Word on the street: Woodstock Writers’ Festival returns

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The Woodstock Writers’ Festival (WWF) has been called a “vibrant and entertaining literary party” and the “perfect storm of natural beauty and new ideas” by the likes of Elissa Schappell and Stephen Tobolowsky: just two of the dozens of notable authors who have graced the stages these past five years. Cheryl Strayed noted the intimate sense of community that develops between the featured authors and the people who come to hear them speak. And one year, Andre Dubus III said simply, “I was sad to go home.”

Festival executive director Martha Frankel manages to entice world-class writers, teachers and publishing-industry players to the village of Woodstock each year for a long weekend of elbow-rubbing and up-close-and-personal proximity between literature greats and their fans. They all seem to get as much out of the experience as the rest of us. In fact, Frankel has received e-mails from authors who have never attended, saying that they’ve heard that this is the best festival in the world.

“It feels easy this year,” she says. “Same amount of infrastructure, but we’re better at it. We rely on our great volunteers who have been there year after year, and some really good sponsors who provide hotel rooms for the authors; and the restaurants in town have been so generous, giving them lunch or a cup of coffee. These guys have all just said, ‘What do you need?’ It’s so together now.”

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The sixth annual WWF is chock-full, with a three-day lineup guaranteed to generate rollicking fun and instigate untold hours of reading and writing for all who attend – not to forget the Fruition Chocolates giveaway. “All the VIPs and workshop participants will get a chocolate bar that has a golden ticket in it,” says Frankel, “like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We’ll pass them out by hand at the events and put them under seats, too. And every ticket is a winner of some great prize from our fabulous sponsors.”

The festival begins on Thursday with a Story Slam, an always-raucous happening that draws a boisterous crowd of spectators and participants. Hosted by WDST’s own Ida Hakkila of The Heavy Light Show, the Slam is titled “When the Wind Blows” after Inkubate co-founder Stacy Clark’s first renewable energy book for children. Twenty contestants will perform three-and-a-half-minute-long stories that must contain the phrase “when the wind blows” to compete for a goodie bag overflowing with books, written by featured authors and generously donated by the Golden Notebook. The competition is stiff, and nobody likes to hear the gong before a story is finished. But Slam audiences are warm and supportive of every participant, and the judges – author and humorist Hester Mundis, WDST deejay Greg Gattine and writer/social media maven Kitty Sheehan – will be gentle. They promise.

Another stellar assemblage of daylong workshops is scheduled for Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Held in private homes around town for 12 people max, these in-depth classes will give practical advice in specific areas of interest to both beginning and experienced writers. Here’s the workshop lineup:

@Novelist Ann Hood (The Knitting Circle, An Italian Wife and The Obituary Writer) will lead a fiction workshop titled “Let’s Start at the Very Beginning.” Winner of two Pushcart Prizes as well as Best American Food Writing, Best American Travel Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing, Hood also penned a memoir, Comfort, and edited the anthology Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting. She’ll bring her expertise to the conversation in discussing the first five pages of participants’ own work, reading examples of good starts and talking about how to revise and continue with the story.

@Lynn Johnston’s “Yes, You Can: How to Get Published” dispels the myth that only established authors or people with big platforms get book deals. Coming to understand how the industry works and how to maximize their chances at getting published in this interactive workshop will give participants a leg up. Plus, they’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss their own book projects, and will leave with an individual plan based on group exercises and a one-on-one critique session. Working in New York City, Johnston has represented many notable authors, including Pulitzer-winning journalists, television personalities and international stylemakers as well as stay-at-home Moms, schoolteachers and even a kazoo musician. She knows her stuff and is eager to help writers make their dreams come true.

@“Taking the Leap: Moving from Writing for Yourself to Writing for Others” with Bar Scott is designed to encourage budding writers and give them feedback that will help, not hurt. Participants will write together, talk about writing and share some writing that they’ve brought from home. They’ll go beyond creating sentences, which is the easy part, into the more satisfying and difficult part: telling their story; telling the truth. Best-known for her voice and her songwriting, Scott’s first book, The Present Giver, was published in 2011 by ALM Books. She has also published short stories in magazines and in an anthology of women writers.

@Kitty Sheehan, social media consultant and multi-talented writer, editor, teacher, corporate trainer, graphic designer, retreat founder and director (her credits could go on and on, folks), will lead the “Building Your Social Media Platform” workshop. Sheehan will unravel the mysteries of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to help writers rise above the noise and get value out of the basics. Social media novices will conquer their fears and get started using these tools. Seasoned users will think creatively about new ways to expand their reach and share their work by creating an effective online presence.

@Gail Straub, activist, teacher and the author of five books (Empowerment, Returning to My Mother’s House and Réveil and the Old One at the Edge of the World) is a pioneer in the field of empowerment. Her workshop, “The Wedding of Fact and Imagination: Essential Partnership in Writing Life Story” will inspire participants to become attuned to the more esoteric discoveries awaiting them when their most transformative and effective writing occurs. Through lecture, creative writing exercises and group dialogue they will access deeper regions of the imagination and get the linear brain out of the way.

@“Diving Deep: Writing Memoir” with Beverly Donofrio will offer in-class exercises designed to unearth memory and approach material in a safe, fun and original way. She will instruct participants in the craft of plot, setting and reflection, how to move back and forth in time seamlessly and to write detailed, visually descriptive language. Donofrio has published three memoirs (Riding in Cars with Boys, Looking for Mary and Astonished), along with three children’s books and essays in many anthologies and periodicals.

Frankel is giddy with her keynote speakers this year. “We’ve got Will Hermes talking to Chris Stein on Friday night. He’s so great. And on Saturday evening, Joe Donahue will interview Abigail Thomas, who is launching her new book at the festival! We love Joe.”

Stein marked the occasion of punk band Blondie’s 40th anniversary last year with the release of his book of iconic photographs of Debbie Harry and other characters of the ’70s and ’80s New York rock scene in Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk. Designed by Shepard Fairey, the book is a celebration of the New Wave and punk scene, and Hermes – a music and pop-culture writer for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Spin, Slate, Salon, The Believer, The Village Voice and other publications – is the perfect guy to talk with Stein about it.

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