In a weekend-long celebration of writers and readers, the seventh annual Woodstock Writers Festival saw a greater turnout than ever before. Panels were diverse, ranging in topic from poetry, music, fiction, and memoir, to discussions about addiction, recovery, and the societal effects of the digital age. There was something for everyone: music lovers and fiction readers alike found themselves among excited and receptive audiences.
For the first time, the evening events took place outside the center of town. Michael Lang and Paul Green, co-directors of the Woodstock Music Lab, lent their space to the Festival’s iconic Story Slam, as well as the Recovery panel, two cocktail parties, and a Saturday night keynote event. Martha Frankel, director of the Writers Festival, was delighted at the massive turnout at these events, which was largely due to the cafetorium — a space that functions as a cafeteria and an auditorium. “That room holds three hundred people, twice as much as the Kleinert,” she said.
Frankel attributed much of this year’s success to the inclusion of topics relevant to Woodstock and the world today. “You wake up in the morning and you read the paper. It’s all about opiate addiction. Then you get up in the morning and it’s all about the internet. I feel like that was fortuitous,” she said. Indeed, the addition of topics like drug addiction struck a chord with Woodstockers hit hard by the recent deaths of community members. “The Recovery Panel on Friday night — there were three hundred people there, and we talked about addiction and recovery in a way that we have not,” Frankel said.
Big changes lie ahead. Starting next year, the Writers Festival is changing its name to the Woodstock Book Festival. “I’ve known [the name] was wrong since the beginning,” said Frankel. “I’ll say to people, ‘Oh, you should come to the music panel, you love music,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh no, I’m not a writer.’” Essentially, the Festival is for book lovers, and Frankel believes that the name change will bring in those who do not identify as writers, but readers.
As usual, many of the panels included legends in their specific fields. For instance, Elliot Landy, who captured iconic photographs of The Band, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and others, spoke on the Music panel, and Ed Sanders, poet, biographer, and musician, was a part of the Biography panel. Other panelists included best-selling authors, poets, and journalists, each able to offer their expertise and discuss craft, inspiration, and personal experience.
At its core, this year’s Festival was largely a study in empathy: the kind felt by humans for other humans, by readers for complex and flawed characters, or even empathy gained after a lifetime of emotional disconnection. “There is such joy here,” observed Frankel, noting that despite the sadness of certain events, what pervaded was a feeling of interconnectedness. Each panel served as a reminder that empathy and the search for understanding is what ties individuals together, and that reading and writing is, most of all, an attempt to find the humanity in everyone.