Women Writers Unite! (and Chat) at Berkshire Festival
At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru, I’m going to share with you my Moment of Personal Transformation. It happened about four years when I attended my first writing workshop in Hudson, New York. The facilitator was a short, sharp New York City author and teacher who’d come of age with the first wave of feminism in the 1960s. She gathered us around a table in the paint-splattered, brightly-lit back room of a local arts organization and asked us each to write for 40 minutes. When we were done, we went around the table, reading what we’d cooked up.
I felt pretty silly being there. I’d been a professional writer for most of my adult life, writing features and criticism for many national newspapers and magazines, as well as a book, Great Pretenders, about my fascination with ‘50s pop music. But I’d never seriously applied myself to creative writing. My piece was about a woman lying in bed with her estranged husband, thinking back on a drug-addled affair she’d had with a musician when she was younger. When I finished, the sensation I had was that the people around the table had been reduced to pairs of large, staring eyes. Comments began leaking out: “Wow.” “That was great.” “So moving.” After the workshop, the facilitator pulled me aside.
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
I said, “I’ve been throwing writing like that away for my entire life.”
“That has to stop,” she said.
Thanks to the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, March 1 -9, it’s Stop-Throwing-Away-That-Personal-Piece-of-Writing Month. Over the next four weeks, more than 150 writers will participate in 55 workshops, readings, performances, panel discussions and film screenings scattered around Berkshire county. (And there is even an anthology, see below, that includes the work of several local writers.) A few of them are well-known: Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and many other books, and a legendary self-help guru herself, will give a lecture at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge on March 7, and local luminaries like poet Rebecca Wolff (“The Female Rebel: Women Writers on the Antiheroine in Fiction,” March 27 at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington) and author Melissa Holbrook Pierson (“Orion Magazine Presents: An Orion Reading at the Intersection of Nature and Culture,” March 17 at Simon’s Rock) will be appearing as well. But most of the participants are just regular gals with something to say. There are panels on the immigrant experience (“Coming to America,” March 6 in Williamstown) and aging (“Women, Creativity and Aging,” hosted by octogenarian Sondra Zeidenstein on March 9 in Great Barrington), plus opportunities for students and teens (“Speak out and Speak up! A Spoken Word Poetry Workshop for Young Women,” March 14 in Great Barrington).
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, a professor at Simon’s Rock and the festival’s founding director, believes that women need an extra nudge when it comes to sharing their work. “Women tend not to want to compete aggressively if there’s a really loud voice in the room,” she says. “I know that myself, because I was that woman who was shy about getting my voice out there, and content to let other people be the dominating voice in the room. I’m coming to realize that’s a real loss for everyone. If women aren’t speaking out and sharing our perspectives, the whole society loses.”
Browdy spent ten years organizing a one-day conference for International Women’s Day (now incorporated into BFWW with a film screening, Sweet Dreams of Women’s Human Rights, on March 10 at Simon’s Rock). “What I started to notice was that the audience really loved lunchtime, when they got to sit with each other and just talk,” she says. “That was part of what led me to this festival idea—realizing that we needed more than a day to focus on creative issues, and that we needed more opportunities for talking with each other. When you go to these events, it’s not chit-chat. Women go deep. They’re willing to share at a deep level and be open about their vulnerabilities.”
Pierson, the author of four non-fiction books, including The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home and The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road, had her own Moment of Personal Transformation. She calls me on the phone from her home near Woodstock, and—true to Browdy’s instinct—our conversation is less like an interview than two writers grasping at a chance to share stories and struggles. “Even as late as getting out of college, I did not give myself permission to be a writer,” she says. “I guess it felt scary. I thought, ‘I can’t be a writer. I’m not a writer. I have to do something in one of the peripheral businesses.’ So I went into publishing, and then I went to grad school and thought I would be a teacher. And it was only when I came out that I finally broke through. I said, You know what? All along I have been a writer. Now I can go out there and be one. God, I feel like Dorothy clicking my heels.” — Karen Schoemer