Have you attended creative writing workshops where so much time is spent in ‘getting into groups’, trying to agree on the ‘task’, filling huge sheets of paper with glurpy scribble from a frayed marker, and listening to all the ‘feedback’ that you forgot what the exercise was supposed to achieve?
The benefits from writers’ exchanging ideas are many – sessions at the bar during conferences often produce the greatest inspiration – but there are times and topics when the practical side of a workshop is more effective if it encourages participants to sweat their own stuff on their own storylines, sharing and discussing the process later.
Possessing knowledge is no guarantee it can be passed on to someone else, especially if that knowledge has value only when applied to a skill – where the critical outcome is to do rather than simply to know. Being ‘taught’ does not necessarily mean we have learned, although the word implies it, as if it were one complete procedure. In reality, teaching and learning are entirely separate processes.
I’m reminded of the mother and her fractious toddler who sat beside me on a long, tedious bus journey. The child persistently fiddled with the catch of the drop-down table attached to the seat in front, despite numerous warnings from his mother that he would end up hurting himself.
Inevitably, he jammed his fingers, howling his pain and indignation, to which the exasperated mother replied: “Well, that’ll lern yer.” Grammar aside, she was right.
Learning is a process we can do only from within ourselves. For many writers, experimenting, fiddling, getting our fingers pinched and howling our pain and indignation is how we develop.
Writing is a state of being, or more accurately, of ‘becoming’, because we are never ‘complete’ – inner searching and vulnerability are the milieu of a writing life. More significant than the issue of whether it can be taught, is the question of whether creative writing can be learned.
Because we can be aware of our own development in style, voice and talent, and the influence of editors, critiquers and other writers, it is clear that important aspects of it can be learned. We need to be honest with ourselves, to be responsive to feedback and able to assess its relevance, but if we write enough, we constantly develop our craft.
Imagination, inspiration, intuition, originality, and the passion to communicate – all the inner modes of thought on which writers depend – cannot be taught. But good teaching can aid their unfolding by offering stimulation, guidance, support, challenge, and knowledge of technique. By these means, workshops can be designed that concentrate on learning rather than teaching.
The topic is on my mind because I was recently invited to present one of the workshops for a NZ Society of Authors weekend of events. For the subject, I chose to explore the process of finding deep character in writing fiction, and spent several weeks working out the best format and testing it out on writing friends. Judging from the feedback, everyone found the workshop a productive and fun experience, so much so that I am presenting it at several locations in the UK and Netherlands during September and October as part of a promotional tour for my two latest books on writing craft.
Practical ‘workout’ experiences can be created by any group of writers. ‘Finding Deep Character’ grew out of the ‘character’ chapter of Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, but you could use any chapter as the framework for a workshop – I wrote it with that in mind. So, here are six tips for designing your own ‘workouts’.
- Agree on a specific target for the session rather than trying to cover too much. Focus on the outcome: at the end of the workout, what will participants have produced, and what will they be able to ‘do’.
- Allow enough time for sharing what people have written during practise sessions, for giving mutual feedback, and for brainstorming ideas. This means keeping numbers small, a maximum of 12-15 participants enables everyone to interact.
- Keep the practical activities ‘real’: rather than set theoretical or isolated exercises, have each person work progressively on a storyline, character or theme of their own that fits the purpose of the workshop – something they can develop further themselves if they wish.
- Design the workshop leader’s input and the practical activities to engage as many of the senses as possible – provide items to touch, see, hear, and even to taste and smell, and don’t forget the sense of humour. The more senses involved, the more the imagination is stimulated and the greater the learning.
- Wherever possible, use methods of exploration and inspiration that participants can ‘take away’ with them to apply in the future. What each learns and how they can use it will be slightly different for each person.
- At the conclusion of the session, provide a handout that summarises the main points of the workshop and the methods used. If you tell participants at the beginning that you will do this, it enables them to focus on what is taking place rather than making notes about it.
These methods also apply to non-fiction. My tour programme includes some non-fiction sessions because creative writing techniques and deep character portrayal are equally important in narrative non-fiction.
I hope these tips encourage you to get together with your writing buddies and create your own ‘workouts’. And if you can share any additional tips, or tell us about other workshop activities that you have found particularly useful, that would help everyone.
Trish Nicholson writes narrative non-fiction and short stories, and is the author of three recent books on writing and storytelling: Inside Stories for Writers and Readers , Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author , and From Apes to Apps: how humans evolved as storytellers and why it matters . She lives in New Zealand and you can visit her in her Treehouse, and see where she is presenting workshops here: www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com