Writing from a Chilmark garden

Nancy Aronie. Photo by Sara Piazza
Nancy Aronie, whose Chilmark Writing Workshop has inspired hundreds of participants over the years, is bringing her "Writing from the Heart" message to radio. Photos by Sara Piazza

By Joyce Wagner - August 31, 2006

There's an expression among many Island writers: "Nancy-training." It refers to a gentle form of feedback for the writer's work, a focus on the process over the product, and a willingness to establish a safe environment for creativity within writing workshops.

The "Nancy" part of "Nancy-training" refers to Nancy Aronie, founder of Chilmark Writing Workshops and a guru of sorts to Island writers at every level. Participants in her class, "Writing From the Heart," include seasoned writers, newly published authors, journalists, wannabe scribblers, shy folks with words that are busting to be released, and vacationers that want to share their time between beach and self-improvement. Each comes away from the class with something important: a sense of his or her own voice and a validation of that voice as important.

Lenny Henry, a renowned actor/comedian/writer in the U.K., works in a field that's traditionally cutthroat and vicious. During a recent vacation on Martha's Vineyard, during his daily morning run down Middle Road, he caught sight of the workshop's sign, low to the ground at the entrance to Nancy's Chilmark home. "My interest was so piqued," he recalls, "that I had no thought of shame or embarrassment as I strode into Nancy's garden in my skimpy shorts and running vest, odd socks, and 'Late Night with Letterman' cap and sweat pouring in runnels down my body."

Writer Perry Garfinkel. Photo by Sara Piazza
Writer Perry Garfinkel, author of "Buddha or Bust," on-air with Nancy Aronie.

Nancy explained the workshop and Lenny showed up for the next session with his 12-year-old daughter Billie. They both took the class.

During the summer, the workshop runs about a half a day, four days a week, per one-week session. An average of 12 participants per class gather on chairs in a circle in Nancy's lush garden. She will usually introduce the class with an anecdote - about her own childhood growing up without process, about her learning to juggle, about her own discouraging experiences with overly critical writing groups. Her stories are sometimes poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and frequently all of the above.

Born in 1941 in Hartford, Conn., where she was also raised, Nancy wore many hats before developing her workshop 18 years ago. She tried stand-up comedy in New York, worked as a reporter for a Connecticut publication, wrote a monthly lifestyle column for McCall's Magazine, and even put in a short (very short) stint as a copy editor for a national women's magazine (which became the basis for her very funny narrative, "Queen Lear"). She began the workshops when a much-counted on job fell through and she needed work. "All I did was put an ad in the paper for a writing workshop in my home."

Her first attempt, teaching friends to write, did not go well. "I learned by doing it wrong," she recalls. "I realized the reason that first one didn't work was because of all the criticism." She found that when a participant read his or her piece and it was taken apart by the other students, the next piece would suffer. "It would be so bland, so careful, that it took care of all of the risk taking and all the spice and all the deliciousness."

Before her second attempt, Nancy realized that all of the times that she's done her best work, it was when someone's told her that she's great. "Even if I'm not great, I get great!" she gushes.

She began her next workshop with all strangers and set up ground rules regarding criticism and feedback: "I told them, 'this is about creativity and creativity does not respond to criticism. It responds to hyperbolic cheerleading.'"

"What happened was remarkable," she recalls. "I became a much better listener. People began to take enormous risks and the writing got very deep and very powerful. What happened was people started to hear the responses to their own work and they moved."

The new format clicked and her workshop flourished. She moved it from Connecticut to Chilmark in 1989, the same year she began to perform regular commentaries on National Public Radio.

The workshop continues with an assignment - ten to fifteen minutes of writing about a specific personal topic: "Our family dinner was ...," "I meant to say ...," "write about a time when you felt one way and acted another." Nancy announces the end of the writing time by tanging a small, delicate gong. All participants return to the circle and, one by one, read their work aloud. After each, Nancy and the others give feedback by citing phrases, passages, ideas, or literary devices that they liked about the piece. After a break for home-baked bread and jam, Nancy relates another anecdote, another assignment is given, and the circle breaks up to write. Upon their return, the work is less stifled, more candid, and more enthusiastically read aloud. Nancy gives a homework assignment and participants reluctantly leave - now disinclined to remove themselves from the warmth and acceptance of the circle. Friendships are formed on the way to the cars. Someone offers another a lift into town. Someone tells another that he or she should be writing for a living.

On the last day of the class, phone numbers and email addresses are exchanged. These people will keep in touch.

Lately, a new wrinkle has been added to Nancy-training - participants need not be on the Island to benefit. The workshop is now on radio. Nancy and her assistant, poet Gerry Storrow, have begun to broadcast the workshop over Lime Radio, available on Sirius Satellite Radio or streamed for free at Lime.com. It's broadcast live on Thursdays at 2 pm and with encore airings at 7 am on Fridays and 2 pm on Sundays.

The format is a little different. Nancy announces the topic of the assignment for the following week at the end of her broadcast and people are invited to submit their work by email. If chosen, the piece is read by the author over the phone, live on the show. Then others may call and give positive feedback on the piece. She sometimes has special guest authors appear on the show.

So, now, "Nancy-training" can be more widespread. Others can reap the benefits over the airwaves that Lenny Henry enjoyed in person.

"It wasn't anything like I thought it was going to be," he comments. "I expected a slap on the hand, someone crushing us - being cruel to be kind. Instead, we just got the kind part. That's what Nancy's group is about - a kindness bringing forth creativity. Lovely."

Joyce Wagner is author of "Random Overthoughts," a just-published collection of her humor columns from the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, and many times Nancy-trained.