The Writers’ Tale: A Room of Their Own

June 1, 2017
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Project Write Now’s Creative Nonfiction workshop: From left, instructor J. Greg Phelan, Jennifer Shields, Eileen Toomey, Elizabeth Jannuzzi and Christine Enna. Photo by Lily Marten

By Eileen Toomey |

The high ceilings, brick walls and exposed ductwork make you feel like you are in a loft in Brooklyn, not a writing studio in Red Bank. Project Write Now is near the train station, in an old industrial building on the town’s diverse and thriving West Side.

Four women with stories to tell sit around the table with their teacher, J. Greg Phelan, co- founder, and board chair. This is Creative Nonfiction, an advanced workshop for adult writers who are working on a manuscript- length project. All four students are working on memoirs.

Jennifer Shields of Red Bank reads out loud: “There are at least 10 neighborhood boys in the cellar. I sit on the stairs and watch as they play a fierce game of street hockey…” After a couple of paragraphs she stops reading and waits.

“So,” Phelan says. “What is this chapter about? What story is the writer trying to tell?” A train whistle blows in the distance as the women lean in over the big black farm table, brows furrowed in concentration. It is hard work getting past the resistance to emotional truth. Tuesdays start early in the morning for these ladies, making lunches, prepping dinner, folding laundry. They have jobs and children and pets, but this is important.

The Creative Nonfiction class s at Project Write Now in Red Bank.

“Tuesday mornings are about making hard choices,” says Christine Enna of Atlantic Highlands, one of Phelan’s students. “Do I shower or do I walk my border collie? Sorry class, but Cersei usually wins.”

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The Writers Institute, a new addition to Project Write Now, is a member community for adult writers. The goal is to provide an intellectual as well as physical space to bring the many talented writers in the Two River area together. Through classes, programs and networking opportunities the group offers guidance on the sometimes lonely road to publication. Also, through this branch of Project Write Now, students are empowered to help each other. Those with experience will have the opportunity to share their knowledge with others through student-run craft talks covering subjects such as How to Publish In Literary Magazines, Editing Tricks and How to Write an Inquiry.

“Writers spend hours stuck in their heads alone with their computers,” says Liz Jannuzzi of Shrewsbury, a long-time Project Write Now student and now Writers Institute Program coordinator. “It’s important to have a network that we can turn to for advice and encouragement. We want the Writers Institute to be a place to find support and inspiration.”

In addition to ongoing adult classes, which range from introductory courses like Emerging Writers to more advanced classes like Creative Nonfiction and Memoir, Project Write Now has implemented other programs. In March, Martha Cooley, a professor of English at Adelphi University, and author of two novels and a recently published memoir called “Guesswork,” gave the first writer’s workshop in a new Visiting Writer’s Series. Cooley read from her work and afterwards led a fun workshop for those in attendance, pulling everyone into a discussion about the writing process.

In the future look for more activities from Project Write Now Writers Institute that will enhance Red Bank as a destination for lovers of the arts. There will be craft talks, book swaps, readings and the continuation of Voices and Verses, a bi-monthly open mic for adults at Count Basie Theatre. There is even a new literary magazine in the works. Also, a new newsletter is circulating, featuring students’ successes, Project Write Now stories, and calls for submissions.

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“Not many writers have the ability to take time out of their busy lives to get an MFA in creative writing,” says Phelan, after class. “Our goal is to provide an alternative right here in our community similar to a MFA but without the heavy tuition costs.”

“I haven’t looked back!” Enna says happily as she leaves the Project Write Now classroom. “It’s a safe haven here and thanks to help from Greg and my classmates I’m going to finish my book.”

In September 2014, Jennifer Chauhan of Little Silver joined with Phelan of Fair Haven and Allison Tevald of Atlantic Highlands to form Project Write Now, a not-for-profit offering classes and workshops for both children and adults. Project Write Now enhances classroom writing lessons for the Red Bank Middle School and offers free after-school time at the studio for middle school students.

A train whistle blows in the distance again as Chauhan and Tevald, co-founders, show up for the day wearing Project Write Now sweatshirts. It’s open studio for the middle school kids and they will be writing limericks. Good things are happening. Good things for everyone.

Eileen Toomey has been a student at Project Write Now for two years and recently has had two personal essays published In Eastern Iowa Review and Fish Food Magazine.

This article was first published in the May 25-June 1, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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