Book festival

Fred Boehm, left, tries to decide what event he'd like to attend during the 12th annual Wisconsin Book Festival Sunday at the Central Library. Volunteer Jeff Vercauteren offers to help. 

Oftentimes while writing, cartoonist and author Lynda Barry will be on a roll, and then all of a sudden it just stops.

She likens it to being on the dance floor at a party, when you suddenly lose your groove but have to keep dancing.

“Falling in and out of the groove is the state of things in writing,” she told a group of about 40 people during a Wisconsin Book Festival workshop she was leading Sunday.

During the two-hour course, “Writing the Unthinkable,” Barry and author Dan Chaon led the group through exercises to keep the words flowing.

The workshop was one of 53 events held between 11:30 a.m. Thursday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Now in its 12th year, the annual festival was hosted for the first time by the Madison Public Library instead of the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

There have been and will be more Wisconsin Book Festival events outside the four-day celebration, said Conor Moran, the festival’s first-time director.

By the end of the year, the number of events will reach about 65, he said.

The library wants to make “author events something that the Madison community comes to expect,” Moran said, adding that festival events will highlight some of the excellent programming already going on at the library.

There were more than 75 authors involved in this year’s festival, which Moran called “cohesive geographically.”

More than half of the events — including Barry and Chaon’s writing workshop — took place at the new Central Library. The rest were at nearby venues.

Moran said that by grouping all the events in one central location and a few nearby ones, it gave the events more of a “festival feel” that other popular Madison festivals have.

“You can come down, park once, go to something, maybe have lunch, come to something else, hear about something and just walk into it,” Moran said. “That was really important to us.”

Drawing on the work of Alice Munro, the Canadian author who just received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, Chaon told the writing group that stories need not have a distinctive beginning, middle and end.

He described the story as a type of house, where the writer and the reader can wander through various rooms.

Chaon, whose last name is pronounced “Shawn,” and whose most recent short story collection, “Stay Awake,” was a finalist for The Story Prize, had the group rethink how stories are put together.

He suggested writing a story in sections, or a series of fragments, and only later turning them into a story.

During one exercise, Chaon wanted the group to consider their character’s disposition toward the world.

In fairy tale terms, Snow White is someone waiting for her prince to come. But in “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel is “out there making deals with sea witches,” Chaon said. “Those are two very different dispositions.”

Lisa Sieczkowski, 65, of Madison, called the workshop “very invigorating and thought-provoking.”

She said she valued Chaon’s advice about turning the seeds of experience into creative writing.

“It’s the truth of ourselves that writers are after,” Sieczkowski said. “When we share that, other people can see the truths in themselves.”

Samara Kalk Derby covers events in and around Madison on Sundays. If you have an idea for Around Town, contact her at or 608-252-6439.


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