How to Run a Successful Writing Workshop
I have recently been asked to run a few workshops and I have been very happy to do so. In my efforts to organise stimulating and interesting sessions, I did some research about how to run a workshop and tried to think back to ones I’ve attended myself in my past.
Having worked in the council, I have attended many workshops – indeed, in order to access a good buffet, the trade-off was the workshop. I learned how to mediate, manage my time, work safely and countless other pointless things that I forgot the finer detail of as soon as I devoured the vegetable and cheese bites. I couldn’t think of any that I wanted to organise my own workshops around.
I then tried to recall the writing workshops I’d attended to see if I could get inspiration / completely copy. It was then that I started to shudder …
The first one I went to was very nearly the last. It was held in the arse end of a damp skittle alley attached to a failing pub. The first session was about characterisation and it could have been OK, had it not been for the woman who was treating the whole day as a therapy session. “Write down your most embarrassing moment,” called out the tutor and everyone scribbled away (I could only bring myself to write my fifth most embarrassing moment and that was written in code). We then discussed in length the therapy patient’s most embarrassing moment (which was really really embarrassing and I had to stop myself staring at her with my mouth open).
Then we had to write our most joyous, and again we discussed this woman’s most joyous. Then the session ended and I never got to understand what the point of it was supposed to have been.
The next session was split into two and we had to choose which one to attend. I was intending to make my choice purely on which one the embarrassing woman wasn’t in: luckily she went Performing Poetry which left me in Writing Erotica – might be interesting, I smiled smuttily …
The tutor for my erotica workshop was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, when I had expected at least a whore in a basque. She welcomed us all – seven women and one man – into a damp side room and spread two rolls of wallpaper out on the table: one had a drawing of a naked woman on, the other a naked man.
Our tutorial exercise was to think of all the names that we could call the private parts on the drawings and we started very politely suggesting bottom or foo foo and the woman in the sweatshirt would write them down with her marker pen in the appropriate place. It didn’t take long for me to get bored and start shouting out NORKS! or RINGPIECE! Then the only man in the group started getting a bit over-excited and left for the toilet. I shouted COCK as he left and then the session shut down as we all decided it was all a bit uncomfortable and that we should call it a day.
By the time the bloke returned, we were chatting about the weather like the erotica writers we were. Twat.
But now to some serious points about writing workshops – through extensive experience, research and feedback, I have found out the following:
1. People actually don’t want to do much work. They say they do, but they don’t. They don’t want to write things of no value in ten minutes and then discuss the work of the noisiest person in the group.
2. If you are going to have a discussion, chair it like a demon. Don’t let it be a conversation between the host and the noisy person.
3. Teach – asking everyone’s opinion all the time is a cop out: they’re there to learn from the tutor, otherwise they would just ask their mates. People’s experience is good to hear, but that can’t be the main content of your session.
4. I ask people to write their names on a folded piece of paper in front of them, so that I can use their names and make sure that I’m including every person, rather than just asking an open question that the noisy one answers every time.
5. Make sure you speak to every person as they arrive / leave and thank them for coming. Be in charge, even if you feel a bit of a fraud for being so – attendees are expecting you to be in charge, so pretend that you are!
6. Don’t base your whole workshop on naming rude parts. NOB!
7. Demonstrate points through popular fiction: most people at a writing workshop will probably be well-read, and a good way to illustrate your points are through well-known texts.
8. I try and break a workshop down into chunks so that themes and the tempo changes. After a dry old lecturing bit, I give people an exercise to do – finding common mistakes (that I’ve just discussed) in a piece of text. We can then discuss the mistakes in the text – rather than discussing one person’s work, thus there is common ground and everyone can join in without feeling shy / embarrassed / fed up with the noisy one.
9. We have a tea break and I use this to make sure I’m on track time wise – if I’m ahead of time, I drag out the tea-break. If I’m behind, I get them to bring their cuppas back to the table.
10. After a bit more talking, I get them to do a fun task – like a haiku or something they can do in five minutes. Then more talking, then the haiku’s get read out and judged, splitting up the talking again.
11. Finally, a question and answer session allows the workshop to finish on time – as it can be two minutes or an hour, depending on how badly the tutor has kept time!
I hope that the above is useful. But if it’s made you realise that you can’t run a workshop, and would be far better to pay someone experienced and lovely like me to do it, please let me know. I promise not to do anything on wallpaper. WILLY!