Over the years I have been lucky enough to attend A LOT of writing workshops. As part of my MA and as part of the writing squad, as well as other one off events. Workshops vary massively depending on who is running them, who they are aimed at and their theme. Some are aimed at beginners and might offer short exercises to help someone see if they really want to be a writer. Some might be focused on poetry or screen writing or have a holiday theme.
Both as a writer and just as a person I like to spend a lot of time alone. I am sociable, but I also like time on my own and I find workshops are a great way to talk to other writers who are also used to spending long periods of time working on their writing, on their own. It’s great to use these experiences as a way to open up about your worries about your writing, whether the skills needed or the lifestyle it entails. Last Saturday I attended a writing workshop with the Writing Squad, led by my writing mentor Jenn Ashworth. It was on the theme of Shock, meaning that we were looking at ways to change up our writing, starting new routines, writing in new genres, breaking old habits. Whatever it might mean to us. At the beginning of the session we were asked to tell the group what we are reading and then talk about where we currently are as writers. Jenn asked us to open up about this and to take a bit of time over it. It wasn’t the usual quick spin round the room saying our names and our favourite genre. Instead we all opened up about what we enjoy writing, what we’re struggling with. It was a room full of young women and it felt a bit like the sisterhood at its best. I have often found this happening at writing workshops. Last spring I attended the Spring School at my university and found myself in a room for a week writing with ten other women. Of course in this situation, everyone soon became comfortable with opening up about their lives and I was lucky enough to receive a lot of advice about my writing as the youngest in the group. It sounds like a group therapy session and it kind of becomes one – for your writing. It is amazing the number of realisations that happen in these settings.
There is something about being in a set space, normally a classroom, sitting at desks in a circle. As the hours, or days, go on, you become more open to the feedback of others in the group and then you become more open to your own feedback. Sometimes we find ourselves ploughing on with projects we should have let go of a while ago, or we might have abandoned a project because it was too emotionally challenging, or we didn’t feel up to the historical research needed or we just allowed ourselves to become bored, or afraid.
With writing workshops for beginners it should be about writing activities, learning how to start a piece of writing, how to put an idea down on paper. But the best workshops come once you have some knowledge of your craft. You can lean on the other writers in the group and offer your own advice. Writing workshops have been crucial to building my confidence both in writing and in speaking my own thoughts and opinions. I feel very comfortable in workshops now, in a way that I just never was in university seminars as part of my undergrad. I feel like I have something to say of value and I often share my work now.
Sometimes in workshops your writing isn’t going to be great. We all work differently. I’m lucky that I can write very quickly and with time I have become well practiced at the writing activities usually given at these meetings. I really enjoy trying different themes and styles. I think this has come with practice though. When I first started attending a writing group when I was about fifteen, I would never share and I often would feel my writing fell flat when I came to read it later. Now, I’ve learned to go with the information I’m given, not to second guess myself and to know that everyone needs a good few redrafts before their work is how they want it to be. I try to share as much as possible in workshops because the feedback is often surprising and can give real insight, not just into that short piece of work, but into your writing as a whole. Perhaps you use too many clichés, or reuse one word or phrase, or your characters feel too similar, or your pace isn’t right.
Writing workshops have helped me to improve my writing and my confidence. Whether its a writing group at your local library, a one off seminar during the holidays or a longer commitment to a writing course, I honestly believe they are crucial to improving your writing. You don’t have to take all of the advice, or any, if you don’t want to. But just being in a room with other writers, giving a few hours in that day to your writing, will really help to improve.
So that’s it, my advice for the day. Go and find a writing group, or go and find a really good online writing forum or book onto a writing day. We can’t spend all day at our computers, no matter how much we might think we want to.