Monday, September 22, 2014

Roseau Library Writing Workshops


I’ve been holding writing workshops at the Roseau Public Library for the last few Wednesdays. This past Wednesday was the fourth of the series, and I plan to continue holding them weekly until I leave Dominica at the end of October. So far they have been a big success!

I teamed up with the library to hold these workshops. Some of the librarians warned me that few people were likely to turn up, especially adults. They explained that when they held events geared toward adult patrons, they had few attendees. I wanted to try anyway.

My format for the workshops is very simple, and inspired by the Writer’s Circle I attended at Wheaton College, held by the talented poet, Ellen Parent. Here at the library, we set up a long table and chairs so that everyone can see each other and have space to work. The library provides the table, chairs, paper, and pencils, as well as an easel and oversized notepad on which I write the prompts. I also provide snacks of juice and cookies. But most importantly: what goes on during the workshop?

  1. Introductions:

writing board with agenda and prompts
We begin with introductions: name, perhaps where you are from, your interests, your writing style. For the first few sessions we also spent time talking about our goals as individuals and as a group.

  1. Writing Exercise:

Next we jump into a 15-20 minute free-writing exercise. I provide three to five prompts to spark people’s creativity, but encourage them to write about whatever they want; the workshop is intended as a space for creativity to flourish, not as an exercise in following instructions.

  1. Sharing and Feedback:

It’s always hard to end the free-write, but the final portion of the workshop (the last 20-25 minutes) is dedicated to sharing work and receiving feedback from the group. Sharing is voluntary, but I’ve found most people are eager to read their work. The writer reads the piece aloud and individuals from the group offer their comments. We established a rule that feedback must be positive or constructive.

Happily, 14 people came to my first workshop back at the end of August! It was a mix of children and adults, ranging from eight year old girls to young men to middle aged women. After that first group, I decided to split the workshop into two sections. So, now we’ve been meeting from 3-4pm for children and teens, and from 4-5pm for adults. Not only has this made it so more people can attend, but it allows me to work better within the specificities of each group’s writing, and allows adults to bring pieces that aren’t completely child-appropriate.
participants in one children's/teen's writing workshop
So far, the average number of people in each section is about ten. Many are repeat attendees! That’s really exciting for me because it feels like we’re actually creating a writing community. We have spent some time talking about how we can function as a community and support one another’s work. I think this is one of the most useful things I’ve done so far in this fellowship. My dream is that the groups (especially the adults, who are more established in their identities as writers) will continue to meet once I leave.

I’ve learned some lessons after holding a few workshops:

  1. Many people will think the workshop is a writing class. (If you are holding a writing class--great! But that’s a horse of another color.) I’m not a teacher, and my workshops are meant to be a collaborative space for fellow writers to meet and recieve feedback in a low-pressure environment. I explain this to those thinking it’s a class on ‘how to be a writer’ and emphasize the fact that writers of all ages and experience are welcome. Most people stick around to try it out.
  2. Someone may ask for general writing tips. Since I don’t pretend to have all the answers, especially about things like publishing, I open the question up to the group, and turn to a group discussion. This seems to work, and has gotten us talking about interesting concepts like audience, dedication, taking ownership of your work, focus within the writing, momentum, openness to criticism…These have been really valuable discussions for our group! (And for me.)
  3. It can be hard to keep a group on task, especially working with kids and teens. I’m still working on this element. I have to act a little more like a leader in the workshop for younger people, but I think it’s been effective to be gentle yet firm about the importance of listening to one another, focusing on one’s own work, and keeping feedback positive and specific. Luckily, most everyone I’ve met through these workshops have been very respectful of one another.
  4. Kool-aid and fruit juice look alike. Literally--no metaphor here. If you are confused why no one is drinking the juice you bought, it may be because they don’t know what it is. No disrepect to kool-aid, but it’s funny how much the tension in a room can be cut by just giving a bit more background information to what’s on the table.

Do you have any suggestions or tips for holding writing workshops? I’m definitely still learning, but I’m pleased with how things are going. I’ve meet a few dozen talented writers. My next goal with the workshop is to ask attendees if I can interview them personally to talk about what inspires them as writers. So far, when I’ve asked in the group setting, people mention things like nature, family, general impulse.

Here are the prompts we’ve used so far. I encourage you to try them for yourself. At the very least, holding these workshops has motivated me to keep writing.

Sampling of Writing Prompts:

  1. Firsts.
  2. Lost and Found.
  3. Voices and Silence.
  4. Nerve.
  5. You are here.
  6. “And then it hit me…”
  7. Extended metaphor.
  8. Injustice.
  9. Beauty
  10. “She walked back in holding a…”
  11. Family.
  12. A Guarantee.
  13. Dilemma.
  14. The Five (or more) Senses.
  15. Chain Reaction.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Happy writing!


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