Writing Workshops – Do They Work?

playwright at workI conduct a weekly writing workshop called Writing Your Heart Out. Yesterday we welcomed a new member, so now we are a group of five. I cherish the time we spend writing and reading our work, and giving each other feedback. Our sessions begin with a brief sharing period – we share news about our current projects, problems and successes. Then we talk about what we intend to work on in this particular session.
I have written 105 writing session plans since I started teaching the workshop in 1999. Since that time I have taught hundreds of workshops in NY, LA, Chicago and at universities. In most of those workshops we used these written plans as springboards into the work. However, in my current workshop we are all well into our current projects – I often choose to write sketches for my Forbidden Kiss variety show, two of us are working on plays, one on a screenplay and one on a fantasy novel.
Once we’ve identified what we are planning to do, and I’ve given any pointers that might be requested, we get into the work. We do timed writings. I recommend this approach for everyone, those working in groups or those working alone. The benefit of a finite writing time is that you are better able to abandon efforts to edit while writing, and that you are better able to resist the compulsion to “put a button on the scene.” For those of you who are not familiar with that term, it means to contrive an ending, to add a moral, to wrap everything up neatly. When you are writing a speech or an essay, that sort of wrapping up may be valuable, but when you are working on a play or a scene, it’s counterproductive. You want momentum, cliffhangers, unfinished business that will carry the play on. Wrapping up is not a good idea.
So, we do our first timed writing – usually about 10 minutes or so. As we near the end of that 10 minutes, I ask if everyone is nearly ready – it lets them finish off that thought, and then we stop and read. We offer feedback, when it’s desired (and it usually is), and it’s based on the following basic guidelines:
1. Was there anything that was confusing?
2. What did I learn about the characters or the situation?
3. What did I want to know after hearing it?
We often toss around ideas at this point, if the writer wants that kind of feedback. This is our opportunity to analyze and brainstorm. I find this to be one of the most fertile and satisfying parts of the workshop. And it’s invaluable for the writers. Here’s what we learn in this part of the process:
1. How to listen well – this is trickier than it sounds. To truly listen to someone else’s work means quieting that inner mind that wants to go off on tangents, or to make comments inside your head. It means withholding judgment until the reader is finished.
2. How to organize your own impressions – It’s good to take a moment to decide what will be useful and what is merely a matter of taste, and then to articulate clearly what you think may be of value. I often say only a little, and then sit back to see if the workshop members have gotten the same impressions that I did. If they don’t talk about something I think is important, I can always add that at the end.
3. How to brainstorm – It’s very satisfying to add value to the discussion. New ideas may be sparked as each person adds their impressions. We all find ourselves flowing with ideas, and it becomes a truly fun experience.
At this point, we take what we just learned and do another timed writing, either modifying what we already wrote or moving on to the next part of the play. We do the entire process again and by then we have usually reached the end of our three hours together.
I have friends who prefer to work alone, and though I often write alone, I must say that creating in a workshop is my very favorite way to write. I love being able to share my work immediately, to see how it lands on my very informed audience, and to be able to rewrite on the spot, based on that feedback.
Back when I was working as a standup comic, I’d occasionally hear from a fellow comedian, “You know that so-and-so is using your bit.” That was usually somewhat annoying. But I learned not to be threatened by that. The fact is that ideas are like water from a spring – it’s a flow. But they only keep coming if we keep that spring open, if we keep sharing them, and if we don’t get too precious about our work. Be willing to share. If you don’t have a good workshop to join, then share your work product with a friend who has good judgment. I believe that even the most private-process writers will benefit from reading their work aloud to others while they are writing it. Get yourself an audience early in the process. You’ll be glad you did.

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