The Working Title 7 writing group and reading series held their most recent event at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ. The group, comprised mostly of Montclair residents, has been together for over twelve years. They meet monthly to workshop drafts and discuss craft. Once a year, they host a reading, calling it “grass roots fiction at its best” that’s open to the public to showcase their latest efforts, try out new material, or promote new titles. On June 10th in the back corner of Watchung’s children’s section, Nancy Burke, one of the founding members, emceed the evening of stories, which ranged from creative nonfiction to young adult to sci-fi.
Burke welcomed guests saying a little about the night’s plans. Six of the Working Title seven would share their work that night (David Holmberg was not in attendance). She also informed the audience she would be “awarding” an author finger puppet to each reader based on the selection they read because as she said, “Having a finger puppet as an author is a sign of making it.”
The night started with Donna Brennan, who received the Jane Austen finger puppet for her novel in progress, Cold Dusted Hearts. With voices, hand gestures, and eye rolls, Brennan had the audience laughing out loud as she read about family dynamics displayed during a dinner party and a hopeful set up, or “attack plan,” of two singles at the table.
Marne Benson, the Zora Neale Hurston puppet, read an excerpt from a piece that blurs lines of fiction and fact in a similar way to Tim O’Brien, as she explores “one kind of truth.” The text explores the mysteries of a young girl’s murder from 1980 in Wisconsin, where Benson spent a summer when she was almost the same age as the victim. Benson closed by asking, “which story did she decide to rewrite and which did she decide to bury?”
When discussing this grass roots series with Burke, she replied, “We know books and writers don’t have to be best-selling or literary icons to produce good work. We know good work comes from simply honest efforts by writers who love the process of creating. These readings are celebrations of our personal accomplishments, our collaborative assistance to each other, and an encouragement to others to continue to develop their unique voices and keep writing.”
The space they chose for their events is fitting as well for such support. Burke noted regarding the location that “Margo Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers, has always been a HUGE supporter of the writing community in Montclair and never turns down opportunities to create community around the bookstore. That’s why we always do our reading there. It is a mutually supportive relationship.”
There is also something sentimental yet apt about having a reading in the children’s section of the store, amongst all the titles that inspired many young writers. The audience sat at attention with cups of wine or bites of cheese, eager for story time. Right above the mic stand words from The Secret Garden read on the wall: “The flowers are growing—the roots are stirring.” Such a classic quote seems all too fitting for a grass roots writing group.
The reading continued with Priscilla Mainardi, aka the Dostoyevsky of the night, who shared “Kayak Tour,” a short story recently published in Blue Moon Literary & Art Review’s tenth issue. The piece explores the heartbreak of divorce through the eyes of a young girl. Next, David Popeil performed his work in progress about the year 2053 where books are illegal, replaced only by direct images. As such a future would be a horror to all in attendance, Popeil was awarded the Poe puppet.
Burke’s piece “He Briefly Thought of Tadpoles,” published in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, was about a couple struggling to conceive. It describes a frustrating yet revealing car ride the husband has on his way home, featuring the GPS voice Marcia and her constant, all-knowing recalculations. Karen Abarbanel, who received both Dickinson and Wilde puppets, closed the reading with her historical fantasy novel, telling the audience about the festival of shells and a young heroine’s night before she goes off to live with knights.
The evening ended with a casual conversation, rather than a formal Q & A, where a couple of audience members asked about the beginning of Working Title 7. Burke referenced MEWS as the birth of their group: “MEWS is Montclair Editors and Writers, a group started by Pam Satran, which basically was an email list to keep us all connected in town. We started when MaryAnn D’Urso used the email to invite people to start a new writing group many years ago. While most of the original members stopped their involvement for various reasons over the years, David Popiel and I kept it going, recruiting from among writers we knew and felt would be good additions and maintain the good energy of the group.”
Working Title 7 certainly provided great energy on June 10th. All the readers were welcoming and excited to be there. It was a fun community—one that should inspire others to start their own writing groups in a local bookshop, to continue promoting honest efforts of hard-working writers. Grass root writing should always be complete with wine and finger puppets and laughs. And it is certainly at its best when “the roots are stirring.”
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