrano (center), Alejandro Varela (right) and Morgan Talty (on screen) for the opening panel discussion “Artistic Beginnings” at the 54th annual UND Writers Conference in the Memorial Union. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Thoughts from the writers …

Below are a few snippets from the writers taking part in panel discussions Thursday and Friday:

Morgan Talty: I think in my own fiction, I’m deeply interested in the idea of community. A lot of my characters suffer and struggle because they have nobody there for them. … I feel that fiction, in its own subjective ways, has the ability to heal us. … For me, it’s about drawing and teasing out that sense of community. Without community, we’re nothing. We need each other in order to be better — in order to love enough to love each other — and in order to be decent, well-rounded human beings.

Alejandro Varela: In my work, I try to explore experiences so that when the reader meets someone, it’s not just a cross-section of that person. I want you to think of it as a longitudinal study in a way. It has the potential to change people’s minds when you present an experience they’re not familiar with. … Community is essential. If you don’t have it, you’re lost. Community can move the conversation along and make the solving of problems easier. That’s sort of my take on how I can use the arts to promote social justice.

Niki Tsukamoto: I think that the best thing we can do as artists is to be honest. In my art practice, I’m rubbing up against those tender, vulnerable places, where we tend to try to stay away from. We’re exposing the ways that we are growing as people and our shortcomings, or perceived shortcomings — the things we need to work and change about ourselves. It provides a space for other people to also be honest with themselves and really start to examine the way that they move throughout the world as well.

Juliet Patterson: Often artists are creating visual images around topics that society isn’t yet ready to engage with. But I think it’s also true that we’re working with topics that are present in the social fabric. The whole affair with poetry is to concentrate on language, to concentrate on the experience and actually move the reader. I think art is designed to cause us to reflect and sometimes change minds when it comes to social justice.

Writers Alejandro Varela (right) and Juliet Patterson take part in a panel discussion titled “The Arts and Well-being” during the 54th annual UND Writers Conference. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.