Finding your voice at Chilmark Writing Workshop

Nancy Aronie, third from right, leads a workshop circle. Clockwise to her right and continuing around the circle are Rachel Cowan, Felice Shapiro, Karla Araujo, Judi Hannan, Linda Falk, Kate Cronkite, and Betty Lester.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Nancy Aronie, third from right, leads a workshop circle. Clockwise to her right and continuing around the circle are Rachel Cowan, Felice Shapiro, Karla Araujo, Judi Hannan, Linda Falk, Kate Cronkite, and Betty Lester.

We straggle in to Nancy Aronie’s quirky Chilmark yard on a warm, slightly sticky Monday morning in mid-July. Mismatched chairs sit in a circle under a couple of market umbrellas and a large tarp. This shady slate patio will become our informal confessional for the next four mornings.

At some point, perhaps by mid-morning on Tuesday, the seven strangers I’ve just met will become confidantes on a journey that will take us — separately and together — toward uncovering varied truths about our lives, past and present. Because although we come from different parts of the U.S., work in fields as disparate at law, religion, and mental health advocacy, we’ve come to Ms. Aronie’s Chilmark Writing Workshop with at least one common goal: to find words to express moments in our lives that have shaped who we are today.

Like one other member of the new circle we’ve formed, I’m a Chilmark Writing Workshop veteran. I signed up to try it for the first time some 15 years ago after going through a divorce, a rocky subsequent relationship, and a career change. Although I’ve always been a professional writer, I’d never mined my own life for material. The memoir genre hadn’t yet exploded in the literary world but I’d gobbled up Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen’s account of her stint in a private psychiatric hospital, and David Sedaris’ hilarious stories and essays inspired by his family and by his cynical take on contemporary American society contained in Barrel Fever, his first collection. Surely a writing workshop referred to as “Writing from the Heart” could open the door to greater self-awareness, I thought.

Five workshops later, the answer is still a decisive “yes.” Participants arrive as cautious strangers and emerge at noon four days later as comrades from an inexplicable journey that has taken us from hesitant writers to more fluid, confident truth-tellers. Whether we use the opportunity to delve into our own lives or to develop the characters in our stalled-out novels, the Workshop, for many, appears to be a cathartic experience.

Judi Hannan, a resident of New York City and Chilmark, is quick to credit Ms. Aronie’s backyard as the birthplace of her new and better self. “I’ve become so much more aware of myself, much more open and free,” she explains. She, too, took her first Workshop about 15 years ago and has repeated the experience at least once each summer since. “It’s made me a better person, particularly a better mother,” she adds.

Like many others who have participated, she has taken some of the material that emerged from her writing here and shaped it into a memoir, Motherhood, Exaggerated, which will be published by CavanKerry Press in 2012. The book explores Ms. Hannan’s experience caring for her daughter during a harrowing battle with childhood cancer.

The Chilmark Writing Workshop began to take shape 20 years ago in West Hartford, CT, where Ms. Aronie had grown up and raised her own family. She tells the story in our circle on our first morning this summer, one of many funny and illuminating anecdotes she’ll share during the course of each of four three-hour sessions. Acceptance into an elite writing group in her community had yielded only angst and wounds, she explains with her customary self-deprecating humor, rendering her unable to produce any work for the next couple of years. Deciding that there must be a better way to encourage productivity and quality writing, she formed her own writing circle, guaranteeing participants the safety she feels is fundamental to the creative process.

“People come here to jumpstart their memoir, to get inspired, to try a new type of writing, to write their story for their grandkids, to go from journaling to product,” Ms. Aronie explains. Tall, tanned and never at a loss for words, she somehow manages to exude authority without intimidating. She’s been down the road we’re traveling as we discover from the stories she shares about her own upbringing in a perfectionist Jewish family, her struggles with motherhood, marriage, career, and the deaths of her beloved mother and son Dan, at 38, following a long and courageous battle with multiple sclerosis.

“One of the reasons this works is because I am vulnerable in front of people myself,” she says. “I cry easily. I model that two seconds later you can laugh. You don’t die from tragedy — it serves you. Our culture is so uncomfortable with sorrow. I tell people it’s not something to avoid. Sorrow is very important. It teaches compassion. No one gets away without pain.”

We sit in a circle and introduce ourselves: a freelance writer, a retired judge, two attorneys, a retired fundraiser, an ordained rabbi, a former magazine publisher, and a mental health advocate. We are short and tall, thin and ample, shy and gregarious, serious and comical. Ms. Aronie offers a brief prompt: “Dinner at our house was . . . ” and we are off, pens scratching on paper, fingers flying on keyboard. Twenty minutes later we share our results. There are the same tyrannical fathers or mothers, sibling rivalries, abundances of food, and shortages of love that I’ve heard in each of the five workshops I’ve attended. But every account is different and amazing, every one written from a different chair at the same table. And that is the magic of Nancy Aronie’s Chilmark Writing Workshop.

For more information about the Chilmark Writing Workshop and others that Nancy Aronie hosts throughout the U.S., visit chilmarkwritingworkshop.com or call 508-645-9085.

Karla Araujo, a frequent contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Washington D.C.