the third thursday, or why workshops work

Apologies for the formatting at the end of this post. WordPress’s ‘new improved posting experience’ is failing to deliver as promised.

Patricia Oxley’s editorial in Acumen78 focused on the lack of suitability for publication of many poems begun in workshops. I do sympathise if she’s inundated with unpolished submissions born of writing group prompts, but I also want to present an alternative perspective. I encounter publishable work resulting from such prompts quite frequently nowadays. I’m not making great claims for my own powers here – it’s what the writer does with the prompt that counts. Nor am I entirely advocating Keats’s naturally-as-leaves-to-a-tree requirement. But I’ve worked with enough writing groups to know that, given an unexpected, external stimulus, i.e., one they didn’t seek themselves, and a time limit, writers produce some remarkable work that wouldn’t have happened in the same time period in their private writing space. For those who seek publication, their writing will of course need some editing and tweaking and rest time before submission – both it and the magazine editor deserve this respect –  but I regularly witness how minimal this can sometimes be, before work is submitted to and accepted by respected journals.

The rapid response to workshop stimuli is equally applicable to beginners, who frequently exceed their own expectations and gain confidence as a result. Many workshop participants, for many reasons, do not see publication as the main outcome of their experience. I figure many of the South Side writers come on a Friday for some regular writing practice, and to hear how their peers respond to the same prompt. If something publishable happens as a result, that’s a bonus. I don’t think they would submit in haste, omitting the usual phases of rest and re-drafting.

I once led a workshop at a Lapidus conference, where participants made poems originating from the rhythms of their own breath, heartbeat and footfall. Graham Harthill was kind enough to observe that ‘the workshop is the poetic moment’. I was privileged to be able to experience this kind of moment myself as a participant last week. Dumfries and Galloway’s Spring Fling open studios event held a preview exhibition at the Dundas St Gallery in Edinburgh. It was delightful to meet one of the Spring Fling artists, and former South Side Writer, Isabell Buenz, who makes exquisite paper shoes.

IsabellBuenz_PaperShoes

Marjorie Gill, writer in residence at Spring Fling, ran a workshop, using the ‘duo prompt’ and metaphor-generating method of applying vocabulary the writer thinks of in association with artwork A, to their choice of artwork B. We had three short periods of writing. Unusually, I hadn’t seen either A or B beforehand and hadn’t had to think about what to do with them. The connections I started to make, the creative potential that was opened up, startled (and eventually exhausted) me. I see this (ideally not the exhaustion bit) happening with others on a weekly basis. That it happened to me provided confirmation of the value of what I do: workshops work. Personally I am a tweaker, a slow-burner, a perfectionist who finds it hard to say ‘it is finished’ (or abandoned) and to press ‘send’, or commit to the post box. I sent a couple of concrete poems (rare genre for me) off to Marjorie for the Spring Fling website. These were inspired jointly by Isabell’s shoes, a ceramic bird sculpture and a print of a deer that incorporated some text. I shall continue to work, with gratitude, at greater length on words and ideas triggered by these artworks.

The National Galleries Scotland education dept isn’t running CW courses this year as these don’t enrol as well as, say, textiles or life drawing. I had a half-full beginners class in the autumn who all wanted to continue, so, supplemented by occasional others on my mailing list who’d been to gallery writing events, we formed Third Thursday. We meet on the eponymous day in a different gallery each month, and I use the art on display for whatever writing prompts and themes it suggests (though there is of course an argument for a more arbitrary relationship between stimulus and product).

We started off on NGS sites, before moving to City Art Centre last month and Fruitmarket  Gallery this month, on the day before the Spring Fling workshop. Their current exhibition is The Possibilities of the Object: Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Brazilian Art. We considered the possibilities of these objects for creative writing, paying attention to their metaphoric and sonic potential, making concrete poetry, or allowing the object its own first-person voice. At the entrance to the exhibition is a group of ten ballot boxes, entitled Cabecas (‘Heads). In post-Referendum, pre-General Election Scotland, these are suggestive of talking heads, debate and democracy. But the work was made in 1968, under the military dictatorship of Brazil. Consideration of cultural difference gave a further, more political dimension to the writing. One member produced a memorable piece by juxtaposing two adjacent works in her words: a fistful of dead leaves behind glass, and a bullet-pierced bundle.
At the end someone else pointed out how this kind of writing genuinely supplements and communicates the artwork, and I have to admit I’ve often had a post-workshop desire to do some guerrilla placing of poems and stories next to artworks in galleries. A number of visual arts organisations, including NGS, of course, have been great at posting creative writing online, or running competitions or supporting publications.
We’re off to Dovecot to write about photography and textiles next month, and hopefully will have studio visit to a working artist at some point.  A minor and not very interesting sub-plot of my working life at the moment seems to involve checking out the portable seating arrangements in Edinburgh’s galleries.
I think it was AL Kennedy who said that workshops can infantilise writers. They can – but they can also be as grown-up as the facilitator and attendees wish. And what about the importance of play for creativity?
Workshops work . . . rapidly updating the AOCB, since I haven’t posted for far too long, Lapidus Scotland is piloting an online Bibliotherapy Toolkit, a collection of prompts and accounts of workshop situations which will eventually be in the public domain. There are entries on working in mental health and palliative care, with dementia patients and sexual abuse survivors, and in prisons. If you’d like to work with the pilot material, either for yourself, or with any groups you lead, get in touch. I contributed a section on working with a group at the MS Therapy Centre Lothian, after running an 8 week course there in autumn 2014. A pamphlet, MS: MY Story will shortly be available from PlaySpace Publications. Proceeds will raise funds for the Centre, which, prior to the CW course, offered physical and complementary, but not creative, therapies. The participants continue to meet independently, and have written a play about MS, which they hope to have performed.
We think of workshops as a way to initiate a process. They can also be a way of reflecting on one. This summer I’m leading a monthly session in Linlithgow at a residential weekend for carers. Writing is used to create a record of the experience for the participants and the organisation, care4carers.  Activities on offer over the weekend include boat and cycle trips, art and craft work, and relaxation and complementary therapies, and conclude with creative writing. That’d be on the Fourth Sunday (or Forth Sunday).
Advertisements

4 thoughts on “the third thursday, or why workshops work

  1. Hi Helen, I was just reading your MS: My story piece in the Words Work Well toolkit, and really appreciated all your details and your mints and tips. Well Done! Your blog was interesting, and it sounds like you are busy enough! I am now doing my own thing at my new Wee Read business, see http://www.weeread.scot
    Best aye, Christine Cather

    Like

  2. Hi Helen
    Loved your clear analysis of how workshops work and how there can be an unexpected creative explosion that blows the writer onto a new path. You are a great tutor. Thank you for all the Southside workshops.
    Best wishes
    Vicki

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s