‘Islanders Write’ conference provided a creative stage for all types of writers

From left, Mark Kramer, Meryl Gordon, Madeleine Blais, and moderator George Brennan discuss techniques on writing narrative journalism. —Stacey Rupolo

Beth and Kathy Usher of Storrs, Conn., have a very real-life story to tell, and they got to tell it on Monday to a panel of publishing industry executives, thanks to the fourth annual “Islanders Write” (IW) conference at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. IW is sponsored by The Times and Martha’s Vineyard Arts & Ideas magazine.

Beth Usher, now a 20something, suffered severe brain injury as a result of an early childhood fall, and she and her mom Kathy want to write about their battle to get treatment, to create a family life in the process, and to pass on their experience to others with high-stakes medical issues mired in the healthcare system.

They were among five candidates selected by IW organizers to pitch book ideas to a panel of publishing pros, including agent Rosemary Stimola, book editor Gretchen Young, author John Hough Jr., and publishing exec Torrey Oberfest.

Nascent authors had three minutes to pitch their idea, then panelists spent five minutes offering tips and feedback.

“This is a story of a horrifying search for help for Beth’s brain injury, mucking through the healthcare system in pre-Internet days, using visits, calls, and handwritten notes,” Kathy Usher told the panel and a rapt full house.

“But it’s also about how we survived as a family, mistakes we made, and fixing them. This [book] is more about a family love story, about a strong and bonded family, and that a family can survive with humor, patience, knowledge, and play. We have written it in alternating chapters about the search and the family experience,” Ms. Usher said.

Panelists were silent for a moment after she finished, then a torrent of enthusiastic tips and advice emerged.

“I see your passion today. Pour it into the book. Don’t moralize and get preachy. Tell us what happened. You have a terrific book with strength and passion. Tell your story. You only get to use the word ‘love’ two, maybe three times. Show the love,” Mr. Hough said.

Panelists were unanimous about the value of alternating chapters. “This story is about love and gratitude. Every minute was important to you. For the reader, you need to pick and choose the moments. It’s all in writing from the heart. Truth is there. People want to feel grateful to know you on the page,” Ms. Young said.

The Ushers were at the 2016 edition of IW, and The Times chatted with them at the Sunday political panel last year. They briefly told us about Beth’s struggle and the help they got from then largely unknown brain surgeon Ben Carson.

Their appearance at the mic on Monday captured the importance of events like IW for people with stories, thirsty to tell them. In 2016, Kathy, Beth, and Brian Usher were observers. In 2017, they showed up to pitch their story, along with Lisa Rechtschaffen, Martha J. McNamara, Marci Moreau, and Al Mahoney: fiction writers, memoirists, and from Ms. Moreau, a cookbook as an analogy for life.

Now it’s likely that interacting with writing and publishing A-listers does empower people with a story to tell, and offers hope that they’ll get to tell it to a wider world. It’s more certain that IW-goers put substantial tools in their writing toolboxes after participating in nine Monday panels on everything from nuanced memoirs and longform journalism to writing gags and chuckles.

Here are some nuggets from the trove of tips and beliefs of writing pros at the Monday-morning sessions.


Writing biography

It can be tricky business, and often requires years of exhausting patience with skittish subjects, and researching documents and correspondence and interviews with unlikely people whose lives have intersected with the often celebrity subjects, panelists Meryl Gordon, Elizabeth Hawes (a.k.a. Betsy Weinstock), Richard Michelson, and Jack Fruchtman noted. There is an added degree of difficulty if the subject is long deceased, as in the case of Ms. Hawes’ “Camus: A Romance.” Ms. Hawes had a lifelong personal relationship with Camus, whom she never met, that helped her write his life story.


Writing your memoir

Memoir Is best done when documents, family, and friends are involved in the research. Faulty memory and different perspectives can color accurate truth-telling, particularly in big and long lives, according to Jessica Harris, Madeleine Blais, and Bliss Broyard.


Writing in a gender not your own

This topic Is not the hurdle many of us believe it might be. Panelists Amor Towles, Geraldine Brooks, and Nicole Galland agreed that when a writer is invested in a character, gender disappears and the character is not defined by gender, though Ms. Galland mused that gender may show up in writing about violence and sex.


Writing for tweens …

It can be enhanced if you can think like a kid, particularly using your own childhood as a measure. The protagonists of books for the 8- to 12-year-old market must be placed in plots that provide them with unsupervised time for sleuthing or adventuring, so orphans and busy single parents are often part of their lives, said panelists Elise Broach, Gregory Mone, Kate Feiffer, and Linda Fairstein, a recent convert to tween texts after a career writing New York City–based cop thrillers.


