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The Many Joys of a Writing Workshop

The pleasures extend far beyond putting pen to paper


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

For two years, I had the pleasure of guiding a writing workshop that involved women ranging in age from their 40s to their 70s. Only one of these women was a professional writer, and only a few aspired to seeing a piece through to publication. Yet all of them were devoted to the weekly workshop, which had existed for several years before they invited me to take the helm.

I admired what they were doing: making time in their lives, each week, every week, to devote 90 minutes to writing. I also came to admire their approach to the weekly sessions, which involved a format I’d never encountered before.

My job, they explained, was to provide a prompt that focused everyone’s attention on a particular scenario, idea or feeling. Workshop participants, typically about eight per week, would then use that prompt as a jumping off point to write for 20 minutes. After pens were down and laptop keyboards stilled, participants would read aloud what they’d written (unless they didn’t want to share a particular piece of writing — always a respected option).

I was then to guide the discussion of each woman’s work, focusing on the strengths in her writing and the opportunities it presented to mine deeper. After the material was enjoyed and dissected, I would present a second prompt for another round of writing and discussion.

I confess that I was initially a bit skeptical that anything productive could come of such short writing spurts. As a journalist and author, I cleave to the marathon mentality: write, then  rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. My concern was that these sprints would do little to enlarge each group member’s writing skills and personal delight in the writing process.

Getting to Know Each Other

I was wrong. As the weeks compounded and the writing snippets accrued, each of these women’s writing skills and storytelling abilities strengthened. Surrounded by a supportive, appreciative audience, each person gained confidence in both her unique voice and her individual story. Each week, the door cracked open a bit wider as these women — no matter what the prompt — dug deeper to mine material from her present and past.

Over time, our understanding and appreciation of the group members enlarged. We came to know each woman’s challenges and goals, triumphs and frustrations, heartaches and joys, politics and morals. We came, in other words, to know not only each other’s writing; we came to know each other.

While the you-don’t-have-to-read rule remained in effect, fewer and fewer people opted out as we progressed. The more time we spent together, the more each woman felt comfortable sharing intimate details about herself and her life.

All of this, just by sitting down and writing communally for 90 minutes every week.

Carving Out Time to Write

Toward the end of my tenure with the group, I asked the women what they got from our weekly sessions. Each answer was somewhat different. One participant spoke of “catharsis, an internal cleanse.” Another spoke of “letting out the silent me.” Where one member wanted to “capture emotions,” another aimed to “free myself from all that encumbers and soar.” One woman aspired to setting down remembrances as a legacy for her children, another to preserving her mother’s past. Then there was this: “I love the tactile pleasure of pen and paper, the effortlessness.”

You don’t need a professional writer to get such a group started. All you need is some women (hey, men, too) who are interested in carving time each week to sit down and write, then use the resulting pieces as a leaping-off point for discussions about writing and conversations about life.

Suggested Writing Prompts

As for prompts, people interested in trying their hand at fiction might dip into What If?, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

For those who prefer non-fiction prompts, you might start with some of these pairs that made for particularly lively writing and dialogue in my workshop:

*If I could do it over, I would …
*I am debating whether or not to …

*If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
*Something you did that gave you pause — was it the right thing?

*An aspect of yourself in particular need of work
*A time where everything you’d hoped would happen actually did

*A memorable chance encounter
*A person who inspired you

*A time when you felt misjudged
*A time when you stood up for yourself

*I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming
*You spontaneously drop in on a palm reader. What does she tell you?

These are, of course, only prompts to get the creative juices flowing. How you respond to them, where you take them — that’s up to you.

Jill Smolowe
By Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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