August 19, 2008 § 3 Comments
I have to respond to Becca’s prompt from LAST week because it was a good one and a topic with which writers wrangle (fairly) constantly.
TO WORKSHOP OR NOT TO WORKSHOP?
I’ve been in two workshops.
The first was the offshoot of a class I took as “adult enrichment” at a Florida university. When the writing class was over, several of us got together to continue our writing discipline. Usually at my house. There were five of us. Four writing fiction. One writing non-fiction. We met weekly. We wrote and wrote during the week and at our meeting, we read our stuff aloud, with copies for the others, and then critiqued it. Typically, it went well enough. We kept at it for 18 months ’til several of us were moving away. By then, I had a nice little portfolio of fiction. But it wasn’t going anywhere. I still have it. Let’s not talk about my confidence in my fiction.
But here’s what that workshop provided for us:
1) tons of writing practice
2) some valid feedback: all of us “cared” about the craft; two were published fiction writers.
3) a “regular” schedule of meeting weekly and we were diligent about it, meeting for 3 hours.
4) made us each set aside time to get writing done during the week
The second workshop was an offshoot of a class that I taught when I moved here to the midwest. Because I was publishing as a journalist, they “let me in” to teach a class on writing at a local high school. I loved it. And the same thing happened here: when the class was over, 7 of the “students” wanted to keep going so we began meeting at my house, once a week – for 7 years!
Our goal: to have everyone get published
We were a mixed group: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, essays, plays
Though I enjoy free writing and think it’s a good exercise, there’s much more to a veritable workshop, I think, then sitting there doing a silent 45-minute freewrite. So, there was a curriculum.
So I made up excercises, we shared our work written during the week, we studied other writers, we discussed quotes, we found publishing venues and contests, we discussed the veracity of writing life and we made ourselves stretch to appreciate the genres that others were engaged in. We took the occasional “field trip” to visit other groups, to see plays performed around the table via readings, and we hosted writers, often, to hear what they were doing and how, etc.
And so, everyone in the group published something within those 7 years together.
Several were accepted at writing seminars.
Three of us started hosting weekend workshops.
Our group met other in-process writers.
We read stuff we might not have ever read.
We critiqued each other’s work; some swerved from their original point to take direction; others stuck to their writing guns.
Ultimately, it worked somehow.
These were some of the most amazing people I have come to know. Three of us (four years later) are still in touch, regularly. Our kids grew up around us, my neighborhood knew what night was “writing night” because of the cars parked on the street. It was, in its way, a community thing. Writing is magic.
And writing this now, I realize how much I miss the group. Yet, we all grew out of it at the same time. We were and are very fortunate.
My only regret? That I didn’t have them all carve their names in my dining room table.
I highly recommend that for anyone interested in having writing friends or companions, you start a group.
A FEW WRITING WORKSHOP RULES, from where I stand:
1) Yes, have a facilitator.
2) No, do NOT focus on food – it will take over. Set that precedent from the beginning. They can eat before they arrive. Offer coffee, ice water, lemonade, etc.
3) Encourage everyone to read their stuff aloud. Either make time for all OR rotate and rotate fairly, week to week. Sometimes a person does not want to read. Offer to read aloud his/her stuff for her. You watch – they’ll start reading it themselves after awhile. It’s important. Writing must also be heard. But do not use the whole time for reading aloud. Mix things up. I digress…
4) Control group size: Seven or eight in the group, tops, is plenty. Four is perhaps ideal – depends on the personalities and dynamics.
5) Set a regular meeting time. Do not deviate from this to accommodate individuals. People who care will make time for it. But don’t worry when someone misses: this ain’t no college credit thing.
6) Be upbeat; be excited about gathering. This is a unique, creative venture – show neither fear nor boastfulness.
7) Talk about writing and books on writing and writing experiences. Chill on the family/kids/pet conversation. Stay centered on writing ’til you all get down to the writing business.
8) Have a plan. You don’t have to be strict and detailed; be flexible but know where the session is going.
9) Some sessions are better than others. That’s just the way it is. And that’s perfectly fine.
And so the writing pros out there continue to wage back and forth – are workshops wonderful or crap? Depends on you and who you’ve got with you. I vote for the “wonderful.”