The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: Cultivating Creative Community

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Virginia Woolf famously said that women writers need a room of their own. True enough, but that’s not all we need. We also need a community to nourish and support us and cheer us on through the challenges of the creative life.

So many people seem to think that the playing field has been leveled for women; that the feminist movement can just pack it up now and go home.

It’s not true, not yet.

For most women, a writing study of one’s own is not an achievable reality. We’re lucky if we can set up a desk of our own in a corner of our own…and get to it at least once a week.

Let’s face it, most women who become mothers must juggle the demands of pregnancy, child-rearing and home-making with the pressure to contribute to the family income—and for writers, that often means having a “day job” that necessitates doing the writing on the side of everything else.

At the other end of our lives, we’re the ones taking care of our own parents, too. There’s just never enough time to fit everything in, and often our writing slips down to the bottom of the endless to-do list.

cfed82894ce77d5eb912cd5c3fe77346My mentor Gloria Anzaldua urged her working-class sisters to “Forget the room of one’s own—write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or on the welfare line, on the job or during meals….When you wash the floor or the clothes, listen to the chanting in your body,” she says. Write “when you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write” (“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”).

Before she died–too young–of diabetes complications, Gloria published several influential anthologies of women’s writing and worked hard to build a community that bridged all kinds of identities and differences.

She was a great inspiration for me, and when I founded the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in 2011, I felt like I was carrying on her work, in my own corner of the world.

The sixth season of the Festival presents nine full days of readings, workshops, talks, discussions and performances featuring talented women writers from the Berkshire region and beyond.

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For me, this is not about art for art’s sake. It’s about activating women to recognize that we all have important stories to share, which we can cultivate by developing the confidence to speak our truths, and the community that will encourage us to write, write and keep on writing.

11010606_934650809911488_2830181057542873053_nAt last year’s Festival, Dani Shapiro shared what she considered to be the essential ingredient of a successful writing career like her own, and it was surprisingly simple. You have to put your butt in the chair and write, she said. Just do it.

Having this discipline is much easier when you begin to trust that there are people out there in the world who care what you have to say; who will listen and applaud and come back for more.

That’s why it’s important, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, to turn out at community-building events like the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Come to show your support of the writers on the stage; come to be inspired; come to share in the camaraderie of lunching and brunching with a roomful of writers and the people who love them.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers happens but once a year, in March. That’s Women’s History Month, and also the month, in New England, when the sap starts to rise. Come take a taste of our creativity and feel your own creative vision rise in response.

Check out our schedule of events, and mark your calendar. See you at the Festival!

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Bypassing the Old Boys’ Club

As we move exuberantly into the second half of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, my mind is sparkling with memories of the powerful, indeed heart-stopping moments that have already taken place at Festival events this season.

DSCN4609Grace Rossman extending a powerful poetic hand to the drowning Ophelia in so many girls today; Ruth Sanabria impersonating both her mother and the fascist regime that unjustly imprisoned her in a fierce poem about the impossibility of stamping out the love between mother and daughter; Kate Abbott celebrating the cultural diversity of the Berkshire hills as she works quietly and steadily to make it more visible; Barbara Bonner eloquently describing the spirit of generosity that seeks and needs no recompense.

The list could go on, and it will, as the Festival continues to unfold day by day this month, and throughout the year in the on-going readings, workshops and writers’ circles that will be taking place under the Festival banner.

This is important work we’re doing together at the Festival—creating multiple entry points and platforms for women writers to step into the spotlight and shine.

The truth is, such opportunities are still all too rare for women writers, and creative women more generally.

Overall17-316x173At the end of February, just in time for Women’s History Month, the non-profit, all-volunteer group VIDA published its annual Count, revealing the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s voices in literary and upscale magazines and journals.

Overall14-316x173I invite you to take a look for yourself: the results show clearly that in literary circles (think The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The Nation and the New York Review of Books), the old boys’ club is alive, well and holding steady at an average of 75% male voices represented in their pages over the past year.

The same is true in the film industry, the theater industry, and in the television industry. 

It’s the same in book publishing, which may be one reason why women are so interested in exploring new opportunities for self-publishing and self-promotion.

publishing_quadrant1222These days in publishing, it’s like the Berlin wall coming down—gates thought to be invincible are simply crumbling away, with their keepers revealed in all their flabby ordinariness.

Having spent far too much of my life not even trying to take myself seriously as a writer because I knew exactly how high the odds were stacked against my success, I’m excited about the DIY spirit of the new publishing landscape.

I’ve got a book that’s almost ready to launch, and buoyed by the lively, can-do spirit of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’m thinking seriously about bypassing the old boys’ club entirely and taking responsibility myself for getting my words out into the world.

No more sitting on the sidelines complaining that “they won’t let us in!”  No more waiting to be asked to dance.  No more hiding my light for fear it won’t be appreciated.

BFWW-square-logo-2014If all of us women started supporting each other and working collaboratively to create the opportunities we all need to shine, we could change the creative cultural landscape for the better, turning those red and blue pie charts a lovely shade of purple.

What a beautiful world it would be!

Drinking Deep from the Elixir of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

BFWW-vertical-logoJanuary is the season when I must work like mad to get the Program for the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers out to the printers, so that it will be ready to distribute in February.

For months now, program coordinator Jan Hutchinson and I have been finalizing all the details, gathering the descriptions and bios and photos for no fewer than 58 separate events, featuring more than 150 women and girls at some thirty different venues throughout Berkshire County, including of course our principal sponsor Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

We’ve also been soliciting advertising and sponsors with the help of our hard-working Miss Hall’s School Horizons interns, supervised by organizing committee volunteers Judy Nardacci and Lorrin Krouss.

And committee members Maureen Hickey, Joanne Cooney, Vera Kalm and Johanna Janssen have been helping to generate the funds necessary to sustain a growing Festival like this one, with considerable success—we have dozens of contributors to thank this year.

Once I finish my part of the Program, I’ll send the copy over to Festival graphic designers Alice and Anna Myers, who will work their magic and send it off to our fabulous printer, John DiSantis at Quality Printing, who always does such a stellar job for us.

Then we’ll turn out attention to getting the website up to speed, and getting out our own publicity in local and regional publications and calendars, aided by the very capable and calm Lynnette Lucy Najimy of Beansprout Productions.

In short, our Festival is a huge effort, representing the combined forces of so many talented people in the Berkshires, all coming together to brighten up the often drab month of March with readings, workshops, performances and discussions highlighting the creative energy of women and girls.

I may be grumbling about the frenetic workload now, but I know once March 1 rolls around and our Festival starts to gather steam, the delicious vitality of women’s words will carry me along to inspirational highs I could never have conjured on my own.

1528653_548356822534_515979881_nThat’s what the Festival is all about—it’s a grand collaborative gift that we give to our community, and not only in March.  This year we’ve begun to offer year-round programming as well: the monthly Lean In group for women writers, co-hosted by Lesley Ann Beck and yours truly at the Berkshire Museum; the Writing from the Heart readings, which we’ll be offering next on February 13 at The Mount; a special Mother’s Day event planned for May at the Sandisfield Arts Center; and the new weeklong Writing Workshops for Women, going on right now and again in June.

The energy of so many creative women and girls coming together to share their ideas and perspectives in the public sphere ignites an alchemical combustion that produces a heady, exhilarating kind of mental/emotional elixir.

We all feel it, presenters and audiences alike—the sheer joy of coming together to shine our creative lanterns at each other, beckoning and inspiring each other on to new heights.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call what we do in the Festival “displaying the lantern of the soul.”  In a recent blog post she said that “to display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.”

Meet us out on deck at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and bring your lantern!  Let’s create beacons bright enough to illuminate the way forward, together.

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We need new stories to help us imagine a new, brighter future

Will someone please do the math on how adding thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls, thanks to the new “sequester,” is going to save the country money?

Not only will we (as in, we the taxpayers supporting the Federal government) be paying unemployment compensation for those folks, but their communities will also be suffering as they cut back on personal spending…perhaps lose their cars or their homes…and end up needing a lot more in the way of social services.

Sometimes when I check in with American politics, I have to wonder who is writing the scripts.

President Obama sailed into office in 2008 promising that as an outsider to Beltway machinations, he would champion the ordinary American and set the country on a kinder, more humane path.

