By Timothy Gillis
Maine writers got together Thursday night to raise money for the Telling Room, Portland’s non-profit writing center for local youth. Scores of fans joined the writers in a fancy fete at the Masonic Temple on Congress Street, enjoying live music from “This Way” and more than fifteen different hors d’oeuvre catered by Blue Elephant. The second annual fundraiser allowed locals to meet and chat with their favorite authors, who were distinguished by a glitter bead necklace. The main event of the evening was an auction featuring fine art, photography, ski vacations, jewelry, and a cooking class. All money raised went to support programs offered by the Commercial Street writing center.
The Telling Room programs “enlist the support of local writers, artists, teachers, and community groups to offer free afterschool workshops and tutoring, and host field trips for school groups from all over Maine,” according to their mission statement. “We also lead workshops at local schools and community organizations; bring acclaimed writers to Maine to give public readings and work with small groups of students; publish bestselling anthologies of student work; and carry out community-wide storytelling projects and events.”
Such an array of rich, rewarding programs are free for the young writers who go there, but obviously cost the center quite a pretty penny to provide. Glitterati is an attempt to help fund them, while offering a fun night out with “local literary luminaries.”
Three writers spoke about their recent works, their love of literature, and the way Maine has (or has not) found its way into their writing.
Caitlin Shetterly, author of “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home,” found solace back here in Maine after a tumultuous trip West. Shetterly and her husband, Daniel Davis, started their journey in 2008. Her memoir chronicles the economic struggles they endured on the trip to California, where Daniel worked as a photographer.
“The memoir started out as emails home to family and friends, but became something bigger,” she said. “By the time we reached Texas, I realized there was a large group of people reading along.” Audio reports from the road for National Public Radio followed that, and the work culminated in her memoir.
They had thought the sour economy was a regional thing, she said, and they expected their luck to get better. They had a son, whom she calls Matthew in the book, and soon after realized the money slump was not particular to New England. Eventually, the situation grew dire enough to force them back to Maine to stay with family. Though troubling times, to be sure, the experience gave her material for her break-through work.
Shetterly came to the Glitterati event Thursday from Colby College, where she teaches a class on Radio. She also teaches creative non-fiction at Salt Institute. “It’s really intense. I have six students, and I get to give them luxurious amounts of individual time, something rare in this age of Facebook and Twitter.”
Shetterly graduated from Brown University, started the state-wide book club called Maine Women Write, and is founder and artistic director of Winter Harbor Theatre Company. She joined a local book club recently, and is happy for the opportunity it affords her to read things she normally wouldn’t. “It’s quite the variety. We read Julian Barnes “Sense of an Ending” and “Bossy Pants” by Tina Fey.”
Jaed Coffin’s running a bit behind deadline. But he knows the wait will be worth it. His new book, “Roughhouse Friday,” is supposed to be out now, he said, but it’s turned into a pretty big project. “I’m writing about characters who will read the book, and I want to get things right.”
In his first work, “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants,” Coffin recounted his trip to Thailand to be ordained a Buddhist monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram. He is half-Thai and half-American, so the work was one wherein he immersed himself in a culture that was somewhat familiar to him. For his second book, he did win a middleweight title at a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska, but the experience still feels a bit foreign. “I have an opportunity to say something on a large scale, but I’m writing about a culture that’s not my own,” he said.
Coffin said growing up in Maine influenced his work. He went to Brunswick High School, where he played soccer for coach Peter Gardiner, losing just seven games in four years. “Brunswick one of the places that offered old Maine and new Maine. I was lucky to grow up there and see both of those worlds. You have the college (Bowdoin), which is a world unto itself. It’s also a former mill town. It’s a place where class is a complex subject. Half of my friends were professors’ kids, the other half worked in the shipyard,” he said.
“I loved it. There were woods around, so we could go off and cause trouble. There was the quarry in Topsham, kind of dangerous areas, sinister in a way, now not so much. The land trusts have done great work to save these natural areas, but it’s less of a place to go off on your own,” he said.
When asked if he ever dabbles in fiction or poetry, Coffin said he was too compelled by real life to make stories up. He sees the Telling Room as a great place to help kids learn to tell their own stories. “I’m very grateful to be invited in, to do workshops with students. It gets me out of my studio, makes me think about writing in more dimensions,” he said.
Writing for him has always been a way to learn, to discover more about something while he is writing about it. “I love that it gives kids a medium to work some things out,” he said.
With the publication of his first book, Coffin was praised for writing in a clean, crisp style, and compared to Ernest Hemingway. “I think I overdid it a bit, though. I didn’t delve into characters as I am in this new book.” Coffin agreed that this work is more like Faulkner than Hemingway.
