Taking a look at the writing life

Islanders Write draws writers of every level to West Tisbury on a sultry day.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Halley Feiffer, Misan Sagay, and John Hough discussed writing dialog. – Brittany Bowker

Five years now into the Islanders Write (IW) annual event, it is enormously satisfying to observe one overriding constant: the purity of intent among the hundreds of writing pros and neophytes who have trooped across the stage of the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.

The 150-year-old post-and-beam building is perfect for this exercise; it has a churchlike ambiance for congregants to find and fine-tune their writing voices. They are people who want to be heard through their written words. It’s an environment that promises magic, insight, and Eureka! moments.

Sponsored by The MV Times, Martha’s Vineyard Arts  and Ideas magazine, and a growing host of Island enterprises, the all-day IW conference attracts hundreds of residents and visitors every year to an often-sultry space. Electric fans provided some relief to the humid, mid-80s weather on Monday. But weather did not distract. They came and they stayed to learn about the craft.

This edition of IW taught writing skills but also looked into the healing and therapeutic value of the writing process for the most wounded among us. It also offered a look at the creative process through music in a presentation by three members of the Taylor musical family who took the same few notes and chords to write and perform three different songs, teaching us that creative variations are infinite.

Most writers write to be published, to be heard, and the annual Pitch Panel is a fan favorite. Four writers are selected from entrants to “pitch” their book idea in three minutes to a panel of gimlet-eyed publishers, agents, and authors. It’s a rubber-meets-the-road moment and requires pitchers to have courage to hear often crisp, no-nonsense comments from the panel.

Most writers don’t get a face-to-face pitch meeting like this, and panelists provided valuable feedback on how to get to the nub of the story and to get the attention of buyers amid an avalanche of competing manuscripts and book ideas.

The 2018 presenters and their topics were Ken Magarian (true crime), Island artist Elizabeth Whelan (fictional memoir), Shelly Sanders (young adult), Kay Scheidler (analysis of U.S. education), and John Wasson (true story-based fiction).

Panelists included Island writer and coach John Hough, Jr., literary agent Rosemary Stimola, and publishing execs Gretchen Young (Grand Central Publishing) and Torrey Oberfest (Hachette Book Group). While the genres varied, the advice was similar: begin with a small personal piece that defines and grabs the reader. For example, Whelan’s story “How To Take Care of an Island” deals with the job she and her husband had for seven years caretaking a herd of cows and the entire 1,750 acres of Nashawena Island, part of the Elizabeth Islands off Cuttyhunk.

Panelists found the premse fascinating, but suggested the pitch be given a personal focus. “How did isolation affect the day-to-day relationship between you and (husband) Bill. We need more on that,” Stimola said.

Hough agreed, adding “I want three sentences describing your city backgrounds — how you prepared for this, and how it affected you and Bill. It’s a good story but we need the two of you.”

One value of the panels is the knowledge we get from professionals writing in a variety of genres, which are popular now (true crime stories, for example) and how writers go about their work.

Columnists Chris Baer (history — This Was Then), Arnie Reisman — (The Washashore Chronicles), Nicole Gallant (personal advice — MV P’s and Q’s), and Tom Shelby (dog training — Ask the Dogcharmer) write about different topics but agreed that while word limits on columns sometimes chafe, those same limits improve their writing. And, they said their relationship with editors is key. “Initially I was not happy with a word limit but it’s helpful, refines the writing. You get to the point faster,” Shelby said at a panel on column writing.

While professionals were handing out pearls of wisdom upstairs at the Grange, authors and writing coaches Justin Ahren and Lara O’Brien were downstairs leading a series of writing workshops, one after another, well into the afternoon. And across the street at the West Tisbury library, Niki Patton was overseeing an open mic session.

We learned that books can have a genesis in the obscure and from minimalist tidbits. True crime authors like Joshua Hammer and Nancy Rommelmann get a spark, see a book in it, then spend years getting and telling the story. They provide us insights into the writer’s psyche driven by a story that has to be told.

Hammer is readying “The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Skulduggery and the Search for the Perfect Bird” for 2019 publication. Like his earlier New York Times bestseller “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts,” the story of the world’s most-accomplished egg thief was born in a two-paragraph newspaper story.

Rommelmann has just published “To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder” nearly 10 years after she saw a TV report on Amanda Stott-Smith, then 31, who threw her two kids off a bridge, drowning the youngest, in Portland, Ore., where Rommelman lived.

These are writers who explore the dark side and the humanity of the human condition to answer why people behave badly. They face unwilling clients (Stott-Smith has never spoken to Rommelmann), prodigious legwork (Hammer had only five court documents to learn about his falcon thief. No other facts about him were available), and they work on stories without help. “No one wanted to see this story unpacked,” Rommelmann said on Monday.

IW offered us access to writers exploring a new world of healing through writing, of how to write a single line of perfect dialogue (TIP: more is not better) for print and film.

It gave us an opportunity to listen in on a funny, relaxing chat on writers and writing between Pulitzer Prize-winners Geraldine Brooks and Richard Russo, and the tightrope of advocacy journalism in a charged political national atmosphere.

And so IW went, as it does every year — pros and novices looking to unlock the mysteries of writing.

To read about Sunday’s “Covering the Chaos” event, click here