Workshop at store aims to help writers sharpen their skills


For The Recorder

The Book Hound in Amsterdam held its fifth writer's workshop on Friday night at the bookstore on Main Street. The workshop, started by owner Dan Weaver, meets every week for one hour. There are eight to 10 regulars, and six were present on Friday.

Weaver, who regularly writes opinion pieces for local newspapers, got the idea to start a workshop after attending a class with Marea Gordett, founder of Big Mind Learning, which offers tutoring and workshops to children and young adults.

"I had really benefited from it a lot with my writing," said Weaver. "There never has been anything in Amsterdam that I know of. So we got started and it's been good."

Spreading the word for the workshop through The Book Hound Facebook page and email list, Weaver brought in a varied group of local writers. When Weaver's fellow op-ed writer Phil Sheehan came in to the bookstore three weeks ago, Weaver convinced him to come to the next meeting.

"We tend to agree on things," said Sheehan, a Scotia resident, of his and Weaver's opinion pieces. "I stopped by his shop one day, and he said why don't you come to our writer's group?"

Sheehan led the class this week, starting by telling a writer's joke about the "truth" of writing.

"If you want to be a writer, there's one horrible, awful, discouraging thing you have to do, and it's sit down and write," he said. "The only way to write ... is to sit down and write."

The joke set the tone for the workshop, which was informal and light. The writers sat around bistro tables in the front of the bookstore, surrounded by bookshelves reaching nearly to the ceiling underscored by a wallpaper border of faux books.

Sheehan used a line he wrote in a notebook 30 years ago to start an exercise, where everyone used the line as inspiration to write a passage using a specific person as an audience in their mind. The line was "we waited all day in the rain, but the general never came."

The six writers scribbled away in silence on notebooks until Sheehan asked them to read what they had written if they wanted to. The stories varied from childhood tales about bullies to dialogue between military men. This exercise revealed the different way the members interpreted the line.

"I can see that I'm a literalist," said Weaver. "I like the more imaginative people here."

Sheehan went on to ask the writers if they would have written differently if they had pictured a different audience. They discussed how the story would have changed if it was for a Hollywood movie.

"I'd make the general a woman, someone like Bette Midler," said Karen Altieri of Amsterdam.

Maureen Hand, a retired English teacher from Amsterdam, said she would start the movie with flashbacks, a technique she said she enjoys.

Other discussion followed, about whether handwriting versus typing changed the story, the changes in conversation patterns and writing styles because of new technologies, and how memories shape the things they write.

Jay Towne, a published poet who did a reading after the workshop on Friday, said he felt typing helped him to "balance the flow" of overarching themes and dialogue, while Weaver said he preferred the "flow of the ink."

The informal nature of the workshop, which lends itself to discussion of books and authors as well as the members' personal writing, is something Weaver was aiming for. He said he had been turned off by other writers' workshops that "tore apart" each other's writing.

While the writers did not critique each other's work this week, they are planning to bring pieces for review at the next meeting in two weeks. They are also working on an assignment for that workshop: to write a script for a television show.

Many of the members said they go to the workshop for motivation.

"That's why I came here, to learn to finish," said Altieri.