Clinton resident celebrates 20 years as executive director of Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writers Center

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For 20 years, Clinton resident Philip Memmer has been helping local writers — whether they’re looking to write that first memoir or wanting to develop their manuscript for a prospective publisher — hone their creative skills of personal expression.

Memmer was hired to start the YMCA Writers Center at 340 Montgomery St. in Syracuse after moving to Clinton with wife Michelle Reiser-Memmer, performing arts administrator at Hamilton College, in 2000. He admits that when he noticed the ad for the position in a Syracuse newspaper that at first it “sounded totally weird,” considering that the Y is known as a place where families can come swim in the pool or sign-up for a physical fitness class.

At the time, Memmer said he knew a little about the Writers Voice program, a creative writing program started by the Y in New York City back in 1981. Since its inception, it had spread to YMCAs in some major cities across the country. The director of the Syracuse YMCA at the time was looking to start something similar in the Salt City, he said.

“I vaguely knew about Writers Voice, which was in other bigger cities, and it was like what the director, at the time, was looking for,” Memmer recalled. “Essentially a family would come do a tour if they were thinking about membership at the Y, and a kid might get excited about the pool or basketball program, and the parents would get excited about the weight room, and then there would be that one quiet kid in the back who liked to paint or wanted to learn to play guitar.”

He said, “In his mind, there were kids out there who were not being served, and there was no programming of interest for them being offered by the Y. So he thought, lets start an arts program. There was another arts education organization located next door at the time that was going out of business, so they joined forces. It was perfect timing.”

Memmer joined the Syracuse Y team in August 2000 and started the Downtown Writers Center shortly after.

“After I got talking to people in the area, if you were living in Syracuse, you couldn’t take a writing workshop outside going to a college campus or go somewhere outside maybe a local bar or cafe, to hear a poetry reading,” Memmer recalled. “That sounded crazy to me, not to have a place for writers to congregate, with consistent programming. It seemed like a huge void in the community.”

Now that the Downtown Writers Center is celebrating its 20th anniversary, it has hosted “well over” 400 writers, from first-time authors to those who have gone on to win national book awards, the executive director said.

“We offer 75 classes a year, and that number (attendance) will increase probably soon because we’re pulling from a larger geographic range as we turn to offer online classes,” said Memmer. “But it continues to grow, which is really exciting for me. And what’s also exciting for me is that as our writing community grows, there are more writers eager to learn and encounter new work. We’ve had visiting writers tell us, when they’ve come here, that they’ve never encountered a literary community like the one we have in Syracuse.”

After eight or nine years of operating the Downtown Writers Center, the YMCA started the DWC Pro Program. DWC Pro is a two-year intensive program for creative writers who are serious about honing their craft and growing their careers. The program is designed especially for writers who will benefit from focused study — the same kind offered by a master’s of fine arts degree program, but without relocation or high cost.

As a DWC PRO student, writers take advanced courses, receive individual feedback, and work with established writers who will mentor them as they complete a manuscript that is publication-ready. For students with particularly demanding schedules, a three-year program track is available.

“We started realizing that we had students who were heavily involved in taking advanced-level workshops and then we would stop seeing them. When we would catch up with them, they’d say they were now enrolled in a low-residency MFA program, and here they’re paying thousands of dollars and traveling, doing something we had the ability to do ourselves,” said Memmer. “They’d say, ‘It’s great that I’m doing a writing program, but I miss the writing community in Syracuse and coming to the writing center.’”

He recalled, “Most of these people were older and really didn’t need a graduate degree, what they needed was the focused program that would help them finish a manuscript and hold them accountable for their writing over an extended period of time, and something also very official. So we said, ‘What if we started a program and kept it cost-effective, but focused on some technical aspects of writing and literature for students, and had them work with a mentor, one-on-one, do a graduation reading and offer a certificate for completing the two-year program?’”

Memmer said the Pro program is roughly two-thirds of the master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing he received from the University of Oregon.

