Why A Writing Workshop? Thoughts on Sharpening the Quill
September’s right around the corner, which means it’s time for Sharpening the Quill, the writing workshop I lead, to start up again.
People sometimes ask me what I think writers will gain from the workshop experience. Let me try to answer that question.
- Discipline. Showing up regularly for a writing workshop keeps the writer focused on the page and committed to their work. It’s a way station on the road. Life is busy and it’s easy to get distracted and fall away from our commitment to writing. Being part of a group helps us develop the writing habit.
- Feedback. Okay, let’s face it, not every single person in our writing group is capable of giving excellent feedback. But some are, and they are invaluable. Also, the different kinds of people one encounters in a writing workshop are just like the different kinds of people who go into book stores. Presumably, the people next to you in class are readers (if they’re not, they’re unlikely to be writers). It’s incredibly useful to discover how different people respond to our work. We find out who our readers might be, as well as whether or not we’ve communicated our intention. In my workshops, students provide feedback for each other, but I give written feedback as well, just as my mentor did for me. One top of that, we learn a great deal from critiquing other people writing. What’s the writer’s intention? Has it been met? If so, how? If not, why not? Developing that sort of critical thinking is so important for a writer.
- Support. The writer’s life is full of rejection, criticism, frustration and loneliness. No matter where you are in your career, believe me, this doesn’t change much. (No beginning writer ever believes that, but it’s true.) We all feel insecure, like frauds, battered by harsh criticism, disappointed people don’t understand our work or that it doesn’t find a readership. We sit alone too many hours staring at the computer screen with little to show for it, and our family and friends often don’t understand and don’t support us. There is a great solace in spending time among other people going through the same thing. And sometimes you find a workshop, like Sharpening the Quill, where you also get lunch. That’s nice.
- Energy. I always — even as a workshop leader — come home from workshops energized to write another day. I hope to give students new tools to work with at home: how to select significant details and how to use them to create emotion; how to develop your voice; tricks for writing excellent dialogue; how to use interior and exterior conflict… Things the writer can apply to their work, tools they’ll always have in their toolbox. Also, workshops open the window on literature — the student discovers new writers, rediscovers classics, and is guided to read the masters and learn from them.
- Craft. This should probably have gone first, since it’s the big one. There’s a huge difference between wanting to write and being able to write. Just as there is a huge difference between wanting to play violin and being able to play Shotakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in a minor. While even I might be able to squeal out some wretched sounds on the instrument, it would take me many years of practice (not to mention a certain amount of innate talent) to manage even a recognizable version of the latter. And I suspect that without a knowledgeable teacher, I’d never learn how to properly hold the bow, arc my fingers on the strings, position my body to minimize tension or take full advantage of the instrument’s mechanics, not to mention exposure to the vast library of world music. Good teachers are important. They encourage, guide, correct, inform, broaden one’s knowledge base, and provide feedback. Although good books on how to write are widely available, there’s no replacement for face to face teaching.
I’ve been teaching for fifteen years now. Sharpening the Quill workshops are adapted from a course I designed for the American University in Paris when I lived there. I like to think they offer something a bit different from many of the other workshops out there. So many of the courses I’d attended as a beginning writer were about getting in touch with your inner writer, and as useful as those were, they were a bit obvious. I mean, if I was at a writer’s workshop, I was already motivated to write. The question still remained — “But how do you DO it? How do you write a good book?” I had been lucky enough to study with Timothy Findley who has taught me how to translate that desire to write into prose worth publishing. And that’s what I offer my students.
So, this is a bit of an advertisement for Sharpening the Quill, and if you’re a writer and can join us, I hope you will. You can register by clicking here. But there are lots of great writing workshops around, in lots of places. (I even teach via an email course, when my schedule permits). If you want to be a writer, or if you’re already a published writer but want a way to stay connected, get some support and a little inspiration (we can all use that), then you just might want to consider giving a workshop a try.
No matter what…. keep writing!
Lauren, I can see why you’re such an accomplished teacher and I have no doubt you are able to inspire and encourage your students. I wish I lived closer to Princeton so I could attend your classes. Now that I’ve come across your books, I look forward to reading your work, and keeping in contact. Regards, Brenda
Thanks, Brenda. If ever you find yourself in the area, you’d be most welcome at Sharpening the Quill.
Another thing you’ll get out of the workshop experience: Lauren’s excellent teaching and expert critiques as you make your way. You’ll become a stronger reader and a stronger writer. Thanks to Lauren and my fellow StQ writers, I’m a bit better at both–no easy feat.
Thanks, Paige! Hope you’re well and that we’ll see you at a workshop this fall!