Narrative journalism

It has a fresh place in media, despite the popularity of 140-character tweets, which have a voice but no story, panelists Mark Kramer, Meryl Gordon, Madeleine Blais, and Times news editor George Brennan noted. The presence of the writer’s voice distinguishes narrative journalism from straight news reporting, which is voiceless, Mr. Kramer said. Readers like voiced long-form journalism because it allows the journalist to craft story structure, which is compelling to the reader, panelists said.



The inaugural “Laughternoon” event filled the Grange Hall with a trilogy of humor panels and presentations that kicked off with “Beyond the Caption Contest: How Gag Cartoons Work.”

New Yorker cartoonist Paul Karasik gave a presentation that dissected cartoons. “Humor is a very subjective thing,” said Mr. Karasik. “I’m not here to tell you what is funny, but how funny works in gag cartoons.”

He considered the New Yorker magazine to be “the last mag standing.” There are 12 slots for cartoons per issue, and competition is fierce. Mr. Karasik said that he sends in about 10 drawings a week, and considers it successful if he gets three in a year.

“A gag cartoon is a delicate balance between caption and drawing,” said Mr. Karasik. He presented examples of cartoons by the greats who have struck this balance and influenced culture because of it.

Peter Arno’s famous cartoon depicting a crashed plane coined the phrase “back to the drawing board.”

“The alchemy between caption and drawing is so strong that it’s like indelible ink on the brain,” said Mr. Karasik.

All the elements of a cartoon are meant to be absorbed in a specific order, top to bottom, left to right. Successful cartoons utilize this and the gaze of their subjects to trace a path for the eye.

Mr. Karasik closed with five pieces of advice for the New Yorker caption contest: Avoid the obvious, avoid puns, keep it short (10 words or less), save what makes the line funny for last, and think of the cartoon as a snapshot in a story.

The next panel in the lineup was “Why We’re Not as Funny as We Were Two Years Ago: The Humor Writers Return.” Back by popular demand, Jenny Allen, author of “Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas,” Fred Barron, awardwinning TV writer and producer, Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of “Writing from the Heart,” and moderator Arnie Reisman, author of “Sodom and Costello: Selected Poems and Art” sat on stage like friends lingering over their last glass of wine after dinner.

“2015 was a bit less glum than 2017,” said Mr. Reisman; however, the panel didn’t dwell on political allusions for long, and launched into what makes comedy funny.

They touched on the importance of surprise. “One of the problems is that nothing seemed surprising and nothing seemed funny,” said Mr. Barron. “So I went out and got cancer and it opened up a whole new area of comedy. I lost 30 pounds, which was great weight loss … Surprise is essential. Getting cancer was surprising. I thought, ‘What is going to happen next?’ I made it through, and now I can get seats anywhere.”

The panelists also relied on self-deprecation to crack their audience up. “When you talk about surprise in humor, what I enjoy doing is telling on myself,” said Ms. Allen. “I love political humor, but I just don’t do it that well. I like telling on myself; I find almost everything shocking, surprising, horrifying.”

When writing, the humorists stressed the importance of writing in a spoken style. “You can’t use writer words when you’re writing,” said Ms. Aronie. “They have lost the immediacy, they have lost the punch, they have lost the sound. Write as if you’re talking to your best friend.”

The last panel, “Nude Bathing on the Standby Line: Where Funny Begins and Ends” was made up of Annabelle Gurwitch, actress and author of “Wherever You Go, There They Are”; Adam Mansbach, author of “Go the F**k to Sleep” and co-author of “For This We Left Egypt?”; and moderator Holly Nadler, author of “Haunted Island”; they took the stage to close out the Laughternoon.

As the title suggests, the panelists talked about toeing the funny line. Mr. Mansbach said, “You should make sure what you’re saying serves the piece. You can edit for things that are needlessly mean; however, ‘funny but crosses a line’ is like my wheelhouse. Comedy should punch up. It should punch up to the people in power who deserve to get punched in the face, rather than those who are oppressed who are constantly getting kicked in the face.”

Ms. Gurwitch said that she likes to take the opposite point of view, and how that can upset people. “I think about that a lot when I’m writing,” she said. “I like to make fun of myself more than anyone else, but I thought I knew what I was in for with this latest book, and I was on the Bill Maher show arguing that pets are not our family. People were just irate on Twitter. They were so angry with me. You would think that I had filleted cats on the show.”

She touched on the comedy of embracing people’s criticism. “I read my one-star Amazon reviews. They’re hilarious,” Ms. Gurwitch said. “One of the one-star reviews said that Annabelle Gurwitch is really bitter because I just read that she is an atheist, and if she was a believer she wouldn’t be as bitter. I offend people with the atheism, I offend people with the pets. It comes with the territory.”