Volunteering: Causes, Passions and the Salem Lit Fest
By Brunonia Barry
I don’t know about you, but these days, I seem to be volunteering for more than ever before. This is something I’m happy to do, but I’m finding myself spread far too thin. As a novelist who only made her last deadline by forty-five minutes, I’m now hesitating to take on any new projects.
I am already involved in a variety of passionate causes, one of my favorites being The Women’s Lunch Place in Boston, a daytime shelter that provides refuge and services for Boston’s homeless and poor women and children.
Then there is teaching. I do some writing workshops, and visit local high school English classes to talk to students about writing and literature.
I have joined boards to preserve historic landmarks, committees that provide scholarships, fund raising efforts to end domestic violence. The list goes on.
But sometimes (alright many times, if I’m being honest here) I’m just exhausted. I can’t take on one more thing. There aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s a good thing I sleep a lot less than I used to, but, frankly, there aren’t enough hours in the night, either.
So it was a surprise even to me when I said yes to yet another project, one that has required more time from me than all the others combined. This year I agreed to co-chair the planning committee of the Salem Literary Festival.
“Are you insane?” was my husband’s question. “Probably,” I answered. If I had known what would be involved, I might not have continued. But the Salem Literary Festival is one of my all time passions, and I wasn’t about to let it die. And that’s just what would have happened, if it weren’t for a group of dedicated volunteers (one of whom turned out to be my husband).
When Salem’s independent bookstore, Cornerstone, closed last year, one of the less obvious casualties was the three-year-old Salem Literary Festival, which was started and anchored by the bookstore. It was a great festival for both readers and writers.
Salem is the ideal city for a lit fest. It’s small, walk-able, beautiful, and it has some of the best historic architecture in the country. Touted as the birthplace of the great American novel (a legacy left by Nathaniel Hawthorne, our native son), Salem has a rich and enduring literary tradition. Add to that Salem’s other American firsts: first millionaire, first candy store, first brick house, first elephant. (The elephant evidently had a drinking problem, but that’s a story for another day.) Salem’s full of quirky places and creative people, the perfect combination. We were determined to see the festival continue.
First we recruited more volunteers. The Spirit of ’76 bookstore in Marblehead offered to stand in for Cornerstone. We held committee meetings at my dining room table. We secured historic venues including The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Athenaeum, the Phillips House. Even the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) made room for us.
We were a bit less lucky with hotel rooms. The Lit Fest runs from September 23-25, but we found ourselves blocked by Halloween visitors who seem to come to town earlier every year. There wasn’t a hotel room to be had. Well, actually, there was exactly one. We grabbed it.
When I tell you that our committee meetings have been stormy, I am being literal. Our second meeting was spent huddled around a television set in our kitchen watching the news. A tornado was ripping across Massachusetts. Our founder’s husband and daughter were stuck at home in their basement, waiting out the storm.
We wrote the festival brochure during hurricane Irene with a copywriter who lived near New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and kept losing power and a collaborator who had no electricity for three days. Somehow we managed. We picked up the printed brochures last Wednesday amid renewed rains and flooding.
Besides working on the brochure, my assignment was securing writers and creating events. Erin Morgenstern, writer of The Night Circus (written while she lived in Salem), and Lipstick’s own Joshilyn Jackson will be our keynote speakers. And speaking of The Lipstick Chronicles, we are hosting a panel on Sunday September 25th featuring Hank, Cornelia, Heather, Sarah, Joshilyn and me. Believe it or not, it will be the first time some of us have met.
All in all, we have over fifty authors and many great events. Check it out at https://www.salemlitfest.com/schedule.
If you’re anywhere near Salem the weekend of September 23rd, please come. We’d love to see you. And for any of you writers out there, we have an open mic session at Gulu Gulu café on Sunday at 4PM. We welcome your participation.
This is one volunteer job that will soon come to an end. I’m sure I will feel simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. And even though I swore I would never do it again, I will undoubtedly volunteer again next year. After a short break, we’re planning to have a meeting to discuss next year’s lineup. Knowing New England and our stormy history, I figure it will probably snow.
So what kind of things are you passionate about? What inspires you to volunteer?