Growing up in southwestern Wisconsin, I spent many educational hours with an ear tightly pressed against the heat vent of the second floor hallway of my childhood home. I strained to catch the jokes, gossip, and stories of the grown-ups who sat directly below me around the kitchen table. As the nights wore on, the volume increased, laughter doubled, the stories grew rowdier — and the indents in my face from the grate deepened.
I have lived in Lake Superior country for the past twenty-plus years and we have our brand of storytellers. Ten years ago poet Ros Nelson and I turned the storytelling in our region into an annual event—WritersRead, an event taking place Friday, January 24 at 7 p.m. in the Alvord Theatre at Northland College.
It started with Ros’ idea to ask writers around Chequamegon Bay to submit a story about love—she then turned the collection into a beautiful book called Love Stories of the Bay. The authors—myself included—gathered one winter night at the coffee shop in Bayfield and did an informal reading. More than fifty people gathered and in the authors’ own voices, the stories took on a life of their own.
I suggested we expand on the energy of that night with an event at StageNorth. We did and it was a hit. And so WritersRead was born.
This year we celebrate ten years. By my back of the envelope math, I estimate 125 different writers and poets have stood on stage, more than 250 stories and poems have been read, and hundreds of people have gathered to listen.
Laurie Otis and Rob Ganson, who both passed away recently, read their love stories that first year.
Laurie Otis wrote about meeting her future husband at Northland College in 1951 at a spring concert:
I was aware of faces turning to look and of gentle proddings from my friends, as if I hadn’t noticed what was happening. His eyes kept mine and maybe it was the spring, or even Shakespeare’s mythical Puck dispensing his infamous potion, but I fell in love that night; and though sorely pressed at times, I never fell out of love with that boy.
Rob Ganson wrote about falling in love with this place so many of us call home:
I came to the North on the verge of many things. It seemed fitting, as I trod my new geography, that the lake rode the red shoulders of the land like a mysterious blanket, leading to unseen places called “Thunder Bay” and “Silver Bay,” sights like 22 Apostles, emerald mountains rising from clear depths to claim a taste of sky.
Reading these stories, I hear Laurie and Rob’s voices, their passion and their humor. What a gift they gave to all of us!
Laurie and Rob participated in all but two of the last nine WritersRead events. They were both remarkable human beings, humbled, engaged, jazzed for the chance to connect with an audience.
At 87, Laurie had recently starred in a play and was working on her next book. I have no doubt she would have submitted a piece on the theme of awakening for this year and she would have brought down the house. Two days before Rob died, his wife, Donna, sent one last poem on his behalf for us to read.
English Professor Cynthia Belmont will read it Friday night. I encourage you to come pull up a chair — your ear to the heat vent — and listen in. WritersRead started with a book, evolved into an annual reading, and has become a part of all of us who live here.
Julie Buckles is the Northland College director of communications, organizer of WritersRead, and owner of Honest Dog Books. The theme of the tenth annual WritersRead, held Friday, January 24 at 7 p.m. in the Alvord Theatre at Northland College, is “awakening” and will feature special musical guests Molly Otis and Jan Lee and is dedicated to the memories of Laurie Otis and Rob Ganson.