February 26th, 2017

Eight Things I Learned from Running a Writers’ Workshop

workshop 1

Last week I ran a workshop for adults interested in children’s literature, called ‘The Enchanted World.’ ‘Great title!’ I hear you say. Yes I thought so too. Especially right now when everything seems decidedly disenchanted. 2017 is already feeling outrageously bleak, and it’s only February. The state of the world, our bank accounts, kitchens and shoes after stepping in the dog poo someone so kindly left for us outside the front door, mean it’s difficult being an adult.

But it’s difficult being a child too – I remember worrying a lot when I was little about things that seem so small now, but felt huge and significant then (like pretending to finish a maths test that was too difficult for me). The difference is children still have an amazing capacity to wonder in spite of their worries, and to wonder not even at great things but at small, everyday objects, at the world outside our front door. We have a lot to learn from them, a lot we need to remember and treasure.

It was lovely to be re-reminded of this as I facilitated this workshop. Reading excerpts from children’s literature (Katherine Rundell, Roald Dahl and E.B White amongst others) and taking inspiration from the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner and Aaron Becker, the ordinary became extraordinary. Something to be celebrated. And it was wonderful to see this in the work of those that attended the workshop. They produced such inspiring, creative work and it was a privilege to hear some of it read out loud.  I loved facilitating this workshop and I’m glad I did it.

Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

Be early

This is a very good idea. You do not know what you are going to face when you get to that room. For me it was a great whirring fan in the ceiling, all pipe-shaped and industrial.   It rather liked the sound of its own voice and wasn’t shutting up for anyone. Of course the first thing I had planned was a quiet musical activity to gently lull people into the morning. Ha! Thankfully I was early enough to set up some speakers so I could play Vaughan Williams loudly and beat that fan into submission.

Choose a workshop topic/theme you’d like to attend yourself

Sounds obvious but sometimes the temptation can be to choose something you think sounds worthy or erudite or popular. Or for writers, to teach something technical like ‘Plot essentials and avoiding a saggy middle,’ or ‘How to write without eating everything in the fridge,’ or  ‘How to write an award-winning, successful novel in two weeks,’ (if you run a workshop with any of those titles, please get in touch). Choose a subject you are passionate about and find yourself day-dreaming about. Which section do you visit in the bookstore? For me it’s children’s fiction and nature writing. And books with nice covers.

Plan

And then plan some more. I’ve never been a ‘winging it’ sort of a person, but I imagine that only works sometimes…and you have to be quite eloquent, knowledgeable and maybe have been teaching for a few years. I say have a plan and know how long each activity is going to take. Know what resources you are going to need for each activity. Always check the facilities of where you are doing the workshop and always have at least one spare activity up your sleeve, or on the table or in the bag you have with you. Not in the bag you’ve left at home.

Be flexible

You may have a plan (see above), but if everyone is very engaged with an activity that you thought would only take two minutes, don’t stop the activity because at 10:15 exactly you are supposed to be doing some literary lunges (I just made that up). Someone may be in the middle of coming up with a new short story idea. In the same vein, if your writing activity is supposed to last ten minutes but everyone is sitting there looking at the ceiling, or worse, looking at the door, or the clock, maybe stop and move onto the next thing in your plan.

Facilitate

Facilitate means ‘open the door for’, or to make something possible or easier – to not stand in the way of. You should present an idea clearly and then allow others to learn, to contribute, to question, to think. There should be lots of listening and trying to get people to share. It is not a ‘Megan Primrose (insert your name here) show’. You are not there to perform, to advertise or promote your writing, you are not there to spout all your literary knowledge in one sitting. You are there to inspire, encourage and get others to produce work they are proud of.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself

It’s good to give off a professional vibe, to be organised, confident and enthusiastic. But also remember to be authentic, to be yourself (unless you are a really obnoxious individual, in which case try and be that really nice person who remembers people’s birthdays and asks if you’re okay and how you take your tea). Don’t worry about feeling silly if it is going to make it a bit easier for you. In my workshop I got folk to wear name badges, which always feels a little awkward and artificial but is really helpful for making people feel involved and known in a group setting. It also avoids you calling someone the wrong name (unless they have terrible hand-writing). Also don’t be afraid to be honest about things you’ve found difficult as a writer and to smile and make a few jokes. A bit of laughter is always a good idea – except when someone is sharing a really thoughtful, sombre piece.

Ask for feedback and listen to criticism

You may think you’ve delivered the best workshop ever, but Mandy in row two might not. Give feedback sheets out near the end, so you have a real sense of what worked and what didn’t. Even if everyone participates in each activity, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily comfortable with it. And be gracious about the feedback you get. Don’t think ‘harrumph, I am never going to invite Mandy to my workshop again.’ Instead think, ‘valid point, how can I make that better?’ Also remember to ask what other sorts of workshops they would want to come to. Three people all said the same thing in my feedback form and so I already know I have some interest if I put that workshop on. It is one I’d like to do, so watch this space…

Be available for five minutes or so at the end

I hadn’t thought that people might want to talk to me at the end. This is because I assume people don’t want to talk to me in general (these self-effacing writer types). Of course because you’re doing a workshop for writers who also might be a bit shy, there may be people who have questions about the workshop but weren’t brave enough to raise them in the group setting. Or people may be so enthusiastic about the workshop that they just want to talk some more. But if no-one stays behind at the end to talk, don’t take it personally, they might have a train to catch or a short story idea to pen before the idea disappears forever…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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