Chilmark Writing Workshop is a sacred pilgrimage

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On the final afternoon of the workshop, members came together to break bread. Top row, from left, Marci Moreau, Mary Rundle Baker, Perpetua Joyce, Christian Phillips, Cat Finch, Krystal Molinari, Lila Norris, Barbara (last name not provided), DJ Unger, and Holly Nadler. Middle row, from left, Nancy Sohn Swartz, Bunny Bonner Bishop, Nancy Slonim Aronie, Deborah Sheward. Bottom row, from left, Carol Brown Goldberg and Barbara Plesser. — Bella Bennett

Joining a writing group is like entering an arranged marriage: You need to hope your new spouse, at the very least, isn’t mean. And it’s not that writing teachers and bands of writers ever mean to be mean. They call it being “constructive,” as in, “Your cowboy character is so bumbling, it’s hard to care about him. The story goes nowhere. You should get rid of the first six pages.”

If you’re an aspiring writer and you receive that type of feedback on your brand-new novella, you go home, destroy it, and start a new one. It could be “Cannery Row,” but how would you ever know?

Decades ago, Nancy Slonim Aronie, newly married and living in the suburbs of Hartford, Conn., with two young boys, started to sell articles to McCall’s magazine. She felt appreciated, encouraged. She was invited to join a writers group of hoity-toity pros. Each writer read a sublime piece of prose, only to have it trashed by each of the other writers (Nancy does a great impression of their lockjaw accents). She read her own work, one of those pieces we all knock out of the box periodically that we simply know was sent from a celestial word factory in the sky. And how did the lockjaw group respond? They took it apart, word by word.

“I didn’t write again for two years,” she told her first Chilmark Writing Workshop of the summer when we met on June 26.

Here’s how her program works: Each workshop is a one-week affair, although many people enroll repeatedly over the years. The course runs Monday through Thursday, each day meeting at 9 am and finishing at 12 noon, with a brief après-l’écriture party on Nancy’s shady patio, with coffee and fresh-baked bread from the teacher’s oven.

Nancy is — and I hope I don’t sound too fawning, but I can’t help myself — a teacher with the wisdom and loving kindness of a Hindu holy woman. For this recent first week, she hosted 16 participants, all of whom shared our assigned writing each day, with the admonition that we critique only what we loved about one another’s offering. What happens is this: Strangely and magically, the positive feedback allows us to go deep, so deep that sessions with psychotherapists in contrast feel like small talk outside the Post Office. More than one person flatly announced during the week, “I’m firing my shrink!”

The week is heavy lifting. When you factor in the long drive, coming and going, by Thursday afternoon, after walking my dog with the crabbed steps of an old lady (well, even older than I am), I fell into bed with the unfulfilled hope of sleeping straight through the next 16 hours before rejoining the real world.

Nancy’s prompts for what we write sound simple enough, and yet, carried through, took us into fabulous, uncharted, and heartfelt territory. The first one, for example, which we scrawled as we sat in a wide circle under a collection of umbrellas, was “Dinner at our house …” Now, you might expect there’d be nothing to tell besides your mom in the 1950s preparing over-roasted chicken, peas from a can, and those biscuits of dough you pop out of a cardboard cylinder. But more, much more, is revealed.

Take the example of Perpetua Joyce, who grew up in a small backwards village in Ireland in a family of 11 kids: “Dinner at our house was like a quiet day at McDonald’s. The ‘Happy Meal’ toy [in Perpetua’s imagination] was a magic wand. Granny lives. She doesn’t die when Daddy is 10.”

From left, Lila Norris, Nancy Sohn Swartz, Perpetua Joyce, and DJ Unger. — Bella Bennett

Tuesday’s assignment was given at the end of Monday’s session, so in effect it was homework: “The hardest thing …” For me, the hardest thing was the easiest to arrive at: “The hardest thing is to rescue Emily from her bedroom. Emily Dickinson, my darling friend.” This was in reference to a book whose rights I had to grab back from a defunct publisher, and now make a groaning effort to sell again.

As we read our work, a pink plastic rolling ball of tissues got passed around. It’s a specimen of Nancy and husband Joel’s great invention, Bowl o’ Tissues, which long ago sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Nancy exulted, “It rocks, it rolls, it never falls over.” During the course of the week, many of us wept as we read our pieces, pieces we may have considered perfect, opaque, and rounded sea glass but which instead, shared out loud, had an undetected sharp edge, and came away bloody.

“I teach crying,” said Nancy with a grim chuckle.

Nancy Slonim Aronie, right, beside Bunny Bonner Bishop. — Bella Bennett

The third prompt — for Wednesday’s group — was “When I felt one way and acted another …” Marci Moreau from Connecticut, on-Island to visit her friend Kate Feiffer, wrote, “Love and pain, will and tenacity, hope and courage, all blend together to create a new reality … the football growing in my mother’s chest, and the breast cancer cells in a frenzied dance using Michael’s body as the stage.”

Oh, good Lord, pass the Bowl o’ Tissues!

Thursday was “What I didn’t tell you then …” One of the most remarkable writers was Bunny Krogslund, a close friend of Nancy’s, who sketches her stories in seemingly effortless poetry: “The truth telling lies /Were placed on the platter /They’d vanish in smoke /Like all other matters.”

Nancy Slonim Aronie, journalist, NPR commentator, author of “Writing From the Heart,” facilitates her specially branded workshop at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Omega Institute, and a bunch of other tiptop places, including Harvard. “You mine for gold and you find gold. This workshop is about honoring your own voice, writing in your own rhythms, using your own language, and writing your own stories. Here is where we stop the inner critic in its tracks. I know it’s possible, because I have seen it happen for 15 years, over and over again.”

To sign up, call Nancy at 508-645-9085. You’ve probably seen her sign at the edge of State Road: Just carry on a third of a mile west of Chilmark Chocolates, then turn left at the blue and terra cotta sign. Call first.

Among Nancy’s parting words were, “We’re still learning and it never stops.”