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.
Summer 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?
- Because islanders (variously defined) are writing, and writing well, often against the odds; and
- 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!