“So it’s rigorous — it’s 17 classes that you take, and then there’s the thesis or manuscript you write in the end,” the executive director explained. “We offer the program in fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and we’re still going strong. It’s for folks who are more serious writers looking for that experience. In terms of teaching writing, it gives folks a way to do a much lower-cost program, but you get a very similar experience as you would in an MFA program. Some students have gone on and published their book, or they’re getting published in journals all over the place. We’re hoping to one day expand our program into drama as well.”

As for regular creative writing workshops at the center, they are geared toward the beginner to the experienced wishing to sharpen their skills or get a manuscript ready for publication.

Classes “range for those who’ve never done any writing at all, or on a whim they tried it because people always said they should write a book because they had a great life story to tell, but they just didn’t know where to start,” Memmer explained. “Part of being a program at the Y is to have a good entry point — to do this on a recreational point — because people think it sounds fun, and they want to give it a try. Then we have students moving on who’ve been at it a little longer, and advanced (in coursework), who are considering sending out their work to journals, or who are working on their manuscript seriously.”

Besides creative writing, the Downtown Writers Center also offers workshops that help writers learn how to submit their work for publication, including writing query letters and learning what editors are looking for.

With other MFA or creative writing programs, “There’s no advice for students on how to submit their manuscript to publishers or a press,” said Memmer. “Some of our classes help people understand what editors are, what they’re looking for and why they do what they do. The important thing is always the writing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other aspects we can help you with along the way. We’d be remiss if we didn’t address those things if we have students who want to publish.”

Originally entering school as a drama major, who was “big into theater as a teen-ager,” Memmer would eventually switch into film production as an undergrad. Along the way, while working in radio, TV and motion picture production, Memmer would discover poetry and fell in love with it, he said.

“I would write tons of poems and I was squeezing in literature classes in between, any time I could,” Memmer said. “Then I decided to go to grad school for creative writing.”

His first job out of college was working for a company that provided closed captioning for many popular mainstream day-time soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful.

“The fun part was that we knew what was going to happen two weeks before it happened because we’d have to do the captioning two weeks ahead of time,” Memmer laughed. “But we were under a disclosure agreement, so we weren’t allowed to let that information out there.”

From there, Memmer went on to work for Borders booksellers, where he organized children’s and author programming, which helped him get his position at the Y.

“The whole time this was going on, I was writing poems and I was working on my first book manuscript,” said Memmer. “I now have five books — my most recent came out last year — ‘Pantheon,’ by Lost Horse Press. Lost Horse Press has done my last three books. For me, so much of my poetry has to do with relationships you establish along the way.”

Memmer has been able to bring his love and experience with poetry into the Downtown Writers Center, having hosted several poets for readings, in addition to fiction and non-fiction writers. Although COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines have forced the center to remain closed for the time-being, workshops are still being offered online, which means anyone — living anywhere — may sign up and take a writing workshop through the Syracuse Downtown Writers Center.

More recently, the center has explored offering guest author readings once again, via online, through Zoom.

“When we originally had to shut down, our first push was getting our workshops online,” said Memmer. “We had week-and-a-half to when they were suppose to start, and we got that going as quickly as we could. It was not clear yet if online readings would be successful, but we were open to it — we just waited to see.”

He said, “We went to online readings that other places were doing, just to see how other organizations were going about it. Then in July, we went online. While some audiences are not interested in it because they don’t think it’s fun not being able to be in-person, many have, and some people we were missing before, were replaced by others. We’ve now had people from California or Nebraska tune in. We will continue” the online readings, “throughout the fall.”

Downtown Writers Center also has a book club based on the books by writers who come in and speak for the author series. For those interested, the center drops off or mails books to members.

“It’s a free book club, and people come together and chat,” Memmer said. “We talk about a half-dozen or maybe eight poems” from a book that will appear “for a reading the next night. It’s low pressure, and people read the book and go to the discussion afterward. They get to meet people and have fun. For me, it turned into a really nice surprise that it’s nice to do online.”

For more information about workshops, programs, the Young Authors Academy, the online author series (readings) and book club, or for information on how to sign up, go to https://ycny.org/programs/arts/creative-writing.

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