Many of us spend a lot of time on the job writing–everything from formal emails to policy memos to new procedures for product development. After years working as an international economist and county risk analyst, I knew I could turn out three pithy paragraphs about the latest UK inflation data and what it might mean for interest rate policy–but I’d never tried to write anything just for fun.
I stumbled on the Philadelphia Writers Workshop [www.phillywriters.com] a few months ago, while doing some online research. On a whim, I signed up for a series of Tuesday evening classes, not really knowing what to expect. It’s turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve made in a long time. I was hoping to unleash some hitherto-dormant creativity; what I didn’t expect was how much I would learn from fellow workshop members, who have opened my eyes to new worlds with their stories and experiences. I’ve also learned about outlets for writers that I didn’t even know existed — and even discovered the world of blogging.
Each week, the three-hour session starts with the Workshop leader giving us a couple of “prompts” to get the writing juices flowing. This could be anything from “writing from the first-person perspective of a young child, describe something or someone you don’t like” to “describe a character by what they are not.” We then spend time happily scribbling away, and at the end take it in turns to read out what we’ve written. Some sessions elicit poignant and heart-rending tales of loss or torment; others have us roaring with laughter at stories of murderous wives or confused middle schoolers.
In just a few weeks I’ve already learned a great deal. So far, the three most important lessons are:
- Don’t be afraid to take a step back and ask what it is you’ve always wanted to try; the results can surprise you.
One of the great benefits of this particular Workshop is the emphasis on positive feedback–members are encouraged to say “what sticks with you” or “what did you like the most” about a piece. This encourages members to experiment with styles and voices, to push ourselves to approach a piece from a different angle. The first time I read out something I’d written to the rest of the group, I was quaking; but the group responded with such enthusiasm that I realized hey, I can do this!
Over the past four months I’ve filled a notebook with Tuesday evening scrawl. Some pieces will never leave the pages of the notebook, but others have been more promising and one became the basis of a short story that I submitted to a competition. (I’m going on the theory that you have to submit at least 30 times before anything gets accepted for publication; so now I only have 29 to go.)
And, writing those three paragraphs on interest rate policy is somehow easier now that I see it as part of a continuum of writing styles.
- You can always learn from other people.
It sounds simple but these three hours a week have turned out to be incredibly inspiring. One of my favorite recent prompts was to start with the phrase “I never would have married you if I’d known…” Group members produced everything from poignant retrospectives on opportunities missed, through harrowing glimpses at abuse, to a comic piece about the reluctant spouse of a werewolf.
Sometimes members distribute pieces ahead of time for a more detailed feedback session in the second half of the Workshop. Reading and critiquing others’ work, and especially hearing the perspectives of the other readers, has already taught me more about ways to approach a story, develop a character, or invoke a scene than any class I took in college.
Perhaps most important, I’ve learned that everyone has a story to tell; more than once I’ve been reduced to tears.
- You can discover new outlets for writing, and even learn new technology.
Through other members of the group I learned that there’s such a thing as story competitions; who knew! And I also discovered that a number of members have their own blogs — something I’d never before even thought of trying. With a little more research I discovered plenty of online help for a newbie blogger; and realized that blogging platforms like WordPress are a breeze to use for a beginner.
So I took the plunge and started my own blog, Abroad in the USA: America Through British Eyes. It’s at www.abroadintheusa.com.
Producing content for the blog has me thinking again about the fundamental differences between Brits and Americans that I had pushed aside over the years; and it’s also just plain fun to write.
And all of this has also led me to write this piece–something else I also didn’t know was possible until this year.
So if you’ve ever wondered whether your keyboard can be used for more than just churning out work-related memos, take the plunge and join a Writers Group. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn.