Islanders Write? Not Quite

In the summer we denizens of the Seasonally Occupied Territories are regularly bombarded with events that have “Martha’s Vineyard” in their names. Their main connection to the year-round Vineyard is that they’re held on the same terra firma.

no trespassingSummer residents are often featured at these events. The year-round Vineyard, though, is usually not on the organizers’ psychic map. The underlying assumption seems to be that we year-rounders have much to learn from the summer folk but they have nothing to learn from us.

So earlier this summer, when I heard of an upcoming conference called Islanders Write, I dared hope that it might be something different. “Islanders Write”: Doesn’t that sound active to you? Islanders writing, talking about writing, talking about all the kinds of writing being done on Martha’s Vineyard, encouraging other islanders to write?

Aside: “Islanders” is what the academics call a contested term. Do you have to be born here to be considered an islander? Is it possible for someone from somewhere else to become an islander? It’s worth discussing, but I don’t want to go there now. Let “islanders” include anyone whose feet are in the mud of this particular place. As in what the late Grace Paley once said in an interview: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

One skim through the list of panels made it clear that this was not what “Islanders Write” meant to the event organizers. “Writing for Radio,” “Writing Children’s Books,” “Narrative Non-fiction,” “The Recipe for Cookbook Writing”: any of the panels could have taken place anywhere.

What “Islanders Write” meant to its organizers was, apparently, dozens of people sitting in rows at the Grange Hall, facing the stage, where two, three, four, or five panelists expounded on the subject at hand for 45 minutes. After which the dozens of people could get up, go downstairs, buy the panelists’ books at tables set up by the island’s two new-book purveyors, and get the books signed by their authors.

A handful of the panelist-authors do have their feet in the mud of this place — Nicki Galland, John Hough Jr., Nancy Slonim Aronie — but the roster of the missing was impressive. Where were the poets? Where were the island journalists? Not a single reporter or regular contributor to either the Vineyard Gazette or the Martha’s Vineyard Times appeared on a panel. This is all the more remarkable because the event was sponsored by the Times. (OK, that explains why no one from Gazette was invited, but it doesn’t explain the absence of island journalists, period.)

The “Writing in a New Media World” panel was billed as being about “digital books, video gaming and self-publishing.” Why on earth were these three topics lumped together? Why was blogging omitted?  Worthy questions to be sure, but this was the big one on my mind: Why were no self-publishing island writers on the panel?

Well, well, well. Two of the island’s most knowledgeable self-publishers, Amelia Smith and Michael West, were outside in the “self-publishers tent,” organized by Amelia with some help from other island writers (including yours truly). Those who stopped by learned a lot more about self-publishing than those who attended the panel.

We were outside in more ways than one. We were outside the hall, although there was plenty of room for us downstairs at the Grange. (Fortunately the weather was perfect.) We weren’t invited to be on any panels. Whatever “Islanders Write” was about, it wasn’t about us — or about island writing, islanders writing, or writing about the island either.

What it was, was a tailor-made example of why I call this blog From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. The occupying forces — those with connections and clout — call the shots, make the rules, and define the terms. This is business as usual on summer Martha’s Vineyard and nothing to blow a gasket about. What was, and is, infuriating about this particular event is its name. If they’d called it, say, “Writers with Some Vineyard Connection Flog Their Books,” I’d have no problem with it.

But they didn’t. They called it “Islanders Write.”

The headline on the Times’s puff piece about the event gives the game away. “Islanders Write shows writing is a growth industry on this Island,” it says. This event wasn’t meant to be about islanders writing. It’s about bolstering the so-called “creative economy,” which I blogged about in late June.

So what would an Islanders Write conference worthy of the name look like? First of all, why should we care?

Two reasons:

  1. Because islanders (variously defined) are writing, and writing well, often against the odds; and
  2. Because there’s a crying need for more Vineyarders to be telling Vineyard stories. Most stories the wider world hears about Martha’s Vineyard are told by people whose acquaintance with the place is limited. The national news media and New York publishers, among others, get to decide what stories are worth hearing. That in turn affects what stories get told.

A conference about islanders writing wouldn’t be held in August. That’s a no-brainer. In summer we’re fried: working two jobs, dealing with traffic, supervising out-of-school kids, hosting houseguests, and so on and on. In August we’re fried squared.

