WESTERLY — Some inspired laughter, some inspired tears, but all 10 of the students enrolled in The Westerly Memoir Project inspired applause and admiration.
On Tuesday night, the students, four women and six men, stood before an audience at the Savoy Bookshop & Café on Canal Street, and read aloud to an enthusiastic crowd of 50-or-so family members, friends and total strangers who were seated before them in rows of white chairs. Holding sheets of paper, they read poignant and personal excerpts from longer pieces they've been composing in their writing class.
"Thank you so much for be so willing to share your work with us tonight," said Westerly summer resident Jeanne Blasberg, who founded the memoir project four years ago and served as emcee of the program. "This was our objective when we started the program four years ago and it warms my heart to see so many people here tonight."
"So much of this program is about making meaning of our lives, about making meaning and connections," Blasberg said. "In these classes we've improved our writing, yes ... but we've also met other people in community and made friendships."
"Everybody here tonight is a success," she said, as she passed around a sign-up sheet for audience members who might be interested in writing memoirs themselves. "Getting your story on paper and sharing it is a real gift ... a gift you are giving us all."
Eventually, an anthology will be created of personal essays set in Westerly. Classes will resume in the spring, Blasberg said.
Blasberg, a novelist with two books to her credit, introduced Ethan Gilsdorf, the writing project instructor, and he introduced each student.
"There seems to be a hunger and a desire for people to tell their stories and to tell the truth," said Gilsdorf. The classes have met at the Ocean Community YMCA, the Westerly Library and the Watch Hill Memorial Library & Improvement Society.
Gilsdorf said the writers were "strong, brave and vulnerable," and he applauded them for their work and for telling stories about their lives.
"Writing is a craft that can be learned," he said, "like building a birdhouse."
Rick Booth, a Westerly native who spent 15 working as a reporter for The Westerly Sun, was the first reader of the evening.
"I'm a boilermaker's boy," began Booth, who mentioned his days at The Sun, where he worked alongside former news editor Don Lewis, former assistant city editor and reporter Abe Soleveitzik, and former sports editor Bill Cawley.
Booth, who grew up in Avondale, spoke of his father, Robert Booth, as "a giant" of a man who was also "a domestic nightmare" and was more at home at work than he was at home itself.
Next up was Michael Ryan of Westerly, a financial planner with Professional Planning Group, who recalled the summer of 1964, when he had just finished sixth grade and was about to enter Babcock Junior High School. Ryan said he was interested in exploring the way the ego uses fear and anxiety. He shared a tender coming-of-age memory about a kind and patient woman named Irene, who allowed him to read comic books on the floor of the corner store he regularly visited.
Laurie Smith read a piece about her free-range childhood, and Al Clemence of Westerly read about "migratory guests," heroes and explorers. Watch Hill resident George Rose was next and shared a humorous story about his first unsupervised trip to New York City as a 14-year-old.
Muireann O'Callaghan of Stonington shared a tender story about her daughter's growing up and leaving behind her girlish pink bedroom for the freedom of the renovated attic where she could spread out her art supplies.
Greg Pettys, a Westerly writer, read a piece called "sandworms and ice cream." Deborah Stewart described how a photo of her sister inspired a flood of memories about childbirth, siblings and babies, and Tom Morton shared a story about his early years in Catholic school.
Westerly native Rosalie Maxham was the last student reader of the evening, and regaled the audience with her sweet and humorous tale about her early passion for movies and movie stars, and how she herself became "an official movie star."
The evening ended with a reading from author and songwriter Layng Martine Jr., who read a portion of his recently-published memoir, "Permission to Fly: A Memoir of Love, Crushing Loss and Triumph."
Martine, a Nashville resident, has summered in Watch Hill for more than five decades. He read about his experience sailing into Watch Hill for the first time in 1953. It was the beginning, he said, of "my lifelong love affair with Watch Hill."
"I guess this is the perfect way to end," said Gilsdorf.