Workshops Can Work

I’ve sat through many creative writing workshops, the first in a classroom surrounded by forest on the side of a hill, in what was then called Malaspina College. I was 18, and revelling in my escape from awkward, geeky teen to more presentable almost adult. That workshop was mostly women (and come to think of it, most of them have been since then), mostly older than me. I felt young. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and if I would ever be able to write. Creative writing in high school was never like this: the (almost) adult nakedness of handing out what you had written, waiting for that terrible first comment (which was usually not terrible at all, but kind: those that followed were more likely to be terrible in glaring or subtle ways, depending). That first year we had access to an ancient Gestetner and carbon paper for reproducing our masterpieces. I felt trendy and modern because I typed mine up on an electric typewriter in a room off the library (also overlooking trees, too – there were trees everywhere on that campus). Oh, and I was right: I was young, and I did have no idea. I still don’t, generally. And yes, I still wonder if I will ever be able to write.

There have been so many awkward moments, times of discomfort when everyone around the table avoided everyone else’s eyes, times when you knew – though you should never presume – that the ‘I’ in the poem or the ‘young child’ in the short story was an ever so slightly polished version of the writer two seats away. There have been drawings of phallic flowers on the chalkboard as way of explanation; invitations to drinks in the faculty bar (for me it was after my poem about drinking Guinness on the roof); cosy pot luck dinners; poetry readings where the high point was burning the manuscripts at the end. Arguments, tears, laughter, terror: I’ve sat through it all, manuscripts with ever more elaborate doodles in front of me. In later years the printing happened in the computer lab, where 50 computers shared three printers. Inevitably, when you pressed print for that week’s work of art, it would be churned out in the middle of someone’s chemistry notes or psychology essay.

There are images from poems in workshops that still after years and years dance in front of my eyes. There are people I will probably never see again but who I will never forget. Out of workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week came a great writers’ group that got me through a 90 000 word manuscript, and I’m still following the work of some of those Listowel writers from across the globe.

With all this workshop experience framing so much of who I am now, you would think that I’d jump at a chance to sit on the other side of the table for a change.

When I received a call last spring asking me about the possibility of leading a creative writing workshop in the coming summer, part of me responded with a big “Yes!” knowing it would spark me into some writing and preparing action (read: frenzy). The other part hesitated: the fact that it was in Bulgaria, for Bulgarian speakers, made me ask “Are you sure?” and then ask again, and really, keep asking every time I Skyped or Facetimed or chatted on the phone with the organisers. “Really? Are you sure?”

I just couldn’t imagine how it would work. How could I enter into, in fact lead, discussions and be able to be helpful and constructive with pieces that I probably could not fully understand, even with translation?

All I knew was that whatever was going to happen, I needed to prepare in whatever way I could, as much as I could. There were so many unknowns (both known unknowns and unknown unknowns) that I wanted to control what I could (which was… what? another question I asked myself).

And yet, like so many things in life, it did work, and then some. What I remember mostly was the laughter, so much laughter, and some sparkling pieces of writing, some that took my breath away. It was mostly in Bulgarian, but some in English, too, and I wondered if I shouldn’t be in this workshop rather than leading it. There was great encouragement and excitement over the results of someone’s hard work. We had fun (at least I did) and everyone was creating and trying something new.

So to all those lovelies in the Sofia Life Camp who made the workshop such an enriching experience for all of us, thank you. And for all those who I’ve shared tables and time and writing with on both sides of the Atlantic, thank you. I love how word pictures and memories sneak into my days and remind me that really, yes really, it all can work.


The Making of a Creative Writing Workshop

What I did:

  • stayed calm and prayed. A lot.
  • I asked two teens who have taken part in the Fighting Words workshops here in Dublin for their ideas on what worked and what didn’t and they gave me some helpful feedback (thanks Julia and Zeph!).
  • I changed the Google search from ‘creative writing workshops’ (which led me, of course, to actual workshops on offer) to ‘creative writing exercises’ which gave me lots of great ideas.
  • planned, planned, planned (see above point). I decided to look at 3 different things, one per day: short fiction, poetry, and journaling/blogging/memoir. I then chose a couple of different elements of each to focus on (for instance, characterisation). I scheduled exercises into each session, with my own estimated time frame for each. When my schedule changed beforehand I rearranged to suit, then as the workshop progressed was able to add or delete exercises.
  • realised the limits: because of time constraints, no pre-submission of work and the big language challenge, I knew we couldn’t take in-depth looks at anything. Instead, I concentrated on games and exercises that got people writing and talked about how to build from there.
  • made sure we did some things together (calling out words or phrases to use in character creating) and some on our own (choosing a colour that sparked an early memory to write about).
  • let the discussion go: if they were in full flight, I waited and got a summary at the end. It was all so positive I didn’t need to step in at all to protect feelings.




And finally, here is something I wrote during one of our exercises, in which we created images for the sensory experiences of an object or person in a painting, Van Gogh’s Night Café.

The Vase of Flowers in the Night Café

The floor, down there:

how I hate that dusty, dour floor

It squeaks, squawks

shakes the careful glass around me

sends ripples through the clear and friendly water.

The man playing pool sighs

and I think he does not like that floor either

He sighs and sour whiskey breath

sends me bracing against the vase, knocking

my first brown leaf free

onto the floor.




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