This Thursday evening, for the first time in almost two months, I will not be dashing out of work at 4:30 to spend three hours crawling through rush hour traffic from Belfast to Enniskillen. I will not be spending two late night hours crawling back to Belfast through freezing fog/black ice/snow. (Neither will I be stopping for drive by chips in Augher, or having my customary Lion Bar for desert, or tuning in to the Radio 4 drama about the three Scottish ladies running a clandestine intellectual club in Edinburgh). Instead I will be in Belfast drinking a glass of wine and listening to poetry. Bliss, (or potentially not-so-blissful, depending upon the quality of the poetry I’m listening to).
While I certainly won’t miss the five hour round trip to Fermanagh of a Thursday evening, I have to say my heart is a little sad this afternoon each time I remember that I won’t be teaching my creative writing workshop with the Fermanagh Writers tonight. The last six weeks have been a tremendously good experience for me and I’m thankful to both the Irish Writers’ Centre for taking a punt on my facilitation skills and the Fermanagh writers who’ve been such a wonderfully warm and welcoming bunch of talented individuals. I’m really genuinely sorry to see the course end. If only there was a way of moving Enniskillen closer to Belfast, (perhaps a geographical city swap with Lisburn?)
I’ve taught a lot of creative writing workshops over the last few years. Mostly for community groups and beginner writers. It’s fair to say they’ve been a mixed bag. Here’s a wee blog about my best, (and worst), experiences in the classroom/library/community centre/portacabin/Victorian Palm House (here). I’ve never not enjoyed a writing workshop though some have been pretty hard work. I always approach a session nervous; you simply never know what’s going to walk through the door. By the end of the two hours, no matter how difficult it’s been, I’m always full of enthusiasm for the participants and their writing.
I love watching writers grow in confidence and stretch themselves to try something new. I love listening to all the different ways in which a room full of creative people will react to the same prompt. I love watching pieces of writing develop from a fledgling idea to a finished story or poem, and my final Thursday with the Enniskillen writers was particularly meaningful as each writer read a piece they’d developed over the previous six weeks. If anything my only struggle with the creative writing workshops I’ve facilitated in the past has been the jump-in-and-out sessions where you only have two or three hours with a room full of strangers. It’s hard to do anything but teach when you don’t have time to properly get to know the writers in your class and, I’ve come to believe, creative writing facilitators need to be able to learn from their students as much, if not more, than they teach them anything.
Every single creative writing session I’ve ever taught has been a learning experience reminding me that each person writes differently; everyone has something to say and a right to be heard saying it in their own voice. I’ve long since come to realise that the role of the creative writing facilitator is not to dominate the class with her own particular outlook on writing, but to voice encouragement, to sand down the edges of a piece, helping the writer expose its natural shape then subtly, but quite consciously, get out of the way allowing the participants to tell their stories in their own words fully embracing their own style and theme. I
’ve recently come across a fabulous Flannery O’Connor quote where she addresses a group on the topic of writers teaching writing classes. “The only parallel I can think to this is having the zoo come to you one animal at a time; and I suspect that what you hear from the giraffe one week is contradicted the next week by the baboon.” My worst experiences of editing have always been at the hands of someone who doesn’t understand why, or how, I write the way I do. It can be a tremendously negative experience to be offered “constructive criticism” by a well-meaning, more established writer who doesn’t enjoy the kind of writing you’re trying to produce.
Over the last six weeks I’ve come back to this thought again and again. I had around a dozen people in my class: prose writers, poets, historical fiction writers, playwrights, crime writers, memoir writers, non-fiction writers and just about every other version of writer in existence. Over and over I had to resist the urge to try to turn them all into character-driven, magic realists. The desire to clip and embellish and offer odd metaphor choices was extremely strong. I did my best to keep it in check and, listening to everyone read their finished pieces last Thursday, I think I might just have got away with it. All my students produced a piece which sounded like a believable version of their own voice. I was really proud of them. It’s hard to hold on to your own voice when there’s a lady with a whiteboard and handouts telling you how she writes and then reading you huge, intimidatingly brilliant, chunks of George Saunders and Kevin Barry ad nauseum. It took me years and years to grow confident enough in my own writing voice not to be unduly swayed by other writers. Even now I sometimes get overcome by insecurity and consider altering my style and the themes of my stories to fit some silly perceived audience I have in my head. The writers in my class seemed so very assured with their writing voices. They knew how to take on board advice about structure and pacing and language choice without compromising one iota of their own distinctive style. They taught me a lot about learning in a workshop environment; teaching, as I’ve mentioned above, really has to be a two way relationship. I’m definitely still learning this one.