A workshop next week will help guide new and experienced writers through one of the trickier steps in writing a personal essay: writing with honesty about one’s life without blowing up personal relationships.
“Writing the Self through Others: The Ethics of First-Person Narrative” takes place June 26 through 29 at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. Workshop instructor Emily Bernard, professor of English at the University of Vermont, promises a “judgment-free zone” where workshop members can speak frankly, exchange views, and try out fresh approaches.
Writing about the people in their lives unnerves many new writers. But Bernard’s workshop offers much to experienced writers too. As she put it, “A friend of mine says, ‘I may be preaching to the choir, but the choir needs rehearsing!’ Experienced writers will have a chance to revisit and hone fundamental skills and ambitions that sent them to the page in the first place. We’ll be doing exercises designed to help us experience the world anew, something all artists need all the time.”
Bernard’s own writing shows a frank grace that has garnered acclaim, starting with her 2005 essay “Teaching the N-Word,” which was chosen for Best American Essays 2006. In January 2019, Oprah magazine named her fourth book, the essay collection “Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine,” to their list of “most anticipated.” The next year, the book won the L.A. Times Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose.
Next week’s workshop is an extension of a two-day class Bernard taught last summer. When that ended, participants bombarded Mathea Morais, director of Featherstone’s literary arts program, with pleas for an extended version. A few slots remain in this year’s workshop, which will be held from 4 to 5:30 pm in Featherstone’s Art Barn Library; those interested can register at bit.ly/FCA_BernardWorkshop.
Featherstone’s literary program takes off
Since the 1990s, Featherstone has been a vibrant year-round art center, offering instruction in drawing, painting, and crafts, plus gallery exhibits, art sales, and more. But its literary wing is relatively new. It grew out of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts, founded in 2007 by poet Justen Ahren; Noepe merged with Featherstone in late 2018, and Morais took over as director.
“What I loved so much about Noepe,” Morais said, “was that as a writer, I was getting to learn from and learn alongside people who weren’t from here. I love my Island writers, but as a writer you … need those outside voices — it’s so critical.”
Featherstone’s literary arts program, Morais continued, “lifted off in the summer of 2019. Then COVID hit.” Featherstone pivoted to Zoom workshops — and even post-COVID, Zoom classes have continued. This past spring, for instance, essayist and cultural critic Damon Young ran a four-week Zoom workshop on humor and what makes for a funny story or essay. “It was packed,” said Morais. “Totally sold out. We had someone logging on at 3 am from Nigeria to get on that call! We had wonderful people from the Vineyard, and also this woman from Nigeria. That’s the beauty of Zoom and the beauty of writing. A real intimacy can happen in those Zoom spaces. I don’t know why it works — but it does.”
Now the plan is to hold off-season events on Zoom; summer events will take place in person on Featherstone’s campus. Following Bernard’s essay-writing class, two poetry events are planned in conjunction with the art show “El Barrio and Beyond: A Celebration of Latinx Culture” in the Francine Kelly Gallery. On Thursday, July 20, poets Martin Espada and Rich Michelson will hold a joint reading. On July 21, they will return for “Poetry, Politics, Banned Books, and Trigger Warnings,” a conversation and Q and A.
Another summer highlight will be the return of Islanders Write in August, with a solid lineup of panel discussions and workshops.
Come fall, Morais hopes to sponsor at least one residency. “Twice in the fall we’ve partnered with Slough Farm,” she said. “It’s a weeklong residency with two off-Islanders and two Islander writers. The expectation is they use the time to write. Plus one afternoon class with kids from the Charter School and the high school — that’s [the residents’] give-back” to the community.
The plan long-term for the literary arts at Featherstone is to build on what they’ve found works best: off-season Zooms, summer in-person workshops, Islanders Write, and then shoulder-season residencies.
“We’re trying to get this off the ground, be intentional and thoughtful,” Morais said. “Go slowly, try things, see what works. Give ourselves the space to figure it out. So far, these programs are what have stuck.”
Brenda L. Horrigan, a Vineyard Haven author and editor, is co-founder with Oak Bluffs resident Elisa Speranza of the Washashore Writers Collective, an association of women writers with a Vineyard connection.