Thursday, April 3 — Sunday, April 6, 2014 — Woodstock, NY
In the beginning, there is the Story Slam. It works this way: contestants write very short stories that must contain a specific phrase, somewhere, anywhere, in the story, and must not take longer than three and a half minutes to read out loud. This year’s phrase, in honor of recently deceased performance poet Maggie Estep, is, I’m an emotional idiot.
The lucky twenty or so contestants who signed up early enough to read at the slam will present their stories onstage at the Kleinert James Center for the arts, in front of a lively audience and panel of judges. (Full disclosure: I served as a judge on last year’s festival panel. Fuller disclosure: it was an evening of wonderfully entertaining and often moving performances. Judges fought fiercely.)
A reader takes the stage and begins the performance. But as the clock ticks off the seconds, approaching the three-and-a-half-minute deadline, the Official Gong Banger stands and edges toward the gong, one eye on the clock. The reader sees and picks up the pace, trying desperately to squeeze in those last few words. The Gong Banger is poised to strike. The Gong Banger is merciless. Eyes frantic, the reader grips the tattered pages of her story and reads faster, faster…
Welcome to the traditional opening event of the annual Woodstock Writers Festival, now in its fifth year and firmly established as an essential literary event. The Gong Banger this year, and every year, is the Executive Director of the festival, Martha Frankel.
“I love story performance, like you see with The Moth and the TMI Project Frankel says. “The women from TMI (Too Much Information) — Sari Botton, Eva Tenuto, and Julie Novak — often do workshops at the festival. So we decided to put together the slam event. It’s really one of my favorite nights, because it’s loud and raucous, and people do really great stories.”
The festival has a well-deserved reputation for providing comfortable, intimate venues where readers and writers can get to know each other and have genuine conversations.
Friday events include a variety of workshops for writers, aspiring writers, and readers. The workshops run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and include How to Get Your Nonfiction Book Published, featuring NYC literary agent Lynn Johnston, TMI Project Storytelling with Eva Tenuto and Sari Botton, and Building Your Social Media Platform with Kitty Sheehan.
“We’re a young festival,” Frankel says, “we’re trying to figure out what we can do for the writers, and part of what Kitty’s been trying to do is educate writers on how to reach out to readers. I’m a writer; I know it’s hard to be a writer, to try to make a living, and tweet. I get it. We sit alone and work, and hope that it gets out there somehow. But it doesn’t unless we do something; social media and technology are having a huge impact on the literary world.”
On a more intimate note, acclaimed memoirist Abigail Thomas guides participants toward finding their way with their own material in her ever-popular workshop titled Through the Side Door, and author Marion Winik will conduct a Personal Essay Intensive workshop, with both workshops falling in the Friday 9 – 5 event line-up.
Friday evening from 6 – 7:30 p.m. at the Mountain View Studio, festival-goers can enjoy Little Bites and Big Libations Part 1, an event hosted by Goodbye Cookie author Marcia Meislin and billed on the festival website as “cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, scintillating conversation, unimaginable fun, and a possible lampshade on the head!”
THE DONAHUE INTERVIEW
The feature event on Friday is The Donahue Interview, conducted this year with journalist and author Jennifer Clement. Joe Donahue, the award-winning host of WAMC’s The Roundtable, and The Book Show, will interview Clement, whose most recent novel, Prayers for the Stolen, was described in The New York Times as “harrowing… but…also beguiling, and crazily enchanting.”
Saturday festival offerings begin at 9:30 a.m. with Trilogy: Writing, Yoga, and Music, a panel featuring Stephen Cope, author of the best-selling The Great Work of Your Life and Director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and Baird Hersey, musician, yoga practitioner, and author, most recently, of The Practice of Nada Yoga. The authors will discuss the relationship between writing, music, and yoga. The panel concludes with a performance by the 9-voice overtone choir PRANA.
“Anyone who knows me know that the mind-body connection is the thing I know least about,” Frankel says. “But I love this panel. It’s the way we always open up Saturday morning; it’s kind of gentle and lovely.”
Abigail Thomas returns on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. to join singer-songwriter-memoirist Bar Scott on a panel intriguingly titled Writing When a Nap is Preferable. Having dealt with their share of life’s unwelcome and sometimes overwhelming challenges, the authors will discuss how they brought themselves to the task of writing about heartbreaking matters.
“We have a fiction panel this year,” Frankel says, “which we’ve never really had. The festival evolves and every year we learn new things, even as technology is evolving and the world of literature evolves and changes.”
