Write about what you know
by Ann Hutton
February 04, 2010 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In her little book Thinking about Memoir, Abigail Thomas advocates putting pen to paper and recording all the mundane and fascinating details of your life, in any order and as they occur to you. Why would someone do such a thing, you might ask? As a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you now are. She writes, "Memoir is the story of how you got here from there." She also says to be honest, dig deep or don't bother - which leads to the more serious implications of unearthing memories for fun and pleasure. You don't know going in what you'll discover about yourself. Perhaps that's why memoir has become such a popular genre to read and to write: We seem to be eternally fascinated with what it means to be human, and this digging deep can be instructive, inspiring and entertaining for both readers and writers.

For book-lovers on either side of the published page, the upcoming Woodstock Writers' Festival offers four days and three nights of workshops, readings, fêtes, panels and movable feasts - all in celebration of the memoir. Readers will have the opportunity to write, and writers will read from their works and those of their favorite authors. Thomas is joined by Martha Frankel, Laura Shaine Cunningham, Susan Richards and Golden Notebook maven Barry Samuels in organizing a consortium of renowned writers who are dedicated to the idea that you do not have to write alone. There is comfort in the company of other memoir-lovers.

This company happens to include such acclaimed authors as Susan Orlean (My Kind of Place, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup and The Orchid Thief), Ruth Reichl (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires and Not Becoming My Mother), Julie Powell (Julie and Julia and Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession), Gail Straub (Returning to My Mother's House), Ione (Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color), Marian Winik (First Comes Love and The Glen Rock Book of the Dead), Shalom Auslander (Foreskin's Lament), Charles Laurence (The Social Agent), Lili Bita (Women of Fire and Blood and Sister of Darkness), Katherine Russell Rich (Red Devil and Dreaming in Hindi), Dani Shapiro (Slow Motion and Devotion), Douglas Rogers (The Last Resort), Cornelius Eady (Brutal Imagination), John Bowers (Love in Tennessee), Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City), Johanna Reiss (A Hidden Life), Maria Bauer (Beyond the Chestnut Tree), Alix Dobkin (My Red Blood), poet Ed Sanders and author and Chronogram books editor Nina Shengold.

Add presentations and performances by sculptor and painter Mary Frank, artist Maureen Cummins, and singer/songwriter Bar Scott, with a special nod of thanks to Michael Lang (The Road to Woodstock) for the use of the famous white bird logo. Plus - take a deep breath here - former Publishers Weekly editor/director John Baker, vice president and publisher of Areheart Books and Harmony Books Shaye Areheart, publisher Peter Mayer and agent Barbara Braun will be on hand. And members of Thomas' Thursday night writers' group - Paul Leone, Claudette Covey, Alison Gaylin and Paula Butturini - will present their new chapbook aptly titled Thursday Night. In semi-organized, friendly settings throughout the long weekend, this awesome lineup of professionals will share their secrets, skills and passions with the rest of us.

Who should come? Speaking with Thomas, Frankel and Cunningham, a conglomerate ideal attendee was shaped: someone who is in love with literature and wants to know how things come together; someone who is interested in the lives of others; someone who wants to learn and make connections; someone who loves to read and has untapped stories that she wants to tell. It's anticipated that most people will at least have thought of, and may have even started, writing. They will get guidance, not just inspiration, and an enormous amount of information. They will get clues to leaping beyond writing barriers and practical advice about putting work out into the real (and virtual) world. They will engage in discussions about what memoir is and isn't, what the rules are and aren't, what's off-limits and what needs to have a light shone on it, and why anybody would want to write one in the first place. And they will be joyfully overwhelmed with the camaraderie of the attending pros and with each other.

Thomas, whose published works include the memoirs Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life, says, "I want us to thrive on our stories." Her Saturday morning workshop will have participants doing oddball assignments designed to shake loose some dusty memory, or to provide a side door into a story that the front door has always seemed too imposing to enter, or just have some fun. And as to those memories trapped in amber, she intends to "take a hammer to them!"

Cunningham's workshop on Saturday afternoon is "Writing for Your Life." The process of writing two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, honed her skills in dealing with the angst brought on by delving into the past. "It was a rewarding and freeing experience. People carry these burdens, and the weight of grief can be lessened. In fact, the publishing experience can't compare to the personal experience!" Her stories are imbued with wit and pathos; her intention to support writers is equally rich.

On Sunday morning, Richards (Chosen by a Horse and Chosen Forever) offers a workshop designed to inspire both novice and seasoned writers to bring their own stories to life through guided writing exercises. In a safe, supportive and intimate group, participants will focus on framing a story, getting specific and pacing the action. Her works, centered on the restorative gifts gleaned from caring for animals, exemplifies the benefits of writing-as-self-actualization. It also exemplifies memoir as the ultimate in creative nonfiction.

Frankel, whose Hats & Eyeglasses epitomizes memoir as both therapy and humor, will hold forth on Sunday afternoon with the nuts and bolts of websites, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking and branding in general. She believes that targeting your audience and marketing are key elements to selling your book. Her expertise comes from a years-long career interviewing and writing about famous people, like actors (Leonardo Di Caprio, Naomi Watts), writers (Richard Ford, T. C. Boyle), directors (Spike Lee, Nicolas Roeg), musicians (Branford Marsalis, Mariah Carey), gods and goddesses (Elizabeth Taylor, Robert De Niro), and alleged monsters (Lee Atwater, Mike Tyson). Her work has appeared in numerous and diverse magazines, and she still takes classes and attends workshops herself. "You never know. You can take a class and have an idea that changes your life. I want to change; I want to open my heart to different things."

Frankel maintains that having a book that a publisher loves and having a great publicist are not the end of the story. Authors still need to put energy into publicizing and marketing their books. She sees applications like Facebook as ways to create a community of writers, a place where people can open dialogues: applications that a would-be writer needs to develop even before their book is done. In fact, she says, "Networking can not only help you to sell your book, but it can also help you find out what your book is about."

The Woodstock Writers' Festival Celebration of the Memoir takes place in various spots around Woodstock on Friday, February 12 through Monday the 15th. Individual events are open at special prices. Enrollment is limited. For a full schedule of events, locations and registration information, see

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