Ah Yes, the Workshop

Way back in September I promised you a post on the workshop I attended at the Wigtown Book Festival this year. I have been putting this off, because, to be honest, I was disappointed.

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The tent where our workshop was held. The heating wasn’t doing much to warm the tent, so we were each given a hot water bottle. Lovely.

It was not because the workshop wasn’t interesting, or potentially useful, or led by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about. On the contrary, she was a young, personable and enthusiastic novelist who managed our large group of English, Scots and European men and women with confidence. So, what was the problem? I think it was me.

I have had enough of workshops. I don’t know why I keep going to them. They are consistently disappointing. I think I have reached the stage where they very rarely teach me anything I don’t know. Of course that doesn’t mean I practise it, nor does it mean I do any of it well. But I know this stuff. What I need now is to write and to read and to write some more and read some more.What I need is exposure to screeds of good writing and to make room for lots more writing practice. I don’t need any more workshops. I don’t need to be told what I can try.  I have built-in, well-honed, gut feelings that I can call upon to sculpt the result I am looking for from a block of words in front of me. I need to fine tune what I already know.

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A visitor at an earlier Book Festival, absorbed in a book.

I think workshops are best for aspiring writers, beginner writers, insecure writers, possibly for writers wanting to move from one genre to another and perhaps also for writers in a community who work better with the support of friends. Frequently published, experienced writers are likely to benefit from something more meaty than a regular workshop, mentoring sessions perhaps, from writers more experienced than themselves, where it’s taken for granted that all the groundwork was covered long ago.

So, back to this workshop. The remit of the workshop was “the possibilities created by breaking free from traditional, realist methods of storytelling.” We were asked what we were particularly interested in exploring:

“Non linear writing,” I said. I wanted to hear she had to say about this and what the group made of it.

“Great” she said, ” ‘cos that’s what we’ll be doing.”

Later I said to the friend sitting next to me, “what happened to the non- linear writing?”

“Well,” she said, “that wasn’t what the majority were interested in.”

I’ve done some  teaching.  I tell my students what I plan to cover at the beginning. I recap on what I’ve covered at the end. And if there is something I may not be able to cover I say so before the session gets underway, and why, and I try to refer people to places where they might find what are looking for, if I can’t help. But of course, this wasn’t ‘teaching’ in a serious series-of-sessions-over-time sense. It was a workshop at a festival. Perhaps it was intended to be a bit of fun. Perhaps, as usual, I was taking things too seriously and being too critical. But I wanted so much to learn something new or discover a different perspective.

Throughout this workshop we came up with idioms,  sayings and common turns of phrase and imagined the consequences if these were interpreted literally. An example might be ‘It gets under my skin’, or  ‘all he touches turned to gold” or ‘once in a blue moon’ or ‘be born with a silver spoon in your mouth’ and so on. We did this over and over, coming up with a range of scenarios. We did some brief plotting, writing and reading out.

I was amazed by the plots people came up with in a matter of minutes. There were some born storytellers there. And there were first-time writers there that went away stimulated and encouraged. That, you might say, is the key to a successful workshop.

Me, I had tried this idea before in my flash fiction, with some success. Certainly, given thought and a careful choice of idiom, it can offer interesting results. I can recommend it as a useful way of finding ideas for Flash Fiction which does lend itself to slightly surreal subject matter such as this.  Maybe it would be work for Sci Fi and Horror stories too. If you feel inclined, why not give it a try?

No more workshops for me, though. No more searching for lightbulb moments anywhere other than in the work front of me; in my reading or my writing.

Try this:

Find an idiom or other saying that interests you. Ask, “what if this were real? What would mean for people; for the world they live in. Put someone in this situation, this world. How would he or she deal with it? What might happen?”

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About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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6 Responses to Ah Yes, the Workshop

  1. Absolutely, Lesley. In my early writing days I learned a lot from Arvon Courses (although I must say even the quality of those varied). Day-long workshops have been useful too, but, like you, I feel that I now need to get down to writing and to learn to trust my own judgement. That’s not to say I have nothing else to learn. I’m sure I can do better but I think that will come with sustained hard work. Like Mary, I could do with more suggestions about promoting my books.

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    • Hi Mavis, it IS about quality, isn’t it ? It seems harder to find these days. I sometimes wonder if we should all write down exactly what we do want or need to know or learn and then compare notes and see if we could make any of it happen. I’ve noticed that many of us would include ways to promote ourselves and formatting e-books, others would like advice on putting a poetry pamphlet together or help with speaking or reading out to audiences. What else? Does anyone else feel a list coming on?

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  2. Peter Kenny says:

    HI Lesley, I liked your post. I have always instinctively steered clear of workshops, courses etc. I believe that we all have our own projects as writers, and unless the advice is specifically targeted to you as an individual it’s only going to be intermittently useful. But lately I have begun to wonder if this has been a mistake, and I should give one a go.

    The lesson from your blog seems to be that I should choose carefully. Something unpleasantly judgemental in me rears its head at the idea of teaching techniques to generate subjects for writing. I am lucky in that I always have a backlog of things to write about. Are these courses for people who have nothing to say, but are going to say it anyway?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peter, thanks for your comment. I agree that serious writers have their own projects, as I do, yet for a long time I felt I should be doing what others were doing, too. The Uni where I did my MA was not at all happy about my prose-poem type stories and doing my own thing; I was told to stick to what was tried and tested. It’s taken a while for me to get back the confidence in my own work. I do think you have to choose workshops carefully. When I was teaching I never went for story prompts or exercises to generate ideas. They seemed arbitrary. I wanted to offer more practical strategies to improve technique such as how you might handle transitions in time and space or ways of interspersing dialogue with action; something you could use and work on to good effect. Maybe the important thing is to talk to the workshop tutor first if you can, to discover the purpose behind what they are offering. It seems to me a lot of writers that are starting out want to meet with fellow writers, find most of what they are offered stimulating and enjoy the workshop as a space in which they get to write and talk about writing. These workshops are often about writing as fun and feeling good/better about oneself. And lets not forget that workshops are great money spinners for a variety of organisations these days. To please me, the facilitator would need be very experienced, serious about writing and genuinely wanting to offer something of lasting value without me having to pay through the nose for it. NAWE is an organisation that offers expert help through inexpensive workshops and conferences for poets and writers up and down the country. If you find anything else as good, be sure and let me know. x

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  3. Thanks for stopping by, Mary. Perhaps some day it will dawn on people that Writer Sessions for experienced writers could be quite popular. You’d have to be pretty good at what you do to lead it though and I expect that would make some facilitators nervous. Here I am writing about the Festival in September and it’s snowing on my blogpost. Have you noticed? Nothing to do with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary Smith says:

    I tend to agree with you on this, Lesley. I think workshops are great for some people – and I learned a lot from attending various creative writing workshops when I was starting out – but now my needs are different. I feel there is little done for writers who are already writing, who don’t need tips on how to get ideas but perhaps need input on editing or formatting for ebooks, or on promoting their work once it has been published.

    Liked by 2 people

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