The panel, It’s All Make Believe, Isn’t It? features an impressive lineup of novelists: Kelly Braffet (Save Yourself, Josie and Jack, and Last Seen Leaving), Pamela Erens (The Virgins, The Understory), Owen King, whose most recent novel is Double Feature, and Jenny Offill (Dept. of Speculation, Last Things). The panel moderator is acclaimed novelist Elisa Albert (Book of Dahlia, How This Night is Different). The fiction panel runs from 4 – 5:30 p.m. at the Kleinert James Center for the Arts.
“It’s always so much fun, when you love a book and then you meet the writer,” Frankel says, “or when you hear a writer on a panel and you buy the book and you love it, and it’s something you might not otherwise have discovered. You have this connection. I love that.”
Festival-goers can adjourn from the fiction panel and move to the Mountain View Studio for Little Bites and Big Libations, Part 2, where there will be fresh hors d’oeuvres, libations, and hopefully a few intact lampshades.
At 8 p.m. at the Kleinert James Center for the Arts, actor, performer, writer, podcaster, and musician Stephen Tobolowsky will take the stage to share his passion for writing and acting and tales of his life as a character actor. Frankel speculates, “He’s so amazing. Who knows what he’s going to do?”
Tobolowsky, who has appeared in more than 100 movies and television shows, portrayed Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, Sammy Jankis in Memento, Tor Ekland on Seinfeld, Hugo Jarry on Deadwood, and Stu Beggs on Californication. His podcast with David Chen, The Tobolowsky Files, spawned his first collection of stories, The Dangerous Animals Club, published by Simon and Schuster.
Sunday morning at 9:30, Gail Straub and Carol Zaloom’s Alchemy Breakfast at Joshua’s Café offers the opportunity to partake of a delicious meal while hearing a writer and an artist discuss the powerful synchronicity they experienced while co-creating the adult fairy tale, Réveil and The Old One at the Edge of the World.
What, if anything, do Johnny Carson, Dennis Hopper, Alex Chilton and Norman Mailer have in common? On Sunday at 11:30 a.m., biographers of the four will discuss what it is that moves them to write about the lives of others and how they came to be biographers.
Biography Panel: Writing a Life, will be moderated by Will Hermes, senior critic and contributing editor at Rolling Stone, longtime contributor to National Public Radio, and author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. The featured panelists are Henry Bushkin (Johnny Carson), Tom Folsom (Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream), Holly George Warren, director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Oral History Project, Grammy nominee, and the author, most recently of A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Back Door Man, and J. Michael Lennon (Norman Mailer: A Double Life).
“Tom (Folsom) is the best raconteur I’ve known since George Plimpton,” says Frankel. “This man can tell a story.”
Brian Hollander, award-winning editor of the Woodstock Times, will moderate the Journalism Panel: Writing What’s Right, at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The eclectic and widely published group of journalists featured include New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen, Lily Koppel (The Astronaut Wives Club), Marianne Schnall (What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power), and Alison Stewart, anchor and reporter for major TV broadcast networks and author of First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School.
The festival’s signature and closing panel is Memoir A-Go-Go, taking place at the Kleinert James Center for the Arts from 4 – 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and moderated by Martha Frankel.
Panelists include bestselling author MK Asante (Buck) who is a filmmaker as well as writer and the recipient of the Langston Hughes Award. Beverly Donofrio is known for her bestselling memoir Riding in Cars with Boys, which was adapted into a major motion picture. Her latest is Astonished. Domenica Ruta’s With or Without You is a New York Times Bestseller and was named on of the ten best nonfiction books of the year by Entertainment Weekly. Writer/activist Sean Strub has lived with HIV for more than 30 years will talk about his memoir Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival.
“Sean has an amazing story,” Frankel says. “Sean was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. He started POS magazine. One evening he was walking home in Manhattan and heard something and turned around and saw Mark Chapman shoot John Lennon. He’s had an incredible life. Sean’s like Zelig. I hate to call his book “important,” because then it sounds like it’s not fun, but this book is fun even though it’s about the AIDS epidemic. And it’s important. Twenty-five million people died of AIDS. How is that not imprinted on our brains? 25 million.”
Frankel says readers comprise most of the festival audience. “I think if I could do one thing over, I would have called it the Woodstock Literary Festival or the Woodstock Book Festival. Sometimes people think the festival is only for writers, but it’s not. It’s for readers.”
Featured image, photo of Martha Frankel and WWF sign © Morgan Wemp
Kim Wozencraft is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including the internationally best-selling “Rush.” Adapted to a feature film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric, “Rush” was produced by The Zanuck Company. Kim’s work has appeared in The Best American Essays, Texas Monthly, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She is currently at work on a novel and is an instructor at SUNY Ulster. kimwozencraft.com