Sunday, February 14, 2010

News from the Front: Woodstock Writer's Festival

Many of you might know that I am currently at the first Woodstock Writer's Festival. I'm not here as a published writer peddling The Pantry (although I've done that, discreetly, here and there), but as one interested, as I have been for a very long time and on several topics, in writing a memoir (or two or three–heck, I even have enough material for a variety of angles and doorways). I have written and sold many personal essays in magazines over the past twenty years but nothing as ambitious as a book–and one, unlike The Pantry, that actually doesn't have lovely photographs in it. You know, a grown-up book. The kind that authors write. Not that I haven't written a book. Yet there are moments, as Laura Shaine Cunningham, who wrote Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in The Country, which I have loved for many years, noted today, "there are even authors in the world who still want to be published." I get that.

I came here expecting great things but I did not expect continued greatness–like speaker after speaker, panel after panel, workshop after workshop kind of greatness. I also didn't expect to be so emotional. As workshop participants and even published writers talking about their books each told their story or mined the depths in an exercise, you realize the extent of the human condition, how we are all here in this place, together, doing our own things, bringing our own histories along with us. Perhaps that is the secret of memoir: we all want to share something or to leave a part of ourselves, of who we are, in the world. Perhaps that is why I blog. We don't have to be salacious or shocking, just to tell our truths, whatever they are. 

Perhaps it is a love of food and how it has brought form and texture to our lives, as with Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor and author of Tender at the Bone and other books about how food has been both a presence and a subject in her life. Or the intrepid Susan Orlean, who seeks out those who are passionate about something (like barbed wire collecting as she mentioned in her talk) and then learns what makes them tick, as with The Orchid Thief. While that book is more narrative nonfiction than memoir, and was later greatly altered in the movie Adaptation, her impressions are there on the page, too, as with this classic line: "I hate hiking in swamps with convicts carrying machetes." Isn't that line enough to make you want to read the book?

There have been many moments of lucid thought and 'ah-ha' type of revelations in the past two days–readings from aspiring memoirists, a moving musical performance by a woman who tragically lost a son and is now writing about it, as well as singing through it. Tonight the grand finale will be Julie Powell, of Julie and Julia blog, book and movie fame (imagine!) and who recently wrote Cleaving

I would have driven here for three consecutive nights of Susan Orlean, Ruth Reichl and Julie Powell alone but to sit through an hysterically honest and funny hour with festival organizer and author, Martha Frankel, who wrote the memoir Hats & Eyeglasses, has also has made it worth the price of admission. [Martha's active Facebook presence was not only how I heard about the festival in the first place but has made me rethink Facebook as a marketing tool and forum directly with readers, as much as a place to interact with existing friends and other writers. Her irreverence and candor is so refreshing on the subject of Facebook and other things. For some reason I could have spent the afternoon yabbering about social media–or maybe just talking with her about anything. She's that kind of person.] 

So too have been the writer's workshops on mining the depths and suggestions for starting a memoir with writers like Abigail Thomas, Laura Shaine Cunningham and Susan Richards. While these workshops weren't the small gatherings I had expected in terms of writing exercises and critiques for all, I nonetheless gathered much. I was also glad to meet fellow native Akronite, Melissa Holbrook Pierson at long last, author of one of my favorite memoirs, The Place You Love is Gone. I've also met so many interesting people, other writers, and have bought more books (I will buy others later or go to the library, too). I am also so very grateful, on this Valentine's Day, that I am blessed with a husband who, while he might not know how to turn on a computer and read this missive, is guarding the fort and caring for our boys as "Mommy's On the Computer Again" mixes and mingles up north.

My one regret? That I did not stand in line to give Ruth Reichl a copy of The Pantry (call me gutless) or at least a dozen eggs from my Kentucky hens (I have some in the trunk of my car, well-insulated), especially after reading her lovely brief blog (she understands the essence of things) on her Woodstock experience last night. But on the first night I did have Susan Orlean sign some of her books for me while I wasn't wearing any underwear–but that's another story and perhaps best put in a memoir. Or not. There is actually a part of me, at the end of this festival, that questions whether I have the chops for memoir and if so, what context? What doorways?

[Over at Cupcake Chronicles, our book group blog (and I will very soon be actually seeing the Cupcakes in New Hampshire!), I have excerpted from a book out this past month, called Devotion, by Dani Shapiro. She read from it today in an excellent panel of authors (there was another one yesterday with four other memoirists) that included Shalom Auslander, John Bowers (from Eastern Tennessee) and Marion Winik. I was moved to tears by this passage, as I have often been this weekend. It's been like group therapy for writers–not to mention, for once, that I haven't taken a single photograph.]


AC said...

Glad you are having such an exciting trip.

I've been using this downtime in the blog (and at my job!) to go back and read your posts from earlier years. And there are so many points at which I found myself thinking, "I would love to know the whole story here...I wonder if she's ever considered writing a memoir." So you've got at least one potential reader!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

So now I know: it was the ubiquitous and far-reaching Martha Frankel who actually brought us together. She's a real force of nature, that one.

Wow, how I wish you had given a copy of "Pantry" to Ruth Reichl--I treasure mine, and thank you so much for it. It's so lush, nostalgic, and thus thought- (and dream- ) provoking. Everyone who has a home with a kitchen should own this book.

prashant said...

So you've got at least one potential reader!

Work from home India

Tipper said...

Glad the trip was great!!

Nancy Gail Ring said...

As the author of a memoir, I am touched by this post as I often wonder about why I put myself through the arduous process of examining my life and motives, then making them so public. It was odd at book events to have strangers speak to me as if they knew me intimately, but of course it was because they had read my book and did know a lot. The decision to write a memoir is not an easy one; as Erica Jong wrote in her great memoir, (I'm paraphrasing of course as I don't remember the exact passage, every writer makes chopped meat out of her family at one point or another. I'll look forward to seeing if you do make the leap to memoirist and it will be wonderful if you would post about it too. Good luck, the conference sounds like it was quite the inspiration.