A Community of Words

Susan Spencer

Eight people, from teenagers to 80-year-olds, sit in a half circle on the floor, inside a sunlit studio on a Chilmark knoll. They scribble quietly in notebooks and tap away on lap-top computers, responding to the day’s writing workshop prompt: “Dinner at our house was….” A half-hour later, the writers take turns critiquing one another. The only rule is that the remarks one writer makes to another must reflect what they like best about the piece.

Just as Martha’s Vineyard’s rolling meadows, breathtaking ocean views, and panoramic beaches nurture the spirits of the island’s well-known resident wordsmiths, writers groups here nurture developing writers, whether they are polishing novels for publication, or chronicling their family histories.

Writers groups on the island can be found year-round in bookstores, in senior centers, and in private homes. Participants say the island’s easy-going pace and idyllic setting help writers tap into their emotional intelligence, allowing them to forge deeper connections with their readers.

There’s no criticism for misplaced modifiers, or tart comments made about lackluster descriptive phrases in these workshops. “You become your own best editor,” says writer and former National Public Radio commentator Nancy Slonim Aronie, who directs the Chilmark Writing Workshop. The hope is that the fledgling writers will become free of the fear of failure and create honest, powerful writing.

Aronie runs the four-day “Writing from the Heart” workshops to nurture beginning writers and energize published authors in a safe place, allowing each writer to open up on the written page. At her request, participants use the memoir style as a writing vehicle. “The stuff that’s really hard makes good writing because it comes from the heart,” says Aronie. This is not just a feel-good exercise: there is concrete skill building, too. Aronie gently guides her students through process and practice, with writing assignments during class and for each evening. “It isn’t just the words you choose,” she says.

Susan Spencer

Over in Vineyard Haven, prolific murder-mystery writer Cynthia Riggs leads a Tuesday morning writers group at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. Riggs, 79, a 13th-generation islander and former ferryboat captain, published her first mystery at 70, featuring the keen-witted, forever-92-year-old Victoria Trumbull. Riggs was inspired to write after a guest at her West Tisbury bed and breakfast, the Cleaveland House, convinced her to enroll in a master’s in fine arts program. Since then, she’s published 10 books through St. Martin’s Press, including her latest, Touch-Me-Not. The bookstore group includes a handful of members, all working on their first books. “Knowing that this is here is so helpful to me. I’ll stay on track,” says Melissa Keeler of Vineyard Haven, a member of the group. “It’s so encouraging to venture forth.”

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Susan Spencer is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Whitinsville and Brewster, MA. She contributes frequently to Cape Cod Life Publications.

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