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A passion for prose
By Libby Baldwin
Another cold night has settled over town, but inside the San Juan Island Library, a cheerful fire keeps the periodicals section warm.
Quiet murmurs of conversation fill the room as friends start to trickle in. Fresh-baked cookies tempt from the corner and tonight, every chair is full for another open mic writers’ gathering.
It’s clear that everyone here is old friends, faithfully trekking to the library once a month to share their work and listen to others’. An open mic night often brings to mind a barren stage with a single microphone and a harsh spotlight, but not here. Everyone is gathered in a conversational circle and stays seated while reading; this is a place to be applauded, not analyzed.
Pam Herber, longtime writers’ open mic host, takes a moment to explain how it works; a volunteer will go first, and then they will proceed one-by-one until they’ve completed the circle. She gently reminds the writers to keep it short so there is time for everyone.
The topics range from fiction to memoir; the tone drifts from wistful, to sarcastic, to tongue-in-cheek and back again.
Former Journal production artist Rebecca Cook shares the beginning of her own novel, currently in its second draft.
Her heroine awakes, trying “to catch the residue of a distant dream,” in an unfamiliar home. Instead of panicking, she makes a pot of coffee and goes outside to explore with her faithful dog, continually wondering aloud, “Where the hell am I?” By the end of Cook’s excerpt, I think we all truly, deeply wanted the answer to that question.
George Smith reads a passage from his ongoing manuscript, as he has every month. He describes the protagonist and his new young wife as they lie in bed, “having recently disentangled from the last of many long and luxurious embraces.”
Paul Walsh, his clear, booming voice dipping and rising at just the right moments, regales us with his “tales of misspent youth” – adventures of his college years in the swinging 60s. He recalls going to parties and seeing great bands, getting through a stint caring for mentally troubled adults and children in Vermont’s Waterbury Asylum, and his first taste of young love with beautiful detail.
The common theme through it all is liberal drug use; somehow, Walsh makes that into something nostalgic - a fond memory of a time of youthful experimentation.
And so it goes, as each writer bares his or her soul to the group. Everyone possesses a confident, unique voice and skill that you might expect to find in a literary magazine, not a small-town library room. Many close their eyes while listening, soft smiles lifting the corners of their lips. In this rush-rush world, how exquisite it is to simply sit and listen to someone tell a story.
Herber reads us a bit of “flash fiction” – short stories typically under 1,000 words – from the screen of her iPhone, proving that while the medium may change, storytelling stays the same.
“I love hearing all the different voices; we have a mix of wonderful writers,” she said. “This group has a casual, safe feel to it and that’s what I try to maintain.”
Anna Frampton, who shares the lovely true story of herself and her husband eating their way through Italy on honeymoon, calls being in the group “very stimulating and motivating – I sat down and wrote this because I wanted to have something to read.”
Walsh appreciates the positive, supportive atmosphere of the group.
“You had to wade through a lot of self-indulgent crap to get to the gold,” he notes about previous groups. “But from the first time I came to this group, there was no crap; it was all gold. And it’s all very positive; I don’t need anyone telling me what I already know, because I can hear it. That’s why we come to read it, so we can do our own self-criticism. So I love the positive support; I think it’s the only way to help the group grow and keep the creativity flowing.”
The writers’ group meets on the second Saturday of the month, from 7-9 p.m.