Mostly, writers bang away at their keyboards in hours of lonely desperation. Some may have domestic partners with whom to share the day’s output: “Oh, sure, honey, I’m dying to hear the next chapter about your family’s trips to the Jersey Shore!” Others find relief at the end of a day’s output in a ritual that’s as old at least as the Athenian Golden Age of philosophers and playwrights, circa 420 B.C., when Plato and all the rest of the gang met and washed away the day’s long slog with flagons of wine (I recently read that the Greeks habitually drank two parts wine to five parts water, so they weren’t so much in their cups as later enclaves of writers and artists famously tended to be).
Nowadays, and certainly on the Island, writers band together in private writing groups that meet regularly and offer up their work-of-the-moment, either by emailing each other attachments or reading out loud in session. These groups can prove a marvelous boost to a writer’s sense of purpose. They also provide critiques (gently, one would hope) to shape the material.
But what’s been missing until recently are public places where a writer might clutch a few pages of a newly-minted essay or short story or a chapter of a novel, and read them to a group of similarly engaged writers and friends to share what has until then been kept close to the vest. And why, you might ask, would a writer choose to do this? We know there are few people outside of monasteries so stubbornly introverted as writers. Oh, some writers — Sam Shepherd comes to mind — are willing to be movie stars, but most people who put words down on pages (well, digital pages) would rather dive under their covers at night to read Trollope by flashlight than to audition for a play.
So what brings them out in droves, almost all of them, to read their stuff? I think it has something to do with owning the words they’ve put together, the characters they’ve created, the dialogue, the scenery. Sharing it by reading it is the same impulse that spurs the creative soul into sending finished stories out into the world.
A little over a year ago, West Tisbury writer and performer Niki Patton looked around and observed poetry readings seemingly stretching to the horizons — in cafes, festivals, and fairgrounds. “What’s up with this?” she found herself asking in genuine perplexity. The Island abounded with prose writers: columnists, novelists, playwrights, bloggers. She also knew plenty of prose writers just getting started, and showing great promise, such as 71 year-old Gaston Vadasz, hard at work on his memoirs stretching back to Hungary under the Nazis, then Stalin’s crew, until in 1956 he and his mother made a valiant run for the Austrian border across an area called Deutschkreutz: German Cross.
It seemed like the work of a moment for Ms. Patton to organize a monthly prose-reading society in the gleaming community room of the West Tisbury library. Her launch took place on one of our notoriously snowy nights last winter and yielded only three participants. Yet, as the roads thawed and word spread, writers began to appear. A typical night now hosts a couple of dozen, give or take.
Ms. Patton, a longtime fan of Nancy Slonim Aronie’s Chilmark Writing Workshop, is dedicated to creating a safe space for writers to read, receive feedback, and go home with renewed resolve. She urges critics to steer clear of what she calls the “slice and dice” approach to a writer’s work, which can discourage him or her from continuing with the project at hand or, indeed, any project at all.
The moderator sets a timer for nine minutes, with a one-minute warning towards the end. “This time constraint is a courtesy to the other writers scheduled to read tonight,” Ms. Patton says. “If someone goes over, that knocks someone else out of the box.”
The reader asks for the type of feedback he or she desires, but at all times, Ms. Patton cautions, “Even when someone says, ‘hit me with your best shot’, make sure your notes are constructive rather than destructive.”
A second prime venue for writers is on Tuesday nights in winter, at the Pathways Gathering Space at the Chilmark Tavern, an arts and culture salon developed by the late Dr. Marianne Goldberg, the Chilmark choreographer and philanthropist who passed away a few days before Christmas, leaving the legacy of the Chilmark retreat to Keren Tonneson, Scott Crawford, and a small devoted crew.
Ms. Tonnesen notes that in past years, poets were given more play than prose writers. Now, the Tuesday evening presentations are billed as “Writers and Poets.” Other events present mixed media, as in this past Friday’s presentation entitled “Arts & Scripts: a night of short performances providing a taste of events to come later in the season.”
For writers of every description keen to get in on the action, here’s what’s recommended: First, pay attention to the listings in the calendar section. Secondly, email Ms. Patton at firstname.lastname@example.org for the West Tisbury Library hosted Writers Read to get on the list and, thirdly, for the Chilmark-bound, log on to PathwaysMV.org.