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

  • Aine Greaney, an essayist and instructor with the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop, leads a class in March on essay writing. Image courtesy Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop

  • Joy Baglio, director and founder of the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop, is seen here last fall at Yaddo, the artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York during a month-long residency. Image courtesy Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop

  • Michael Goldman, a translator of modern Danish literature and other writing, says his work as a poet has been inspired by his involvement in the Valley’s writing community. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Singer-songwriter and author Nerissa Nields reads at a Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop event last year after taking part in a yearlong fiction manuscript class with the group. Image courtesy Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop

  • Novelist Ellen Meeropol, seen here at Easthampton’s 2018 Book Fest, says the Valley has an “absolutely robust” writing community. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Straw Dog Writers Guild, one of a number of writing support groups in the region, hosts an event at Forbes Library in Northampton. Photo by Ella Alkiewicz/courtesy Straw Dog Writers Guild

Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2020 3:30:51 PM

Writing is mostly a solitary exercise. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find emotional support and valuable feedback on your work while alongside other writers — even in the new era of COVID-19. 

In a region that 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 Meeropol of 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, she also has taught writing with the Florence-based group Writers in Progress, and she calls the Valley’s literary vibe a big part of her success.

“It’s an absolutely robust community,” Meeropol said during a recent phone call. She figures that she typically attended half a dozen literary events in the Valley every month before the pandemic. “The feedback I’ve gotten for my work has been so valuable, and the sense of community I get from being with other writers — well, you can’t 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 established virtual sessions that 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 we’re had so far has been overwhelming,” she said. “People really want to stay connected, to build on the friendships and relationships they have, even if this is a different format.… It’s a way to not feel so isolated.”

At the same time, notes Baglio, writing is still something that must be done primarily one one’s 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 Baglio started in 2016 when she moved to the Valley from New York City, would seem to indicate there’s plenty of interest among writers in learning collaboratively. Today, the workshop has 18 instructors, including Baglio, all of them published writers with a mix of teaching experience, MFAs in 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 numerous publications, says she knew something of the Valley’s literary reputation when she came here; soon she had immersed herself in it. But she also wanted to expand on what was available, especially by offering classes dedicated to the craft of 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 technical stuff that hadn’t 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 can I get my work published?’”

Instant community

Over the last several years, Michael Goldman has built up a translation business, Hammer and Horn, for translating the work of modern Danish writers into English. It’s an interest he developed after learning Danish following a stay in the country in the 1980s as a high school student. About five years ago, Goldman also helped form a support group with other area translators; members met fairly regularly to talk shop, network and discuss opportunities for grant funding and publishing.

But Goldman says he wasn’t that tuned into the Valley’s 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 taught translation courses in the Five College network. “I really didn’t know about the 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 and the Lilly Library in Florence, a session keyed to “all levels of experience. It’s user-friendly but still rigorous,” he said. “We offer constructive criticism — it’s all about how these poems can be their best selves.”

In addition to inspiring him to spend more time on his own poetry, Goldman says the class — he’s now developing an online session — has provided him with “an instant poetry community. It’s wonderful to be in a room with people who take art seriously and value the written word.”

Nicole Young, a newer Straw 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; she’s hoping to take a workshop in fall on that topic. Young also appreciates the group’s 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. We’re 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 critique difficult to absorb. “It can be scary to show your work,” said Baglio, who adds that the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop has adopted a number of ways to address the issue, such as having group members focus on constructive criticism and breaking members into 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 the Pioneer 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, also work 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 or focusing on a very specific project. Baglio, who writes a lot of speculative fiction, says she worked closely at one point with a manuscript from a writer who wanted to apply to a science-fiction conference.

Ellen Meeropol, who has just released her fourth novel, “Her Sister’s Tattoo,” says she has benefited from feedback from her “manuscript group,” a small group of published writers who meet regularly to share their work in progress. “To be part of that community 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. “We’ll find a way to make this work,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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