Writers Read helps writers find their voice

Island writers meet in groups in living rooms and at libraries in winter, on the porch at another writer’s house or outside in the sunshine on a summer day, mustering up the courage to read their own words aloud in a comfortable, safe space. They share their words with others in hopes that they will be understood and well received, but also so they can hear the places where their words hit a bump — or a thump — and they can then go back and rewrite them.

Niki Patton, a writer, producer, and performer who’s lived here full-time since 1995, facilitates Writers Read, usually on the second Monday night of the month at the West Tisbury library. She’s been doing this for seven years now, as far as she can remember, and some of the writers have been with her since the beginning. At February’s gathering, she talked a little about the group, explaining that each listener who comments on a writer’s work speaks only for themselves.

“We tend to make our opinions fact,” Patton said. With Writers Read, she takes a page out of Island writer and workshop leader Nancy Aronie’s book, and says that critique should include what a listener loves about the piece they just heard. And when expressing a question or wanting an explanation about a part of the work that isn’t clear, the listener making the comment doesn’t say, “Wow, you lost me in the second paragraph,” or “Maybe you should go back to the beginning and start this chapter over.” Instead, they’re thoughtful and respectful. “I’d like to hear more about your protagonist,” or “I loved your dialogue, and I’d like to hear more of it.” You won’t leave this public writers’ group crippled by a critique.

Julia Kidd is working on a collection of personal essays about the role of a car as an identifier in her life. Some essays are humorous and some she describes as “biting,” but they all come from family history, relationships, nostalgia, and cultural history.

“Writing is such a private and personal practice, it seems to me vital that we share our work and our practice with others,” Kidd says. “Having others listen to what I’m working on is such a gift! It’s so important to know how it sounds to someone other than myself — writers need readers and listeners. The work is alive when someone else is listening.”

Before the February Writers Read session began, a circle of around a dozen people introduced themselves; some signed up for reading that night, and others were there to listen.

Claudio DeChiara read from his novel in progress, “The Sun, the Moon, and the Broken Bridge: The Stories of Mehmet Demir.” He explained that he began the novel in the early 2000s, during a “remarkably transformative moment in Turkish history.”

With an almost Thomas Pynchon–esque feel, his work delighted listeners that chilly Monday night. DeChiara’s descriptions were spot-on. He wrote that a room had “recently been Cloroxed,” and depicted the sound of a typewriter: tap, tap, tap, tap, scroll, return, indent, tap, tap, tap etc. In those few words, he evoked everyone’s memories of the days when they used a typewriter, as well as the pungent smell of disinfectant. Another favorite line in his writing was “without raising his eyes, he raised his eyebrows …”

“I would want to read the rest of this book,” Patton encouraged.

Rajka Ungerer read a reflection about the first time she was in love, something that happened in her case many decades ago. The writing felt as if it happened much more recently. She told the listeners about a teenage student at a time when friendships “felt like the most important thing in the world.” Ungerer described a soldier, “a young man, tall and blond and handsome.” He and another fellow had pulled her out of class to spend time with her, and she was thrilled at his attention.

Eugene Johnson, one of the writers listening, said, “You made me think of my first love.”

Scott Crawford, who now helps run Pathways Arts after previously working on Broadway, was an animated reader of his piece, “Pushing Cars in the Rain,” part of a story he’s working on. 

The writing was again descriptive, but with fun twists and turns. The particular car in question was a Chevy Citation, Crawford read, one that was named Cheetah by its owner. And, he read, Cheetahs do not like getting wet. 

Cat Finch, a member of Writers Read and also a member of Cynthia Riggs’ Wednesday Writers Group, is working on a contemporary fantasy that takes place in southern Vermont, but is rooted in old myths from the Isle of Man, titled “Daughter of an Ancient Oak.”

“Most of those who attend don’t read fantasy, so I take advantage and bring strange chapters that I want to ensure are clear and compelling,” Finch says. “If people respond with glazed looks of confusion, I know I’ve got work to do! But if they comment on it being easy to suspend reality and get drawn into a character, especially to the point of caring about what happens to them, then I know I’ve succeeded.”

Reading work aloud to a group of interested, knowledgeable, and capable writers can be an integral part of any writer’s toolkit. Sometimes there are even unexpected benefits. Patton said that other groups she was in helped a writer produce a video documentary, other members produced newspaper articles for national publication, others finished books, and being a member of a group helped Patton work on two monologues she eventually performed. Now, though, she’s no longer a member of any private writing group, although, she says, there are a number of excellent groups on the Island. 

“There is a part of me that’s truly a proletarian — and throughout this time, I had also wanted to have a group open to the public that anyone could attend whenever they wanted,” she said.

For Finch, Writers Read helped her get over a fear of speaking in public. “Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable reading aloud to people I don’t know, and have even read personal stories from my memoir at Pathways the last couple years, when Niki has reserved a night for us to present there,” Finch said. “I’m grateful to her for facilitating Writers Read all these years, it’s been life-changing.”

If you sit in that inviting circle of creativity at Writers Read, you’ll hear stories from around the world, because these writers come from Hungary, Croatia, Italy, South Africa, and beyond. And the writing is just as diverse as the places they come from.

Check out Writers Read as the featured writers’ group at Pathways Arts at the Chilmark Tavern on Tuesday, March 3. Doors open at 6:30 pm, and it’s free.