Works in progress: Writers of all levels finding connection amid cancellations – GazetteNET

Writing is mostly a solitary exercise. But that doesnt mean youcant find emotional support and valuable feedback on yourwork while alongside other writers even in the new eraof COVID-19.

In a regionthat counts Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Tracy Kidder and other notable literary figures as its own, and that also offers strong creative writing programs at area colleges, there are many other services available to area writers: writing groups, open mics, one-on-one instruction, and workshops where you can learn to sharpen your dialogue, jump start a memoir, and find out how to get your work published.

Add in offerings like the writer-in-residence program at Forbes Library in Northampton, the annual Write Angles conference of Western Massachusetts held at Mount Holyoke College, and local publishers such as Small Beer Press,and you can see why the Valley is home to so many people who like to tell stories and why writing can by a lifelong learning experience.

Consider Ellen Meeropolof Northampton, who has published four novels and is a past president (and founding member) of the Straw Dog Writers Guild, where she has led a number of workshops over the years. A former nurse practitioner,shealso has taught writing with the Florence-based group Writers in Progress, and she calls the Valleys literary vibe a big part of her success.

Its an absolutely robust community, Meeropol said during a recent phone call. Shefigures that she typically attendedhalf a dozen literary events in the Valley every month before the pandemic. The feedback Ive gotten for my work has been so valuable, and the sense of community I get from being with other writers well, you cant put a price tag on that.

The novel coronavirus has led all local writing groups to suspend their live workshops, classes and readings for the time being. But a number of them have now establishedvirtual sessionsthat are drawing plenty of interest.

Joy Baglio, founder and director of Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop in Williamsburg, says her group has set up a series of free and inexpensive ($5) online workshops for April and May. The response were had so far has been overwhelming, she said. People really want to stay connected, to build on the friendships and relationshipsthey have, even if this is a different format.Its a way to not feel so isolated.

At the same time, notes Baglio, writing is still something that must be done primarily one ones own so this can be a time to really try to dig in at home on your writing. Yet the growth of the workshop, which Bagliostartedin 2016 when she moved to the Valley from New York City, would seem to indicate theres plenty ofinterest among writers in learning collaboratively. Today,theworkshop has 18 instructors, including Baglio, all of them published writers with a mix of teaching experience, MFAsin literature or a background in other kinds of writing such as journalism. The group offers a wide range of courses, from one-day workshops to yearlong manuscript classes.

Baglio, who earned an MFA at The New School in New York and has published her fiction in numerouspublications, says she knew something of the Valleys literary reputation when she came here; soon she hadimmersed herself in it. But she also wanted to expand on what was available, especially by offering classes dedicated to the craftof writing: sessions that would look specifically at, say, developing a compelling narrative voice or building suspense in a novel.

Some of that came from my own experience at writing workshops like Tin House [in Portland, Oregon], where I learned technicalstuff that hadnt really even been taught when I was getting my MFA, said Baglio. I felt there was a definite interest in that here, and for real nuts and bolts things, like, How canI get my work published?

Over the last several years, Michael Goldmanhas built up a translation business,Hammer and Horn, for translatingthe work of modern Danish writers into English. Its an interest hedeveloped afterlearning Danish following a stay in the country in the 1980sas a high school student. About five years ago, Goldman also helped form a support group with other areatranslators;members met fairly regularly to talk shop, network and discuss opportunities for grant funding and publishing.

But Goldman says he wasnt that tuned into the Valleys general writing scene until, about four years ago, he attended a poetry reading at Smith College sponsored by the Straw Dog Writers Guild. I was so inspired, said Goldman, who also writes poetry and has taughttranslation courses in the Five College network. I really didnt know aboutthe depth of writing that was going on here, completely outside the [local colleges], and I wanted to get involved.

From there, Goldman began attending other literary events; he also joined the programming committee of Straw Dog. A few years later, he began leading a regular poetry workshop that has met at the Northampton Center for the Arts andthe Lilly Library in Florence, a session keyed to all levels of experience. Its user-friendly but still rigorous, he said. We offer constructive criticism its all about how these poems can be their best selves.

In addition to inspiringhim to spend more time on his own poetry, Goldman says the class hes now developing an online session has provided him with an instant poetry community.Its wonderful to be in a room with people who take art seriously and value the written word.

Nicole Young, a newerStraw Dog member who has written poetry and plays, says being part of the group has helped her develop connections with other writers and inspired her to write a memoir; shes hoping to take a workshop in fall on thattopic. Youngalso appreciates the groups effort to reach out to writers from under-represented groups.With the help of the Straw Dog Social Justice Writing Committee, she wrote in email, I created the Emerging Writers Fellowship Program, which is for emerging women and nonbinary writers of color based in our area.Were hosting our first fellow this year.

Of course, being part of a regular writing group or a specific workshop also means being able to accept criticism and as much as some writers want feedback, others can find a critiquedifficult to absorb. It can be scary to show your work, said Baglio, who adds that thePioneer Valley Writers Workshop has adopted a number of ways to address the issue, such ashaving group members focus on constructive criticism and breaking membersinto small subgroups to provide feedback.

We try to give students a lot of options every student seems to have different needs and a different relationship to giving and receiving feedback, says Kate Senecal, assistant director of thePioneer Valley Writers Workshop. The workshop experience is really a space to brainstorm about how your writing projects are going, to talk through ideas and ask questions about how readers are experiencing your work in progress.

Some writing instructors, such as Baglio and Senecal, alsowork as writing coaches or editors on a one-on-one basis with writers, including those who are looking to put some final polish on a manuscript orfocusing on a very specific project. Baglio, who writes a lot of speculativefiction, says she worked closely at one point with a manuscript from a writer who wanted to apply to a science-fiction conference.

EllenMeeropol, who has just released her fourth novel, Her Sisters Tattoo, says she has benefited from feedback fromher manuscript group,a small groupof published writers who meet regularly to share their workin progress. To be part of thatcommunity has been so important for my work, she said.

Meeropol had been scheduled to read from her new novel in mid-April at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton. With that event now canceled, she, like others writers, has been investigating the online video platform Zoom to stay in touch with her fellow writers. Well find a way to make this work, she said.

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Works in progress: Writers of all levels finding connection amid cancellations - GazetteNET