In fact, it might not be a one-day conference at all. How about monthly panels held at the various island libraries? Put three or four Vineyard writers on each panel and leave lots of time for discussion.

What might the panels be about? Off the top of my head —

  • Where to start
  • How to keep going and keep growing as a writer
  • Finding or starting a writers’ group
  • Building an audience without “getting published”
  • Why poetry?
  • Blogging 101
  • Self-publishing demystified
  • Challenges of small-town reporting
  • Why write about the Vineyard — and what happens when you do
  • Collaborating with musicians, actors, dancers, and/or visual artists

That’s just a beginning. Any of the above could spin off in different directions. Why not? The off-season is fast approaching. If you’re interested — let me know!

Tools of this writers trade

Tools of this writer’s trade

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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11 Responses to Islanders Write? Not Quite

  1. Just love your post. You explain extremely well what happens in towns, villages and islands which are so beautiful that they attract many, too many sometimes, people.
    You have written on the topic in several other posts.
    Here you are also telling of what is considered writing worth to be displayed and who decides what is worth to be called writing or not.
    The outside tent tells of the harsh reality.
    I have great hopes though that this will change. Most people who embarked on a different route were perceived as unsignificant but ended up at the top.
    Recently a blogger friend of mine reminded us that on the big five (Simon and Schuster) started as a puzzle book company.
    There is much hope for Indie writers and some day the people behind writing conferences and festivals will take note.
    Thank you, Susan, and best to you on your lovely island.


    • Thanks so much, Evelyne. I just blogged about Built on Stilts, a remarkable dance festival that just concluded its 18th season here. I feel energized again! Maybe we year-round and visiting Vineyard writers will be able to organize something like that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:

    In some ways this is specific to Martha’s Vineyard, where I live. In other ways — well, some people are forever trying to erect walls with a few writers inside and most of us out in the hinterlands somewhere. Keep the faith — and keep writing, no matter what.


  3. Amelia says:

    The self-publishing tent was fun, and thanks for helping make it happen. For myself, I enjoyed the day very much, even if the “Writing in a New Media World” panel didn’t hit the topics I’m most interested in. I didn’t get to see all of it because of child pickup confusion, so I probably missed the best parts. I think the idea for the winter series sounds promising. Just don’t ask me to do anything before Columbus day!


    • It was fun, but it was also largely ignored. (See Nat’s comment below.) There was plenty of room for us to be inside. Why weren’t we invited?


      • Amelia says:

        I think we weren’t invited because the organisers are totally oriented to the Major Publishers and Esteemed Small Presses model of publishing, and while they may have some grasp on the Internet, they haven’t fully come to terms with what that means for book publishing… and none of us are in their social circles, either.


      • Exactly right — which pretty much describes why year-rounders aren’t included in a host of summer activities: “they” don’t know anything about “us.” But if you’re going to organize a conference featuring writers with Big Connections, many of whom have at most a tenuous connection to the year-round island, you don’t call it “Islanders Write.”


  4. Helen Green says:

    The minute I read the ad for this event I knew something was off about it. I’m not a writer nor do I want to be but I’m always interested in events that occur over the summer and this looked suspect. Glad you wrote this.


    • Thanks, Helen. Back when I worked for the M.V. Times, it was far and away the better paper at covering the then-thriving grassroots arts (theater, music, writing, etc.) scene. We got away with it in part because the editor-publisher was all about “the news.” He didn’t care what the features editors and our stringers were up to. Times publisher Peter Oberfest evidently played a role in this “Islanders Write” thing, and probably in the Times’s odd relationship with Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Ideas, which is all about the “creative economy” angle. It’s long on art and snazzy layout but rather short on ideas. Makes me long for the old days of benign neglect . . .


  5. Nathalie Woodruff says:

    I’m not a writer but, in retrospect and after reading your article, I think you hit the nail on the head with this! I attended the ‘conference’ and I saw you guys outside, quarantined under your tents. At the time, I thought you were selling cookies or something and since no one was talking to you, I didn’t either. Meanwhile, in the over-crowded author-ization room, I expected to learn something about writing, but only after questions from the audience did the authors get down to the nuts and bolts of it. I brought my brother, who is a writer, and he was not impressed. I was just kinda confused.


    • Tell your brother that there’s some really wonderful writing being done on the Vineyard these days! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your perceptions. I’m really relieved that people — quite a few people — saw through this thing.


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