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writing is a bloodsport.
The Shanty Boat Writer’s Workshop


      "The workshops have let the writing escape my head and fall into the real world. It has opened my eyes to how talent is only one aspect of great writing. She doesn't let you get away with self-indulgent masturbatory writing, but shows you how to turn those self-indulgent concepts into usable craft."

      For aspiring writers there is very little in Jacksonville that can help you hone your craft. All of your favorite writers will talk about workshops they attend that help them externalize their writing and learn how to improve it for the reader. I spent years dreaming of moving somewhere where these sorts of bohemians existed before I met Lynn Skapyak Harlin.

      She was a regular at the restaurant where my wife works and often referred to "her writers" when my wife would chat with her. The next thing you know I was tromping down a dock on Trout River and climbing onto a ramshackle of a vessel that was lilting in the water. I wasn't sure at first that it was sea-worthy, but I climbed on anyhow.

      Inside the small floating shotgun house was a table surrounded by an eclectic mix of people. Some young, some old, some male, some female. Standing at the head of the table was a wild-eyed woman with grey and white hair sprawling from her hair sucking on a cigarette.

      That woman was Lynn Harlin and that boat is still the home of the Shanty Boat Writer's Workshop. She is a curmudgeoned but good-spirited poet that does not refer to herself as a teacher, but rather a coach. She has been a teacher before, at various grade levels, but she says she has no patience for children (although her grandchildren would disagree). In the 60s one of her poems was published in Time magazine and she has released several books of her poetry since. At the Joe Berg Seminars at which she is often a keynote speaker, she is billed as "The Trucker Poet" because she spent some years of her life traveling and writing poetry. Much of that time was spent behind the wheel of a truck, which is hard to believe from a woman of her size and stature, and some of it was spent with the Merchant Marine.

      In addition to her own poetry and freelance writing for the Florida Times-Union, she also has these writer's workshops on her houseboat to help local writers learn how to turn their hobby into a craft.

      "The shanty boat started in the Altamaha River in Jessup, Georgia, at Pig Farm Landing. Jim and I always dreamed of filling it with writers," says Lynn.

      Jim is Lynn's husband and one of the elite few people that enjoy Lynn's company outside of the shanty boat year-round. These elite few are the ones that love her in spite of her blunt honesty, which is sometimes painfully blunt and stated crassly, as though she had tourrettes. But she does not have Tourrette's, she just doesn't believe in wasting time with formalities.

      "The shanty boat looks the way that Lynn wants people to write. It's simple and utilitarian and has its own kind of beauty," says Oscar Senn, one of Lynn's writers.

      Oscar is putting the finishing touches on his newly completed novel. He started on the shanty boat and progressed to the point that he was doing one-on-one workshops with her at her home on the Westside. When asked about the shanty boat workshops, this was his initial reaction:

      "You can't escape. There's only one way to get off the fucker and it's not easy. The door sticks and you gotta' get up the gang plank, and by then they got you. That isn't a serious answer, but it happens in my mind."

      Lynn's workshops are like a guided course, and the writer's work is the curriculum.

      "I just want a writers work to be the best that it can be. It's only when you can step out of the writing and look at what you are doing that it gain a richness and depth. Everyone thinks writing is something you do yourself, in your head, but in the workshop it is read the way it is on the paper. The words have to speak for themselves."

      One of the best parts of the workshop is having to sit there and hear your words. It is terrifying and rewarding at the same time. I know because I have been one of those writers many times over the past several years. That opening paragraph was something I wrote when she asked me for some words about the effectiveness of her workshops and one-on-ones. She is certain to get a big laugh out of the fact that I started this article by quoting myself. But the truth is, her story is told not in credits or bylines, but by the impact she has had on the work of her writers.

      In the capacity of editor, Lynn has helped many writer's release their work. She has been a part of David Keel's The Pathways to Awareness, Carolee Bertisch's Who Waves the Baton, and Donna Hicken's book The Good Fight, and that is just in the past year. But you can't jump straight to the great American novel. Dealing with Lynn Skapyak Harlinn is like swimming in the St. John's River. You have to get your toe in first to adjust to the temperature, and once you're in, expect to get dirty and try not to swallow.

      "All writers have to submit an essay, mostly it's to see if their skills will fit with the present group forming. After the first week it doesn't matter what the kind of writing or genre it is, these crafts and techniques will help any writing. We stay away from typos or plot points and other banalities, we are looking for tone and mood and point of view. It isn't critiquing, its suggestions," Lynn says.

      Another of "her writers" is the afore mentioned Carolee Bertisch. While not as vulgar as Oscar or myself, her comments show how Lynn's coaching can work for a variety of personalities:

      "She has the ability to tell the real truth about a manuscript, and to work on it until it shines. Although she claims to be a bitch…she is truly a lamb."

      But the workshops are not all about Lynn, they are about the group of writers that attend the workshops and the rules of the shanty boat.

      "My writers have to address the piece and talk to me about it, even though the writer is right there at the table, we address the piece, not the writer."

      No matter how many times you've been to a workshop, Lynn makes the writers read the rules at the beginning.

      "The main focus is to stay on key and look at the island of words and see what it does to you. In a short story every single word counts, and in a novel excess verbage needs to be trashed, just like in a poem."

      She doesn't like every voice, but she makes sure to help the writers make that voice the best it can be. She encourages the writer to make the reader want to go on a wild ride with the work.

      "Everyone's writing gets better, but it doesn't imitate each other. I don't try to make them sound or look like what I like. That's what great about the workshops, everyone finds their own voice."

      Lynn's next workshop starts on April 11th and will happen every Wednesday night from 6 to 9 pm for six weeks. Stop in any Wednesday night to sit in on a current workshop and get a feel for what it is like. Just contact her at lyharlin@aol.com and let her know that you want to attend. Her space is limited, so she prefers to plan in advance, but usually a workshop is around ten people and there are never more than twelve on the boat at any one time.

      So walk the plank, particularly at low tide, and bring your writing to a different atmosphere to lift your writing to a new plain. People from all parts of town come there and then they are all equal.

      "You realize you are there for one purpose. All of these different people, people you would never talk to or care about normally, find they have something in common, they all care about words."

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