The Republicans, perhaps rightly, read his conciliatory gestures as weakness, and have taken the bully’s path of stonewalling, denunciation and manipulation of the truth.

Presidential Inauguration, 2013

Presidential Inauguration, 2013

Speaker Boehner’s sour face as he sat behind the President on Inauguration Day this year said it all.  He would not—could not—cooperate in any way with our country’s popularly elected leader.  Not even if his obstinacy brought America to its knees.

The whole scenario was eerily reminiscent of the script from the one-season TV show Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first woman President of the United States.

She too was pitted against a demonic Speaker, who would stop at nothing to discredit, provoke and undermine her, even if his reckless bullying endangered the welfare of the country overall.

Interestingly, Commander in Chief was cancelled after just one season, just as Ms. Davis’s character, President Mackenzie Allen, was gearing up to run for re-election against—of course—her nemesis, the Speaker of the House.

At the time the explanation given for the cancellation was that audiences were not yet ready for a woman President (the show ran in 2005-06).

But watching the first 18 episodes again recently, it was clear that what really did it in was the daring script, which showed a powerful woman POTUS who was a popular Independent determined to stand up for ordinary Americans and to keep her hands clean of the usual muck of party politics.

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, President of the United States

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, President of the United States

In the last couple of episodes, President Allen decides to champion the Equal Rights Amendment for women, which still to this day has not been ratified by enough states to make it federal law.

Her political advisor tells her it’s suicidal to touch that hot potato if she’s seriously thinking about running for a second term, but she’ll have none of his cynical advice, and indeed ends up summarily firing him.

Could it be that the TV Gods cancelled Commander in Chief precisely because the show demonstrated that there is no reason why our country has to be held hostage to the Republicans—or the Democrats?

11-geena-davis-commander-in-chief-2005-2006Did they cancel the show because it showed that there is no reason why a woman can’t govern with equal or greater smarts, decisiveness and wisdom as a man—even as she remains a loving mother, wife and daughter?

President Allen was shown in every episode facing down stereotypes, garnering the respect of even her crustiest generals and most ruthless homeland security czars.

And the more she succeeds, the more ordinary people applaud and support her, the more determined her political adversaries become to take her down.

The show didn’t end with a bullet to her head; it didn’t have to.  It just got struck from the airwaves by one wave of a TV executive’s red pen.

So ended the daring career of the nation’s first television representation of a woman President of the United States.

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Cronogram-BFWW-ad-webThis week I have been busy preparing for the opening of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long, grassroots, homegrown Festival that I founded three years ago to give women writers more opportunities to raise our voices in the public sphere.

My whole professional career has been dedicated to this mission of amplifying the voices of women writers, bringing them into classrooms and conference halls, into print and on to stages, because I firmly believe that if women had more power in the world, we would change human society for the better.

Gender is a spectrum: all men and women have both estrogen and testosterone pumping through our hearts, and all of us need to call on both the warrior energy of testosterone and the nurturing energy of estrogen to heal our damaged planet and create a stronger, wiser, more sustainable human civilization.

We cannot afford to wait for our political leaders to grow up and stop playing games with our future, and the future of our children.

We have to each do what we can, in our own spheres, to balance out the bullying and the guns and the lack of compassionate imagination with new stories, different voices speaking a different truth into being.

For me this means shutting out the cacophony of political heckling and sniping and tuning into the voices of the women of my community and our invited guests during this Festival month, as together we change the tenor of public discourse by daring to step out on stage and speak our truths to power.

No matter what happens down in Washington D.C.—no matter if our political representatives continue to lick the boots of the oil and gas industries, build billion-dollar fighter planes instead of mass transit, kick our veterans and young people to the gutter, deny women equal pay for equal work and make young women fight for the right to say no to pregnancy—we still have something they cannot take away from us.

We have our capacity for independent thought and we have our voices.

We must rise to the occasion and write our own scripts, bridges of words and dreams that will carry us into a livable future.

Great Barrington Select Board representative and author Alana Chernila reads her work--an open letter to Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly--on opening night of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers (3-1-13)

Great Barrington Select Board representative and author Alana Chernila reads her work–an open letter to Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly–on opening night of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers (3-1-13). Author Janet Reich Elsbach looks on.

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