Everyone has a story to tell. And the Westport Arts Center, in collaboration with Ina Chadwick's Mousemuse Productions, invited writers to share their personal tales in a literary arts competition.

Against the backdrop of "Memory," a stirring visual arts exhibit, actors -- Susan Terry, Eileen Winnick, Gabi Coatsworth Wilson and Megan Smith Harris -- read the award-winning essays, including one from a Norwalker, last month to a standing-room-only crowd.

"The artist is always the keeper of memory. From photography to painting to music, dance, theater, writing; where would we be if artists kept their memories secret?" Chadwick wrote in the program for the memoir competition reception. "If you envision your memory as stockpile of shrapnel, you will realize that in every experience there are sharp pieces of your remembered lives randomly lodged in your brain. Sometimes details surface and take shape in a formless pictorial, or with trailing words to a song or a phrase that grab hold and refuse to let go. Memoir writers seek to find that one moment of clarity that has, until that very moment, eluded description."

The writing competition, now in its third year, coincides thematically with the visual arts exhibit. This year, almost all of the 160 entries dealt in some way with the writers' childhood remembrances, Chadwick said.

Gabi Coatsworth Wilson delivered a rendition of second-place winner Margaret Rumford's memoir, "Learning to Lie." The Fairfield resident also placed high last year, Chadwick said. "I was tickled pink to learn that the judges put her up front this year," she said.

The story, told through the eyes of a charming and candid 7-year-old, recounts a girl's entry into a strict Catholic convent school in New Zealand.

Katharine Weber, author of eight books and winner of the memoir contest's top prize for "We Saw the Sea," was unable to attend the reception because she was out of the country. Her essay was read by actor Eileen Winnick. Chadwick said this piece is included in a soon-to-be-published, full-length book penned by Weber. Describing the writing as a "tone poem," Chadwick said Weber's entry "elevated our contest to the national level."

"Crosswords," by Leslie Chess Feller, and "Loving Lydia," by Marcelle M. Soviero, tied for third place.

Feller, of Weston, spoke about her aging father's penchant for crossword puzzles and how she emotionally connected with him at the end of his life through The New York Times' weekly challenge. During intermission, before her essay was read, Feller pointed out several siblings and extended family members in the audience.

"As a writer, I'm always inflecting my stuff on people to read," she said. "However, with this piece, I had my brothers and sister saying that they wanted extra copies of it. One brother said that it made him cry."

They all agreed that "Crosswords" helped them remember things about their parents they thought they had forgotten.

Marcelle M. Soviero also told a moving story about living with a sister who has bipolar disorder. Chadwick said: "Marcelle is a poet. You can hear it in her piece."

The winning entries will be published in Weston Magazine and broadcast on radio station WPKN, 89.5-FM.

Scholarship encourages new talent

A new Writers of Promise Scholarship and Award for university students was established this year in memory of Jean Sherman. The winners were Zachary Wheat, of Norwalk, for "Exile," a story about the consequences following a teenage boy's decision not to follow the crowd, and "True Struggle," a work in progress, by Kayce Gillespie, depicting life in foster care, a murder and a suicide. Both entries were submitted by Marcia Temlock, professor of English at Norwalk Community College .

"I think it's important to encourage young writers," Temlock said. "This is the second year that I've identified students that have potential."

Wheat, a graduate of Staples High School, said his first reaction to receiving the recognition from the Westport Arts Center was, "This will look great on my college transcript." He hopes to transfer to a school specializing in communications soon.

For Gillespie, of Fairfield, the memoir is part of her coming to grips with the events of the past 29 years, including the deaths of her parents.

"I'm still grieving," Gillespie said. "I was thrown out into the world and I didn't know how to do anything for myself. I didn't know what the utilities were. I didn't know how to go about finding an apartment."

Now living on Social Security benefits provided by her late father, Gillespie is in college and working full-time as a disc jockey.

"I've always been a writer," she said. "I wanted to get out all of the stuff that was inside of me by rapping, singing and writing. It comes naturally to me."

Along with a career in broadcasting, Gillespie dreams of one day publishing a memoir.

More writing programs on the way

Nancy J. Heller welcomed more than 100 visitors to the memoir reading and reception. She said one of the reasons for including literary arts programs at the Westport Arts Center is to attract creative people who might not otherwise visit the art gallery.

Because of the strong response to earlier writing programs, several more are scheduled.

"We are too isolated, not just us writers but everyone out here, living in the suburbs," Chadwick said.

Although she understands how much writers hate to leave their computers and opportunities to write, Chadwick expressed the need for writers to be among fellow writers for sharing, inspiration and support.

"It is an intoxicating experience for us," she said.

When she realized how many memoir entries were devoted to memories about war, either on the front lines or from home, Chadwick said she felt the need to have these stories heard.

So a Veterans Day program called "Out of War," featuring local authors and poets reading their work about this timely topic, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 11.

"People are hungry to hear the written word," Chadwick said.

The winning entries can be seen in their entirety on WAC's website, www.westportartscenter.org, at www.mousemuse.com and in notebooks that will be on display in front of the gallery. The readings were also recorded and will be sound edited by the Legacy Project. They will be digitally archived for future broadcasts.