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Writer in the House

Writer-in-residence helps local writers

April 13, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald
ST. JOHNSVILLE — When Lucille Grabowski of Johnstown was looking for help in writing short stories back in 1996, she read about a 10-week writing seminar in St. Johnsville led by Ali MacDonald and decided to make the trip.

“I was desperate,” Grabowski said. “There were no other writers groups in the area that I knew of.”

Grabowski said it was well worth the trip, which she has been making on a monthly basis ever since.

“I see myself as the group’s historian,” Grabowski said. “[MacDonald] is fantastic. The wonderful thing is she will sit down with you and go line by line in great detail with your writing. She is full of encouragement, and one of the best teachers I have ever had, including college.”

Dawn Lamphere, director of the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library agreed.

“They adore her,” Lamphere said about the writers who attend MacDonald’s third-Saturday monthly sessions. “She’s the rock star of writers groups. [MacDonald] made believers out of the group [that they really could write and get published].”

“I’m tough on them,” MacDonald said of her leadership in the writers group. “But I encourage gentle criticism. They must say something to build the person. It takes courage to open yourself up to a group of people with your writing.”

While the group has stayed at an average of 10 members per session, four or five still come from the original core group — some of the others having moved from the area — and newcomers have taken the vacant seats.

The success of the group is “totally due to [MacDonald],” according to Grabowski.

“She’s very generous with her time,” Grabowski said. “She’s full of enthusiasm and makes it a pleasure to go and write.”

While group members have donated their own time, money and efforts to produce samples of their work in booklet form over the years, Lamphere said she saw the “Story Quilt” project at Galway Library and wanted to do something similar.

The “Mohawk Valley Sampler,” is a two-year project with Fort Plain Library to utilize “reflections about a person, place, event or moment that best captures their feelings about living in the Mohawk Valley,” according to Laura Flynn, librarian in Fort Plain.

According to the Galway Public Library Web site, the Story Quilt project of that library has won the 2007 Joseph F. Shubert Award for Library Excellence from the New York State Library.

This award recognizes the efforts of individual libraries and/or library systems in all of New York state that have initiated innovative and/or exemplary programs aimed towards enhancing library services for their constituents.

Unlike the Galway library project, which exclusively was poetry, the Mohawk Valley Sampler will include other genres.

“Submissions may be in any format whether a poem, short story, essay, sketch or even an original musical interlude,” Flynn said.

MacDonald said she isn’t sure how non-written submissions would be incorporated into a final publication.

“It depends on what we receive,” she said. “We’ll decide when we get there.”

MacDonald receives $100 per month for the project through local library funds, but her time with the writing workshop has been donated.

She has a published book, “Dancing with the King at Conyers,” published in 2004 by Behler Publications and available at

MacDonald said she was disappointed with her experience in publishing a book.

“I thought the world would be different once I published,” she mused. “I thought people would be nicer.”

MacDonald acknowledged that writing tended to be a “lonely occupation.”

“I am social and anti-social at times,” she said. “There needs to be a balance.”

As for the Mohawk Valley Sampler she is helping to put together, she said she is trying to give people back a sense of themselves.

“We need to remember who we are,” she said.

Flynn said when they publish the Mohawk Valley Sampler she expects to seek grant funding.

“I’d like to include a musical piece as well, but that may not happen,” Flynn said.

MacDonald said people have a tendency to think if they don’t live in a metropolitan area or know famous people, they have nothing to say. She said she thinks everyone has something to say and she is trying to help local people have their say and make it entertaining as well.

“People need to be comfortable enough to speak with their own voice,” she said.

MacDonald prints a monthly newsletter for her group for encouragement between sessions. In her April newsletter she included a poem defining spring for her, and written “before my second cup of coffee.”

“The Duck Days of Spring”

When the loud crowd

of geese returns

and robins

once again

disentangle the worms.

For more information about the Mohawk Valley Sampler, call 568-4646 or 568-7822.

A reading at the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library by the writing workshop members as well as special guests Louis Fagan and Jimmy McMann of Utica will take place June 21 at 10 a.m.

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Margaret Reaney Memorial Library Writer-in-Residence Ali MacDonald and Director Dawn Lamphere look over publications put out by the writers group in St. Johnsville Tuesday.



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