Ron Currie, jr., is also a fan of Faulkner. He said the original model for his latest work,”Everything Matters!” was Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Both are told from multiple points-of-view, and feature grim people who often say poignant things. Currie has also been compared to Carolyn Chute, another Maine writer. “There is a deep Appalachia there, and some of my characters definitely share that DNA.”
In terms of region in his writing, Currie doesn’t think Maine has had too big an influence. “I’ve always wanted to write about the people I grew up with. I havent done that yet, and it doesn’t look like I will,” he said.
Currie was bought up in Waterville, home of the Purple Panthers. He graduated in 1993, and remembers playing basketball. “It’s different now. The school dropped to class B when Scott Paper closed. Now there’s talk of consolidating the four area high schools – Messalonskee, Winslow, Lawrence, and Waterville – to save money,” he said.
Like the other Maine authors, Currie’s work has received ample national praise, and been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver. “The language of Carver was definitely an influence, especially in my early work, where I think the tone is similar.” The link to Vonnegut troubles him, however, and is something of a backhanded compliment. “I loved Vonnegut. He was one of my favorites, but I get nervous with the comparisons.” Pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, or someone for young kids only, Currie said the popular belief is that “after age 22, Vonnegut supposedly doesn’t speak to you anymore.”
The critical reception for his first book, “God is Dead” was glowing, and fans weren’t too torn up over the subject matter. “I was surprised, actually. A good portion of my fan mail was from people of faith. My first fan letter ever was from a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut who said he liked the book,” he said. “Religion means different things to different people. In part, that’s what you’re trying to do as a writer: To make the particular universal.”
Currie is involved in the Telling Room through workshops he has held in the central Maine area, and he may be teaching a workshop for adults in the fall. “Had this resource been available to me when I was a kid, writing stories in my bedroom, and I’d been able to make what I was doing public, that would have been important,” he said. “I’m not overstating it to say the work they are doing is vital. It’s becoming all-too common that young people can’t put together a coherent sentence. The Telling Room counteracts that.”
Currie says the book he is finishing up now is hard to classify, that “it exists in the demilitarized zone between memoir and novel.” The book, called “Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles” is due out next year. “The best analogy I can make for the genre is ‘Executioner’s Song,’ by Norman Mailer,” he said.
A glimpse into Young Author’s Camp, a summer program at the Telling Room, sponsored by the Southern Maine Writing Project
Students who are entering grades three to nine in the coming fall hunker around tables and talk about character and setting. Some sit off by themselves, plotting their story’s next event. Others again look out the Commercial Street windows and become inspired by Portland’s maritime bustle. Though all of these students seem to be doing different things, the common component is that they are all writing.
The Camp offers themed sessions that kids can pick and choose based on their interests. Last summer, kids “Reviewed Portland,” explored “Fantasy Fiction” or got to experiment with “Audio, Video and Photography” as writers. Jon York, a writing counselor for the session “Reviewed Portland,” found his first experience at the Telling Room rich with possibility.
“The advantage is that there are no grades, hence, no evaluation. Kids feel free to just write. I struggle to get kids to take risks in class, but with the specter of ‘grades’ and ‘school’ looming over their heads, rational kids simply don’t take (many) risks. At the Young Author’s Camp, it’s a whole different game – it’s about writing, not grades or standards. It’s a fundamentally creative place, which is not like the traditional school at all.”
According to Tim Hebda, director of YAC, this environment is the precise intention of the Southern Maine Writing Project, which unites area teachers with Telling Room students.
While there are not an abundance of rules to a session of YAC’s, a few requirements do exist. One is that each camp session have a “writing marathon,” which takes writers into the surrounding environment to write and gather direct experiential writing. Authors in the YAC’s at the Telling Room’s beautiful Commercial Street location have the bustling, seacoast energy of Portland’s famous waterfront. Young writers wander (accompanied by adult volunteers) down cobblestone streets, taking in the briny smells of the fishing industry, the delicious aromas of restaurants, and the other smells and sights and sounds of summertime New England. Each camp kicks off with the writing marathon.
This is just one of the many, free programs the Telling Room offers to young, aspiring writers. Glitterati is a way to celebrate the work, and help fund it.
Glitterati Auction Items
Book Club Package that includes enough copies of Debra Spark’s new book, The Pretty Girl, and a visit from Debra Spark to your book club
A Chebeague Island Inn getaway that includes ferry tickets and dinner at the Inn
A Dinner and Writing Consult with renowned author Charlotte Bacon
An Instant Library of signed books provided by Longfellow Books that includes a book from each of Glitterati’s featured authors as well as a book from Anthony Doerr and one by bestselilng author Elizabeth Gilbert
A weekend stay at a Saddleback House during the annual Bluegrass Festival, including a gift certificate to Loon Lodge
A SugarLoaf ski package, including lift tickets
A stay for 8 at the William Dean Howells Memorial house by the sea in Kittery
Original photography by Winky Lewis