Confessions of a former workshop dropout

by Barbara Burt

Years ago I was a serial writing workshopper. I journeyed to Breadloaf. I commuted to Stone Coast. I popped into local one-day workshops. I scribbled down every “recipe” uttered by celebrity writers. I joined writing groups focused on a particular genre. I joined writing groups focused on a particular sort of criticism. I joined writing groups just because they were there.

Occasionally the experience was worthwhile. Too often, though, fellow workshop participants told me, “Here’s what’s wrong with your story; you need to cut out/add/change these parts. This character does or doesn’t. The writing is too spare/wordy/specific/literary/poetic/ adult/childish…” The feedback was confusing, useless and, most of all, demoralizing.

So I gave it up. I decided to write alone.

Every now and again I’d send a story out to the harsh world of publishing. And sometimes I shared stories with friends. But the act of writing began to feel less vital, less urgent. Was it becoming a sweet little hobby? A form of self-indulgence? I bored myself.

Then I happened upon the Transformative Language Arts Network and read the essays in The Power of Words: social and personal transformation through the spoken, written and sung word (edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Janet Tallman). The reason for telling and listening to stories suddenly became obvious: the telling of a story changes both the teller and the listener. Forever.

I was inspired to try my hand at writing workshops again. But this time I would change the rules. We wouldn’t talk about the mechanics of writing and we wouldn’t worry about what publishers did or didn’t want to see—we would focus on loving the story. We wouldn’t criticize, we would appreciate. So I put the feelers out and gathered a group of writers who want to tell stories from their life. I call it “From Memory to Memoir” but, truth be told, if the writers bring in fiction, I’m fine with that.

The reason for telling and listening to stories suddenly became obvious: the telling of a story changes both the teller and the listener. Forever.

It’s been six weeks. I have two groups, one with five members and one with six, all strangers. Are these the most generous, creative, honest writers I have ever worked with? Yes! They are amazing. They are kind. Each session is filled with revelation and beauty.

This is why: every person alive is a writer. Everyone has stories to tell. There is no hierarchy of value or importance. And I ascribe to the “TLA Workshop Agreements” by Vanita Leatherwood on page 362 of The Power of Words: Confidentiality; Safety & Grace; Respect & Compassion; Honor; and Speak from our own experience.

In a safe space, we are free to speak our truth and hear others’. Instead of doubt, there is validation. Creativity flourishes. And that’s the best result possible.

 

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