Starting a Writers' Workshop

by Paula Johanson

When I began a weekly writers' workshop in Victoria, in an inner-city community association building we called "The Cove", my main goal was to get in touch with other beginning writers. We got in touch, all right: women and men, teenagers and the retired, "salt of the earth" and "mentally ill", university graduates and dyslexic illiterates. And we wrote, and we wrote, and we wrote.
There were poems, stories and personal essays. We held public readings and put on a writers' festival. Some of us wrote graffiti without guilt on sidewalk chalking days; others found words to write personal feelings. For all of us, there was the relief that here were other people who cared about writing, too, and whether our words said what we thought.
I knew from Creative Writing courses in university that feedback helped me to write better, and commenting on other people's writing helped me look more carefully at stories and poems. A workshop with my friends had been an incentive to keep writing after my twins were born, especially since one other member knew what it was like to type one-handed while cuddling a baby. At The Cove, I learned more, by working with people from different backgrounds and varying skills.
I learned that we could depend on our core of three members, who came weekly for two years, and brought poems or stories almost every week. We were volunteers at The Cove and parents of toddlers, so this was our major social and "professional" contact of the week. We could also depend on four or five members to attend weekly for three to five months each. The workshop was continually changing around its common core as we got jobs, moved, or weathered crises.
There were always at least two participants who were mentally ill, including one of our three core members. We never had any disturbing incidents, only one argument. They were members like the rest: some brought poems weekly for four months, some wrote stories regularly, if not with complete literacy, and some attended a few times before moving on. One dropped in on our monthly open-mike reading one evening, with her head shaved and a glassy stare as she recited her poem beginning "Who owns the rights to God?" The impact was stunning.
Moments like that could not be predicted, but the regular pattern of the workshop was consistent. We started at our regular time on Friday afternoons, with tea and coffee already brewed and paper and pens ready for use. Sitting around a table, we listened as poems were read aloud. Stories were usually photocopied and taken home for members to read and scribble notes on, but were sometimes read aloud. We spent up to an hour giving our reactions and suggestions to two or three pieces of writing.
For a change of pace, we'd refill the coffee cups and one of us would read aloud an essay from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. This book has suggestions, exercises, anecdotes and encouragement. Reading it made most of us want to keep writing. It didn't matter whether we wrote the Great Canadian Novel or letters to our aunts. Some of us wanted to be professional authors and some wanted to write private feelings for our journals. Goldberg's essays encouraged us to write.
After reading an essay, or instead of it, I would pass around newspaper clippings from the Books Pages of the local papers or the Saturday edition of the Globe and Mail. Local news was mentioned, such as coffeehouse readings or the launch we held for a neighbour's local history book. Anyone who had heard of a writing contest or a magazine needing submissions would share the address and other information. Books and magazines were sometimes lent among members. We also kept in touch with the provincia l writers' association and shared the newsletter.
After about twenty minutes, we'd get back to the serious business of workshopping each others' writing for up to another hour. We stopped on time, and members hung around afterward to chat, pick up the stories for next week and then catch the bus.
The time involved? Two hours, weekly. The expense? Those who had any money that week tossed 25 cents into the tea and coffee fund. The Cove gave us paper and a reasonable number of photocopies, and some members who could afford it had copies made of their stories. The space needed? Enough room for everyone to sit around a table.
The most important thing we learned was how to make useful comments on each others' writing without being cruel. Even the most dull or upsetting story deserves politeness, after all, and writers are often very sensitive to the difference between "I couldn't see why your character did that" and "It was a boring story." This doesn't mean we only said nice, bland things -- we tried to show where the writing worked, where it didn't, and what we thought the writer could do to make it better.
One of our members used the word "fuck" almost every time she spoke, yet she never once called any of us a fucking idiot. Another member was considerate when reading stories that didn't follow his personal moral standards. And we all learned to state our opinions so that they didn't bruise the people who would be reading our own stories and poems next week.
Aside from being considerate to one another, each writers' group makes its own workshop rules, such as asking the authors to wait until the end of the discussion to reply to comments. Usually everyone participates as writer and critic, but it soon becomes clear that even published writers may be lousy at analyzing a story or talking about it; and beginners may have been reading for fifty years and know what makes an interesting story tick. We encouraged each other to keep writing and to send our wo rk to magazines and publishers. After all, somebody writes those community papers and bestseller romance novels!
One member sent her "true confession" romance story about treeplanters to the Treeplanters' association magazine. The editor bought it, though he'd never printed anything but factual articles and ads before. "It was about real treeplanters," the acceptance letter said. "It was about us. How could we not want to read it?" We at the workshop cheered her first professional sale.
There are five rules for professional writing, according to the late Robert Heinlein:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must send your writing to a publisher.
4. If it is returned, keep sending your writing to new markets.
5. Refrain from excessive re writing unless to meet an editor'sdirections.
As beginning writers, whether or not we ever hoped to sell our work, we found that joining a writers' group helped each of us tremendously as writers as well as in our home lives. Just being able to express myself better made me feel like a more competent person and a better parent, as I began writing stories that other people enjoyed reading. Working together, for a year or for just a month, gave feedback and a sense of community that went a long way.

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Ten – December, 1994

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