Everyone Has a Story to Share at Syracuse’s Downtown Writer’s Center

Aug 3, 2013

Summer school isn’t just for K-12 and university students. 

Georgia Popoff teaches language poetry to students at Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center on Thursday, August 1, 2013.
Credit Valerie Crowder, WAER News

Authors from around Central New York meet at Syracuse’s Downtown Writer’s Center at least once a week for workshops, which run July through early September.  The classes vary in duration and genre.  And you don’t have to be a pro to attend, says Georgia Popoff, workshop coordinator and poetry instructor.

“Some people just write memoirs for their families,” said Popoff.  “Some like to come and play with language.”

As for serious professionals trying to develop their careers, the center accommodates them too, Popoff points out.  She’s referring to DWC PRO, a two-year advanced program that requires students to take 18 courses, as well as develop a thesis manuscript, which could lead to their first book.  These courses start in the fall.   

But for any-level writer who takes a class, the DWC does more than help them get published.  The skills they learn and the comradery they feel at each workshop keeps them coming back for more. 

Judy Carr attends a poetry workshop called, “Why is This a Poem?!,” where she and her peers share provocative poetry by famous writers who aren't afraid to take risks.  One such poet, Aram Saroyan, wrote a one-word piece:  “lighght.”  After Popoff, asked for student opinion, Judy Carr raised her hand.

“When you look at one word that is basically, at face value, misspelled -- for me, I can’t even go there,” said Carr.  “I have no idea what this guy was thinking.  And there’s nothing there for me.”

To this, Popoff reminded Carr that the poet was very young at the time. 

“And what was he thinking?" laughed Popoff.  "It was 1967.  He was 22-years-old.  He was probably heading out to drink a beer.  And he was farting around with his royal typewriter.”

Now, almost 50 years later, Saroyan teaches at University of Southern California, where Popoff says he’s still rediscovering himself as a writer.

Georgia Popoff wants to know what "lighght" means to her students at Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center on Thursday, August 1, 2013.
Credit Valerie Crowder, WAER News

The six students passed other pieces around the table, including a work by Gary Young, a prose poet. They each discussed what they both favored and didn't like.  

Analyzing published material helps these authors develop their own skills, an aspect of the course, which has benefited Carr.

“It informs your own writing so much.  You learn from other people’s writing,” Carr said.

Many of the DWC courses are craft classes.  These give writers a chance to share their work, as well as critique their classmates' writings.  Carr especially likes these because she says feedback from her peers not only fosters improvement, but promotes a sense of community too.  

"There's definitely a cohesiveness here now, and we're all really supportive of each other," Carr said.

Another summer workshop, "Adding Muscle to Your Grammar," attracts writers from all levels, who share a desire to sharpen their word usage and more. 

Sylvia O'Connor (left) and Susannah Loiselle stay after class to ask their instructor, Eric Bauer, a few last-minute questions at Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center on Thursday, August 1, 2013.
Credit Valerie Crowder, WAER News

Despite her passion and discipline to write, Manlius resident, Sylvia O'Connor, struggles with punctuation.  This four-week-long course has helped her tremendously, especially when she's constructing dialogue for her memoir. 

"It doesn't always work because that's not the way people speak. They throw things in,  they have little pauses.  They do all kinds of things with language.  So, just having a few skills like that, knowing where to put the commas.  Those kinds of things can help speed up the thought process." 

O'Connor began writing her novel in 2003.  For now, she plans to title it, "Lyme Disease Get Out of Me!"  She unknowingly suffered the illness for seven-and-a-half years.  Fourteen doctors later, she received a final diagnosis from the National Institutes of Health in 1990.  That's when she began taking antibiotics.

Her memoir includes interviews with Lyme disease experts and personal stories that detail her experiences during and after the illness.  She proudly stated that even her husband has written a chapter about his experience with the struggle.   

"No doctor could figure out what I had.  That's because I was well beyond the bulls-eye rash and flu-like symptoms – that type of thing," said O'Connor.  "I was into late stage when I was diagnosed.  So, that's more like Alzheimer's disease.  And it's severe pain, and loss of  feeling in my hands and feet and arms and legs.  All kinds of symptoms by that point.  A lot of mental stuff goes on." 

Sylvia O'Connor (left) and her classmate, Susannah Loiselle, talk about articles that relate to Lyme disease in the library at Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center on Thursday, August 1, 2013.
Credit Valerie Crowder, WAER News

O'Connor thinks she can finish her memoir within a year.  She's written most of the book in vignettes, and she has all of her interviews.     

"But how to put it all together is where I am right now.  And partly why I'm here because I'm trying to figure that out," said O'Connor.  "How can you tie all of these sort of semi-connected ideas and interviews together into a complete story?"

To help her achieve this, she's also taking a non-fiction writing class at the center.  Plus, she's taken a course that guides writers along the road to publication.

The DWC belongs to the local YMCA's Arts Branch.  It's the only center of its kind in Central New York.  All other writing programs are affiliated with regional colleges and universities.