Big Picture: Chance to share stories truly a gift

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Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

As the year winds down, I and the arts and entertainment team at the Times Union have been looking back on the highlights of 2011. The thought exercise offers a reminder that the greater Capital Region offers a wonderful breadth and depth of cultural opportunities in dance, classical music, opera, literature, theater, visual arts, jazz and popular music.

This fall, I had the opportunity of taking part in one of those offerings from the New York State Writers Institute. It wasn’t the free authors’ readings — though I did attend plenty of those in what was a particularly strong season with Nicole Krause, Ian Frazier, Isabel Wilkerson, Colson Whitehead, Tom Perrotta, Robert Caro and, of course, William Kennedy, the founder of the instituteand author of many novels, including his latest, “Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.”

The opportunity I had was an eight-week writing workshop for prose writers. The workshops — one was offered this fall in poetry, another in prose — are offered for free to residents of the Capital Region who are selected based on writing samples submitted beforehand.

I had applied for the workshops before, but this was the first time I had been accepted.

What was the workshop like?

Eleven of us met around a large conference room at the Writers Institute offices on the University at Albany campus. All of us — 10 participants and our workshop leader — spend our free time engaged in writing stories, fiction and nonfiction. Our leader was Jo Page, who is perhaps best known in the Capital Region for her “Reckonings” column in the alternative weekly Metroland, but who is also an ordained minister who has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of literary journals, including Stone Canoe, which is published out of Syracuse University.

Our gatherings often called to mind what I think of as an archetypal image: ancient storytellers gathered around a roaring fire, leaning forward with their backs to the cold, dark unknown, and sharing tales of their days and the days of yore.

That image speaks of the human need to be social and to do more than just experience things, but to represent experiences and, in so doing, expand others’ perspectives of the world while at the same time making the storyteller’s world smaller and more intimate, letting the teller of tales feel more connected and less alone.

In many ways, the workshop works on the participants in similar ways, except our world has become more complex — much more mediated — than that of those ancient storytellers (if they ever existed to begin with).

Imagine, instead, if those ancient storytellers had shared their stories with a select group of like-minded people who could talk about their stories on all sorts of levels — use of language, structure, character development and description — to strengthen those stories, so that when they are shared they can be presented with greater clarity and deeper impact, to ensure that they ring with an undeniable truth about our lives today.

What I liked best about the class was the range of insights each member brought to the stories we read, insights that allowed me to see things in new ways and to confirm long-held beliefs about what makes a story work.

What a gift it was to share time, tales and experiences in that room with fellow storytellers. To think that the Writers Institute has been making such workshops happen for years — and for free — is a testament to the uniqueness of the cultural landscape of the Capital Region.

Read more Big Picture columns.

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