On the eve of teaching my last creative writing workshop in a run of around a dozen, I thought I’d share a little of the “wisdom” I’ve gleaned over the last six weeks. Creative Writing Workshops are something of a non-negotiable for most writers. I’ve yet to meet anyone who makes enough money to survive off their own creative writing. Workshops are a great way of encouraging other writers and making a wee bit of money at the same time; quite often they also come with tea and scones. And, if all else disappoints, they can provide you with priceless fodder to work into your own future stories.
Unarguably the creative writing workshop is, by it’s very nature, a mixed bag. A number of metaphors spring to mind: herding cats, captaining a sinking ship, juggling a room full of fish, all of which are inclined to talk at once, loudly, with little consideration for their fellow fish. Some workshops make you so enthusiastic about teaching you find yourself seriously considering a career in academia whilst others leave you wondering if you might have been better served spending two hours sticking pencils into your own eyes.
I’m no expert at facilitating creative writing workshops. I’ve only taken around two dozen in my entire life, one of which ended with an elderly man announcing, “you’ve some nerve on you wee Lassie, coming down here from Belfast and reading us that stuff, sure it’s not even proper writing.” This was far from encouraging. I also once ended up feeling a man’s prosthetic leg as part of a writing workshop and, on a separate occasion, listening to another man play the teaspoons for ten minutes or more. It’s fair to say Claire Keegan can rest easy. I’m not about to corner the market on workshop-leading but i’m more than happy to pass on these tips/truths to the rest of you intrepid encouragers, enablers and genuine saints. I hope their helpful. Godspeed all you note-booked wonders as you descend upon the community centres and provincial libraries of Ulster with the very best of intentions.
1. You have no idea who is going to turn up for your writing workshop. The people who sign up will bare absolutely no resemblance to the people you encounter, gathered round a trestle table attempting to write sonnets based on the Suffragette movement or Lisburn or the Battle of the Somme. Prepare extensively. Be prepared to abandon all your notes and, on the day, wing it like a professional stand up.
2. At least one person in your workshop will announce that they have won an important literary prize; not quite the Pullitzer but certainly comparable. You will be momentarily intimidated and quickly realise that they are the worst writer present. Subsequently the person who claims never to have written anything more substantial than a letter to their sister in Australia will turn out to be the most interesting writer in the group. Try not to ignore everyone else present as you focus all your attention upon the one person who can actually write.
4. Everyone likes Seamus Heaney.
5. The F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about the cut glass bowl is the answer to everything. However, at least one person present will try to claim it isn’t and offer instead, that Ernest Hemingway short about the toddler’s shoes. Between three and five people present will never have encountered a short story of less than ten words and think it tremendously clever. Allow them to enjoy this moment. Everyone goes through a Hemingway phase.
6. The words, “I chose to disregard the exercise you set us and write my own thing,” will very quickly come to strike fear into your heart; a fear which, at very worst will manifest itself as a piece of flash fiction featuring dwarves who play football. Learn how to hold your face in a look of glazed encouragement. This will serve you well for all future workshops.
7. One person will wish to write about The Troubles. At least one person will wish to write about The Holocaust. Sometimes this person will be one and the same. They will attempt to use some over-extended metaphor to hook one horror to the other. This should be discouraged strongly. Shout if necessary but try not to swear.
8. You haven’t necessarily failed if you’ve resorted to an acrostic poem but you have come dangerously close.
9. At least one person attending your workshop is writing, or has written, a biography of some local celebrity, (indisputably minor), whom you’ve never heard of. Neither will anyone else in the room have heard of said celebrity though they may well pretend, through nods and muted assenting sounds, to be extremely familiar with this person. The biographer will have a folder of newspaper clippings and interviews on their person and if you permit so much as a ten second pause in discussion they will begin reading from these notes and you will come to realise that it would be easier to halt the progress of a speeding Ulsterbus than interrupt them in mid flow. Keep this person on an extremely tight rein. They are a danger to themselves as well as others.
10. If you get to a point where you are considering actually punching one of the people attending your creative writing workshop give them a writing prompt, (stolen from some much better facilitator), leave the room for fifteen minutes and read half a chapter of Marilynne Robinson or Haruki Murakami or Colum McCann. This will serve to remind you that somewhere in the world people are still writing very good stories. Despair is not an option.