The 86-year-old Burnett's presence was, understandably, a matter of interest in itself. MacDowell is a century-old institution, with its colony based in Peterborough, New Hampshire — home at various times to artists ranging from James Baldwin to Leonard Bernstein. Burnett has never been a MacDowell fellow, unlike Stern and Painter. But she is a longtime friend of the colony's executive director, Philip Himberg, who served as moderator Thursday, and her fellow speakers showed obvious pleasure in being with her.
Stern, who also has a background in comedy, tweeted last month about the event: "I don't know how this happened, but I'm glad I did. Come meet your icon, and I don't mean me!" All three read from their work: Burnett from "One More Time" and "Carrie and Me"; Painter from "Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over," about her late-in-life decision to take up visual art; and Stern "Little Panic," what she calls the autobiography of an emotion she knows too well.
Memoirs in themselves can be an education. Painter, whose books include "The History of White People" and "Creating Black Americans," said she had to unlearn a lifetime of scholarly writing for "Old in Art School." Stern said that only through conversations with her editor did she realize that much of her life had been a search for comfort and security.
Stern also noted that another reward of memoirs is how they make you feel less alone. Burnett and Painter both acknowledged feelings of being "misfits," as Himberg described them, and the pleasure in defeating the low expectations of others. For Painter, that was the art teacher who doubted her talents, for Burnett the manager who badgered her and eventually fired her when as a teenager she worked at the now-defunct Warner Brothers movie theater in Hollywood.
"A few years later, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce asked me where I would want my star on Hollywood Boulevard," she said, adding the obvious answer: "Right in front of the old Warner Brothers theater."
When Stern spoke of overwhelming and crippling feelings of attachment to her mother growing up, Burnett remembered being so tied to her grandmother that she feared leaving her sight, wondering if her grandmother would die once she was away. Both also found that writing about their families help bring them closer.
Burnett said that her parents were both alcoholics and that writing about them became a "catharsis," a process of forgiveness. Stern recalled her mother reading the book and for a day sending texts that were variations of "Amanda I never said this." But at the end of the day, her mother texted, "Well, that was just wonderful."