Last month The Moth landed on Martha’s Vineyard offering a night of stories in Union Chapel. And as Sam Low’s letter to the editor and Paul Karasik’s cartoon have shown, if you missed the Island’s own Cynthia Riggs, you missed a story of inspiration and love for any age. I moved to Martha’s Vineyard seven years ago and Cynthia was one of the first people I had a chance to meet. An old neighbor from Rockland County, N.Y., a book dealer locally known as Black Fred, gave me a first edition copy of Cynthia’s mother’s book From Off-Island that he had been holding for 25 years waiting for her to walk in his door. It turns out the two of them had been geologists together on an expedition to Antarctica in 1963. Well, Cynthia called me back right after I left the message: “Does the name ‘Black Fred’ mean anything to you?” She invited me to her home and once there, she told me about the poetry group started by her mother and her writers’ groups. I have written poetry since I was 12 and had only recently written some stories. I was invited to join the Cleaveland House Poets after my first visit and when I started attending Cynthia’s Howes House writing group at age 48, I was the youngest kid in the room and thrilled to gain back a generation lost to me through time. I even became one of her Wednesday writers group participants. And though I had the pleasure of being there as some of Cynthia’s story has been unfolding, listening to her tell the whole story as it now stands was both powerful and moving — and yes, I cried.
It was exciting enough that The Moth Story Hour was coming to the Vineyard, but even more intriguing was that they were offering their first public workshop and it was being offered through a new writer’s workshop, the Stone Farm Writers Workshop, a collaboration between summer residents Bliss Broyard and Adam Mansbach. This was the one gift I was giving myself this summer, coming only week after moving from Edgartown to Chilmark.
Last night at The Pit Stop we had our mini-Moth, seven of the eight workshop participants stood up in front of family and friends, and told a five-minute story, a true story from their lives. One member of the group only signed up for the workshop after attending the Union Chapel show, and he had to commute by ferry daily from Mattapoisett. This week of writers learning to un-write, to let go of their paper and pens, their tablets and iPhones, was one of inspiration and growth for every participant. I signed up because I wanted to push my comfort zone. That seemed to hold true for everyone in the room. The act of storytelling is powerful, the process of learning how to edit a story down to five minutes and find its core meaning is even more powerful. How our stories changed, tightened and what each of us learned from telling a story aloud was quite profound.
I would never have believed that each participant would be able to move from where their stories were during our last meeting on Friday morning to the polished and powerful presentations each gave at The Pit Stop on Saturday evening. The transformation, finding of meaning and life lessons learned crystalized through the process of repetition and editing. Both facilitators from The Moth, Kate Tellers and Meg Bowles, knew exactly how to help each writer with their cuts and help them focus on what was really important to them.
We now all look forward to the return of The Moth next summer and hope they will do a story slam here. Meanwhile, I hope to start a once-a-month Vineyard story hour and look forward to gathering with my group members when they return to the Island next summer. And I’m sure everyone will have a story to share.
Valerie Sonnenthal lives in Edgartown.