Ludington Visiting Writers bring literary culture to the lakeshore

They all have George stories. The writers of Ludington, and the writers from across Michigan who travel to this small town on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, they all have praise for George Dila, founder of Ludington Visiting Writers.

"George Dila is like Uncle George," says Jack Ridl, poet and professor emeritus of English at Hope College. He is a frequent participant in the Ludington Visiting Writers and the many writers' conferences and workshops that Dila organizes. "The Ludington Visiting Writers started with George and will probably end with George."

Dila is himself a writer. He has a novel, The Stars, The Galaxies and All That, and short story collection, Nothing More to Tell, on the bookstore shelf. He started the Ludington Visiting Writers in 2001, a year after he and wife Judith moved to Ludington from Detroit.

"We didn't know what to expect when he moved here," Dila says. "We found amazing talent."

Dila wanted to bring some of the big city culture he'd left behind to the small lakeshore town. A writers group seemed a natural start. The group evolved into workshops, literary festivals, conferences and readings with writers from throughout Michigan, occasionally also from other states.

"The first year I established LVW, we had one visiting writer per month, and in January 2001, our first visiting writer was Jack Driscoll. He was our guinea pig to see if this idea would work."

It worked. Driscoll, a writer with Michigan roots who has penned four novels, four poetry collections, and has a laundry list of literary awards attached to his name, was just the pull the new writers program needed. Dila thought a few people might show up--some 60 people did.

"One of the things I try to do that makes our readings different than readings elsewhere," Dila explains, "is to sell the books the writers bring. I don't want the writers to have to peddle their own books. That's humiliating. And if they need accommodations, I get them a hotel room."

"Coming into town, we feel welcome," says Ridl, speaking for the writers. "I've read at conferences with 20,000 people, and the writers were welcomed, but we didn't necessarily feel a part of the town. George lets everyone know we are coming."

"I'm an old ad man," Dila laughs, referring to his Detroit marketing career. "We meet at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts. That's our physical home. But we want the writers to feel welcome throughout the city, at the coffee shops, the restaurants. We put fliers out everywhere."

Since its beginnings, Ludington Visiting Writers has hosted more than 100 writers. Dila names a few--Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michael Delp, Tom Lynch, Rob Haight, Nancy Eimers, Kristina Riggle, Diane Seuss, Jaimy Gordon, Conrad Hilberry--but he can't possibly list them all.

The program was off and running with immediate success, but a few years in, it struck Dila that he was overlooking local talent. Thus was born the Ludington writers group, called "Westside Gang Writers Group."

"I was one of the original members," says Jeanie Mortensen. "The community was starved for some literary culture, and George was a force of nature with his folksy charm, bringing us together."

Mortensen has written two books of poetry: Two Steps This Side and Three True Voices. She is a retired teacher of English and Spanish in the public school system.

"For our small town, George's ideas seemed rather grandiose," she says, smiling. "Yet somehow they always happened as he wanted them to. We have about 15 people attend at any one time, maybe fewer in the winter, but then we have one member who drives 50 miles to attend, year-round."

The group meets the second and fourth Tuesday of every month, and members discuss their work in any genre: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and memoir. All skill levels are welcome.

"At least three of us, and that would include me," says Mortensen, "have achieved first time publication since joining."
Workshops, conferences and festivals have drawn increasing numbers in attendance. Topics continually vary, so one can attend time and again and always hear something new.

"We had writers attend our first writers conference from all over the state," recalls Dila. "Our first poetry festival was in 2004, and we had 21 poets come to read. It was sensational, and everyone felt well received in Ludington. Eventually, writers started calling us, asking to read."

Why stop there? Dila added yet another branch to the literary programs. He started a publishing business, gave it the same name of Ludington Visiting Writers as an imprint, and started publishing chapbooks. He also took over a literary magazine, called Driftwood, that was originally published in Bay City, but had been abandoned.

"Originally, Driftwood was an annual magazine," Dila says. "One year, I did four issues, one about each element--earth, air, fire, water--but that about finished me. Now, I'm doing it once weekly and only online. One piece per week, poem or flash fiction. Whatever washes up."

Another effort of LVW is something Dila calls "Story on Stage." By working with the local theater, he has arranged for actors to read short stories on stage. "These are really great readings. Not all writers are good readers, so these actors bring the stories to life. Although," he says, "we do offer workshops on giving readings."

Jack Ridl has led some of the workshops, participated in readings, and sat on discussion panels at LVW. "There's great variety," he says. "And the whole town gets involved. Writers can be very isolated when writing. Ludington Visiting Writers gives us an opportunity to be together and learn from each other."

"We are unique in that most such programs are associated with higher education," Dila says. "In Ludington, we're just kind of our own thing. It can be harder to do financially, but being independent gives us an enormous amount of freedom."

Initially digging into his own pockets to fund LVW, Dila now gets financial assistance from grants and donations. If his motivation was to bring big city culture to his smaller town, after a bit of thought, he adds another reason: "Writers work so hard for so little. We want to honor writers."
For more information about Ludington Visiting Writers, email George Dila via email.
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos provided by Barry Matthews.

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