A woman's writing conference comes to Brown

Words, Words, Words
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  July 28, 2010

TJI_Melhem_main
POETRY OF POLITICS Melhem.

Hannelore Hahn understands the liberating power of writing.

In 1982, many years after her family fled Nazi persecution in Dresden, she published a memoir, On the Way to Feed the Swans. The book allowed the author to document a way of life destroyed by war. But it also served a deeply personal function: it helped her heal.

And these days, as founder and director of the International Women's Writing Guild, which sponsors writing conferences and other programs to support and connect women writers, Hahn says she's following "the dream of someone who wants to be totally accepted and have true freedom for self-expression."

She established the IWWG in 1976, on the heels of the 1975 UN-designated International Women's Year, for which Hahn, based in New York, was charged with organizing workshops, lectures, and programs that dealt with women and writing. This year, the IWWG brings its 34th annual summer conference to Brown University July 30-August 6.

"We did it because writing and printing are very important tools for personal growth for women," Hahn recalled, in a recent phone conversation. "We wanted women to know that writing is the most important thing you can do to express your feelings about what you experience, because you can not always change the situation.

"Writing helps maintain your equilibrium," she continued. "We wanted women to know that they can do this, no matter what their background."

Indeed, the emphasis for each conference has been on inclusiveness (scholarships are available) and on a loose structure of registration for the 50 workshops offered each day. If a participant walks into a workshop and feels it isn't the right place for her, she's welcome to leave and find a different one.

"One of the things that really identifies the Guild is the open door," Hahn noted. "We're not elitist, and we have proven that, when given an opportunity, there's no limit to what an individual will do."

Two previous conference participants who have gone on to make a name for themselves are Sapphire, author of Push, which became the film Precious; and Barbara Kingsolver, whose novels (The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible) and non-fiction works (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) have become book club staples. Indeed, Hahn mentioned that 4000 books have been published by members of IWWG, from self-help manuals to poetry volumes.

"I am not one to say that publication of books is the most important thing," Hahn remarked. "That doesn't make you a better writer or a better person to be published. But people heal in the Guild. I don't want anyone left out just because they are broken or poor or sick — we try to lift up."

To that end, the workshops range from the nitty-gritty of writing, marketing, and publishing to sessions on the "transformation of the self," with classes in yoga and reiki.

"I can't tell you how exhilarating this is for most people," Hahn said. "This inner voice that's beginning to work and become stronger — this is the gist of what we do. Anyone who hasn't been with us may shake her head and say, 'Are they nuts?' "

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