Workshop Theory

A Day in the Life of a Workshop

WORKSHOP STRUCTURE

My approach to teaching is informed by numerous mentors through the decades, especially Genie Zeiger and Jan Frazier, who were both influenced by the work of Pat Schneider. I deeply respect the unique contributions that each of these women has offered to the field and to my own teaching. It is an honor to carry on the spirit of their work, while shaping it into a distinct practice notable for carefully designed and curated prompts, and a unique emphasis on what I call “the spill,” a way to explore and repattern our relationship to writing.

I tailor workshops for the group as it evolves and experiment on a regular basis with new ideas and ways of working. That said, here is a sample “day in the life” of my workshop. Participants arrive between 5-10 minutes early, say hellos, grab a beverage, and settle into a chair or couch. The workshop begins promptly. Often, I’ll ring a chime and its sound begins a moment of silence. During this time, you are invited to get comfortable in whatever sitting position you like, close your eyes if you like, notice and deepen the breath, and “arrive” in your body and the space. I ring the chime again to mark the end of our silence (literally and metaphorically).

I offer the first prompt—usually a brief reading with several suggestions and strategies inspired by the text. Sometimes a prompt might consist of music, art, objects, and collections. Participants can adapt or ignore prompts; this is your writing time. Usually, we begin with a short writing period (10 minutes) followed by reading around the circle, then dive into a long, sustained writing period (perhaps 40 minutes). After a short break, we read and give brief feedback to each other. Later in the session, we often experiment with an additional short writing period.

We devote the last half hour of most sessions to discussion of one participant’s work in progress. Unlike the rest of the workshop, this is a manuscript critique that participants sign up for, and feedback focuses on what is strong and what can be stronger.

GUIDELINES

Writing Together

  • A writing workshop is very much like a meditation circle—the quality of your experience can be affected by others. We make an effort to avoid things we might do if writing alone, such as sighing loudly or crunching up a page.

 Reading Our Work

  • We can choose to pass. When we do, we can consider reading at the end.
  • We begin reading without talking about what we’ve written (no disclaimers).
  • We speak slowly (unless the writing itself asks otherwise) and loud enough to be heard by all.

 Listening to Readings

  • We stop everything and listen carefully when folks are reading.
  • While listening, we can jot down the writer’s name followed by words, phrases, and images about which we might want to comment.
  • To ensure the confidentiality of all participants and our work, we agree to keep details regarding what is shared and who shared it within the safe boundary of this room.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

  • We treat all writing—including memoir—as fiction. We refer to the “narrator” or “speaker” rather than “you.”
  • We briefly comment on what resonates with us: words, phrases, and images that stand out, surprise, disturb, or excite. What’s strong, moving, unusual, or haunting?
  • We focus on what is on the page today. A “spill” is like a newborn—we comment on what’s just been created, knowing it will grow and change with time.
  • We focus comments on the writing rather than discussing related books/films, psychology, or personal memories. While healing can occur through the writing process, we are not a therapeutic support group. We are a supportive group of writers.
  • As people respond to our writing, we get the opportunity to listen without commenting. While this may feel challenging, it can also feel liberating. After everyone has spoken, you are welcome to say something about your writing process or just say thank you. However, do not lose pressure in your “crock pot” by telling the group parts you haven’t written! We focus on writing, not telling our work.

REVISION WORKSHOP

We devote the last half hour of most sessions to discussion of one participant’s work in progress—something you typed up, revised, and want balanced, helpful feedback on before writing a next draft. Unlike the rest of the workshop, this is a manuscript critique that participants sign up for, and feedback focuses on what is strong and what can be stronger.

Please choose writing for which you feel ready to receive supportive, constructive comments, including suggestions and ideas to consider when writing a next draft.

This process directly and profoundly informs and changes everyone’s writing—whether or not your work is discussed that day!

Preparing Your Manuscript

Choose 1 (one) piece/poem for which you want to receive a balanced critique.

Bring in a typed draft that represents everything you have to give to this particular piece/excerpt/poem at this point in time.

  • Page max and formatting:
    • Poetry: 1-2 single-spaced page/s
    • Prose: 2-5 double-spaced page/s
  • Include your name, page numbers, and a working title.
  • Carefully proofread your draft.
  • Optional: you can email it to the group 1-2 days in advance. This gives folks a chance to read your piece before workshop and jot down notes if they like.
  • Pass out collated copies in workshop. Be prepared to read your manuscript aloud and then briefly state any questions or concerns you have about the draft so that the group can offer the feedback you most want at this point.

Giving Feedback on a Manuscript:

Begin discussion the way we always do (with spills)

 Always start by commenting on specifics that resonate with you: words, phrases and images that stand out, surprise, disturb or excite you. What’s strong, moving, unusual, memorable, haunting, pleasurable, provoking?

Open up discussion to address content, context and craft more specifically. For example, you might make observations or ask questions regarding:

  • What layers of meaning does it contain? What is at stake?
  • Where does it begin and end? How far and what kind of journey does it take the reader on? What is the scope of this piece? What audience/s might it speak to and/or for?
  • How does the work’s language and structure inform and/or enhance its meaning/s? How do words, images, metaphors, dialogue, and rhythms speak to each other?
  • How do diction, sentence variation, syntax (word order), punctuation, and other elements of craft inform and/or enhance the work?
  • What revision approaches, techniques, and exercises might help the author further develop and clarify the piece?
  • Identify any questions you had while listening/reading (the writer does not answer but instead can jot questions down).
  • Comment on strengths that haven’t already been mentioned. Try to offer comments that are focused and concise. We pay careful attention to what we are offering as a group. For example, each person makes one or two points, rather than trying to cover all of the points that could be made. In this way, we “leave” points for others to make. If we leave a point that no one happens to address—and it’s significant—then we might quickly note it at the end. Likewise, if we want to echo a particular comment that’s already been made, we simply note that we’re in agreement and this can be helpful to the writer. For example: “I agree that Malala’s lollipop image reminds us the narrator is still a child in some ways.”
  • Identify sections the writer might want to “unpack” or “open up” as she revises.

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