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From writers to readers: enlarging the audience

Stewart Oksenhorn
A festival brochure from 2006.
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Once upon a time, there was the Aspen Writers’ Conference, put on by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, and as the name suggests, it was an event and an organization designed to serve writers. But the AWF came on hard financial times in the mid-’90s, to the point where the 1995 conference was canceled. The following year, the group resurfaced with a new tag line, reflecting a broader mission: “Bringing readers and writers together.”Looking to add readers to its constituency, the AWF added programs like Winter Words, a series that brought well-known authors to town. But still, the Writers’ Conference mainly brought writers together with writers. The audience for the conference’s afternoon programs – readings and discussions featuring authors and editors – mirrored the audience at the morning writing retreats.”What I found,” said Lisa Consiglio, who became executive director of the AWF in fall 2003, “and what came up at a board meeting, was that audiences in the afternoon weren’t expanding. The same people really interested in writing poetry came to see poets reading.”Consiglio and the AWF board saw the potential to grab an audience of avid or even casual readers who didn’t write but would gain insight into the written word, and even be entertained, by listening to readings and hearing a discussion of the writing process. “It seemed to me [that] the people who didn’t write, but read a book or five a year, might want to see Anita Shreve or Erica Jong.”The answer, the AWF believed, was to offer a hook for readers to grab onto. Last year, the conference, now known as the Aspen Summer Words Writing Retreat and Literary Festival, came up with the World of Words concept, which provided a theme for the annual event. The inaugural World of Words focused on the literature of Ireland; a fresh grant from the Bedell World Citizenship Fund allowed the AWF to bring a big batch of prized Irish writers to Aspen.”And it really worked,” said Consiglio. “People said, I can deal with a place. I don’t have to read a million books to get somewhere.”

Last summer’s adjustment was one in a series of steps to serve as broad a swath of the community as possible. In 1992, the AWF instituted Scribes & Scribblers, a series of summer writing camps for kids. This year, with the hiring of Jordan Dann as education coordinator, the program has been sharpened so that individual sessions have their own specific themes. The organization has also reached out to young readers and writers with an expanded tutoring program and the Writers in the Schools program, which has brought the likes of Frank McCourt and Tobias Wolff to speak in local classrooms.

In 1998, the AWF stretched out of its customary summer season with the introduction of Winter Words. The series has brought John Irving, Spalding Gray, Amy Tan and many others to read and talk. Last winter demonstrated how much demand there was for such events: Frank McCourt (“Angela’s Ashes”) sold out the Wheeler Opera House, while Ann Patchett (“Truth and Beauty,” Bel Canto”) packed the Given Institute.

The organization even reaches those who won’t get off the couch. The televised book club, “AWF Reads, on Grassroots TV, introduces audiences to best-sellers and rising authors.This week the AWF unveils its newest program, designed to capture yet another audience. Lyrically Speaking focuses on songwriters, with a series of events described as a cross between “Inside the Actors’ Studio” and VH1’s “Storytellers.” The series debuts Tuesday, June 27, at Belly Up with singer-songwriter Allan Harris, whose latest CD, “Cross That River,” about the black cowboy experience, dovetails with the Voices of the West theme at Aspen Summer Words.The AWF may even be going beyond its mission. With its slate of programs, it is bringing readers – and TV-watchers and music listeners – together with writers.

“We’re not elitist. We’re very grass-roots,” said Consiglio. “Our goal is to get people interested in reading and writing. Everybody. We’ve got to get people picking up a book. And there’s no better way than putting them in front of a person talking about their writing.”


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