by Barbara Burt
As we went around the table, each workshop participant talking about her past week, Chris was squirming. When it was her turn, she giggled and said she’d had a funny experience. She’d been stuck about what to write and hadn’t managed to get very far. Then, as she drove along a familiar road the day before, a story began to form in her mind. Not wanting to lose inspiration, she pulled over, took out her smart phone, and recorded the story. To her surprise, it came out whole, in one delightful swoop. However, she said, she hadn’t had time to transcribe it yet.
This was disappointing news. We all loved hearing Chris’s stories. “Do you have the phone with you?” I asked. She nodded. “Would you consider playing the recording for us?” Chris looked surprised, then dug deep into her book bag. Phone in hand, she pressed the buttons until her familiar Maine accent filled the room.
The story was hilarious. We laughed all the way through, as Chris’s voice on the phone recounted one mishap after another. When it was over, it seemed like some sort of miracle. Where did that come from? How did she do it? Chris, a clay artist and newly hatched writer who didn’t yet feel confident about the words she wrote on a page, had discovered a better way to capture her storyteller’s voice.
On another day in another workshop, I frightened the group by giving them a two-stage prompt. The second instruction was to rewrite as poetry what they had just written in prose. “Poetry!” Dave exclaimed. “I can never understand poetry, let alone write it.” I let them know that any form of verse was fine but they needed to use line breaks and brevity to convey the meaning. Each person read their two versions out loud: prose, then poetry.
Dave’s original prose piece had been about an emotional experience. It was full of detail and quite affecting. Then he read the poetry version. When he ended, we all sat in silence, stunned. “The poetry was more powerful,” he said with surprise, looking around the table.
When I work with people who don’t consider themselves writers, I often find that they are intimidated by preconceptions of what “writing” is. Yet, their stories are fresh and original when they feel confident enough to use their own voice. By trying lots of different modes of storytelling—including music, drawing, and movement—in the safety of a supportive workshop, they can escape those preconceptions, and get to the heart of the story they want to tell in the way they need to tell it.