Readings at seven Colorado Mountain College locations, Oct. 21-28
This year’s Common Reader selection, “I’m Down” by Mishna Wolff, is a frank and funny memoir that offers solace, humor and a swift kick in the pants to anyone who has ever wallowed in the angst of being an outsider. And who hasn’t?
“The human mind tends to divide and compartmentalize. It’s the stupidest sorting machine ever,” said Wolff. “We have the idea we can tell just by looking at somebody if we have anything in common. And we couldn’t be more wrong.”
This month, Colorado Mountain College invites readers to pick up a copy of Wolff’s book, step across the divide and come together at any of seven Common Reader talks throughout the CMC district. Students, faculty and members of the community are welcome to participate, as well as to join in the art and writing contest associated with the event.
Author Wolff grew up in a poor African-American neighborhood, attending black schools and churches with kids “much cooler” than she was. Try as she might to be “down,” her whiteness marked her as privileged. When, at her mother’s insistence, she transferred to an elite white school for gifted kids, she was seen by her new peers as the poor girl in the cheap, thrift-store track suit.
No matter where she went, Wolff felt like she didn’t belong. To cope with a sense of constant displacement, she grew a thick hide and a barbed tongue, relying on searing wit, sarcastic banter and sheer grit to blaze a trail through middle school and beyond.
From jokes, to stories, to book
“At a pretty young age, I wanted to be a joke writer,” Wolff said, explaining that humor offered a way to stand up to teasing, and to lighten the mood if tension was brewing. “I never thought I could write anything longer than a joke,” she laughed.
At 17, Wolff moved to New York to seek her fortune and forge a new identity. While living there, she wrote an article about models turned actresses, which earned a good deal of attention. Still, she didn’t see herself as a writer.
After a move to Los Angeles, Wolff decided to try her hand at storytelling with a group called Sit n’ Spin. The forum was the brainchild of writer/directors Maggie Rowe and Jill Soloway. “Both were mentoring, nurturing women who encouraged me to set my sights on something bigger than jokes,” said Wolff.
One day, out of the blue, the words started to come. “I just dumped out this story,” Wolff said, “and it was something I never dreamed of talking about.” That “something” was her family.
When she read the story to an audience, the response was encouraging. So Wolff wrote another story, and another. And, over time, the stories sparked the book, “I’m Down.”
“I wanted to write a love story to my neighborhood,” she said. “Even though my connection to it was very complicated, because in some ways I felt rejected by home, it still took up space in my heart.”
Wolff said she welcomed participating in the Common Reader program at Colorado Mountain College, because it provides an opportunity for diverse members of the community to come together, with the book as a catalyst, to share their own stories.
“I really like connecting with the students afterward,” Wolff said. “If you want people to tell you their stories, the best way to draw that out is to tell them yours. And someone’s got to go first.”
On her own career path, Wolff has often chosen to “go first,” taking a series of creative leaps that have honed her skills as a performer, comic and writer. In 2009 she was selected as a Sundance screenwriting lab fellow, and she is currently at work on a new book that picks up where “I’m Down” leaves off.
Talks held in tandem with community art and writing contest
Wolff’s public readings from “I’m Down” mark the college’s seventh annual Common Reader. The author will share excerpts and answer questions about her book in Edwards (Oct. 21), Leadville (Oct. 22), Breckenridge (Oct. 23), Steamboat Springs (Oct. 24), Rifle (Oct. 25), Aspen (Oct. 28) and Glenwood Springs-Spring Valley (Oct. 28).
Though the talks are free, there is a suggested donation of $5 per ticket with proceeds benefiting the college’s No Barriers Fund, which assists students in need. The book is available at local libraries and bookstores.
All talks will take place at 7 p.m., except for Aspen’s, which will be held at 10 a.m. Also, attendees should note that Leadville’s talk will be prefaced by the Lake County High School jazz band and an early-bird viewing of the local Common Reader art show at 6:30 p.m.
The college is also sponsoring an art and creative writing contest on the theme “Beyond Cultural Identity: Overcoming Obstacles and Making Connections.” Six winners, three in the creative writing category and three in the art category, will be awarded cash prizes. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 29.