“What was I thinking, signing up for a writers’ workshop? I’m not a real writer.” Those were my thoughts before I took the plunge last summer, dog-paddling my way through a week of varied workshops, exposing myself as the novice I was (and still am). Attending your first writing workshop is a little like signing up for your first running clinic, concerned that you won’t fit in because everyone else is going to be better than you. In fact, both groups – writers and runners – are wonderfully welcoming of every level. People are supportive rather than judgmental. Whether it’s a running clinic or a writing workshop, each participant comes away feeling they have learned from other participants.
One year on, I have that first week of workshops under my belt, followed by a workshop in February which introduced me to blogging. And now I have just finished my second week-long writers’ workshop. Time to take stock.
Like most of us in the blogosphere, I felt like there were things I wanted to write, so when I had the chance I dove right in, but just for my grandchildren, who of course are a captive – and private – audience. Then I decided I wanted to learn more about doing it right, so I signed up for the week-long Maritime Writers Workshop last summer. Was I intimidated? You bet. These were serious writers – who had written things people read. What was I doing there? I remember the first day last year. I had signed up for a workshop called “Getting started”, which seemed harmless enough in principle. Surely I’d feel safe in a workshop with that welcoming title?
The beginning was comforting; the instructor talked about how everyone has a writer in them, how the most important step is to sit down and write. Just do it. OK, I can do that. Then she asked us to write something, just like that. We had a topic and 15 minutes. My heart started to race; how could I just start writing, right there in that room? Everyone else seemed to be writing something, so I decided I’d better get going. Before I knew it we were supposed to stop writing and share with others. Share with others?! I don’t think so. We were given the chance to opt out, so I hung back. Hearing a few of my fellow participants read, it crossed my mind that maybe I could read mine after all and not die from total humiliation. But the instructor didn’t push, and I was able to come to terms with opening up to others at my own pace.
What did I learn during that first exposure to writing workshops?
1. Having to write quickly on a topic you haven’t necessarily chosen and then evaluate what works and what doesn’t work is a valuable experience.
2. Hearing other people read their work is really useful. It is instructive to hear different styles and different approaches applied to the same topic.
3. Taking a workshop on Writing Your Lifelines really helps you acquire a starting point and a focus for memoir writing.
4. People who went to the workshop on blogging said it was the best one they attended.
As a result of lesson #4, when a blogging workshop was offered in February, I signed up. Although I have been singularly unsuccessful in following the instructor’s advice to make sure your blog has an identifiable single focus, writing a few times a week has definitely allowed me far more practice than I had been getting from writing stories and poems for my grandchildren. Blogging is really good discipline for the first step in writing: sit down and write … just do it.
And that brings me to this past week of workshops at our region’s annual Maritime Writers’ Workshop. What a difference a year makes. This time I wasn’t intimidated. As with last year, participants ranged from successfully published authors to people who are thinking about making a start. Interests ranged from novels to poetry, from non-fiction and memoirs to fantasy. And, happily, there was a workshop on writing for children. Something for everyone: lots of valuable sharing of experiences and lots of new ideas. New ideas are everywhere.
What did I take away this past week? Inspiration. Motivation. And specific tips like:
1. Your first sentence needs to draw in the reader; your ending shouldn’t fall flat.
2. Avoid going off on tangents in the body of your story; keep your focus. (Anyone who knows me knows that this rule does not play well to my speaking style.)
3. Have someone who can critique your writing honestly, but only choose someone who knows more than you do!
4. Read your work out loud to yourself; this helps you find problems of consistency, coherence, lack of clarity and grammatical issues better than reading it “in your head” (as my granddaughter says).
5. Keep writing, keep reading, and keep sharing.
Many participants at writers’ workshops are there because they feel they have a novel in them. Me, I don’t have that feeling at all. I have children’s stories in me and I have family stories to share, but not a novel. I can imagine that blogging may provide good practice for writing a novel, but for me the fun and challenge comes in trying to structure each essay (aka post) so its ideas are conveyed convincingly. The new tips I picked up at the workshops this past week should help. Practice, practice, practice, right?