It’s been a week since the close of the Pitlochry Winter Words writing class. After leading in an extended workshop, it’s good to let the mind rest for a while before mentally reviewing the week. I always come out of writing classes on a high, seeing the world through rose coloured literary glasses, and vowing to go home and finish that novel. Sometimes it takes a week to let the excitement die down, and for the banality of life to take over. Then once the excitement has waned, I can more objectively look back at the class and assess my work as a teacher.
Unfortunately, the class from Winter Words is proving problematic. A week has passed, I’m still excited, on a writing high, and feeling enthused.
I can honestly say that my Pitlochry group was one of the best writing workshops I’ve ever taught. Now, before any of my previous students read this, feel dejected, and storm off saying ‘But I thought we were your favourite class,’ please let me explain. This all comes down to dynamics.
Most beginning writing courses allow people to enrol on a ‘first come first serve’ basis, meaning that neither the teacher nor the institution have control over who is the class. Therefore, there will always be people of varying abilities, ages, ethnicities and writing styles. For the most part, this is a positive. As a writer cannot always control who is reading his/her books, it’s good for the beginning author to practice workshopping with someone who may normally not be in his/her demographic. Writers have to learn when to appease an audience and when to ignore bad advice, and a miss matched group is good practice for learning how to deal with readers of all tastes. In fact, ‘You can’t please all the people all the time’ is a valuable lesson in many professions.
Students were accepted to the Pitlochry class on a ‘first come first serve’ basis, and therefore should have been quite the motley group, but somehow it did not work out this way. The class meshed almost immediately, in a way I’ve never seen before. From day one they bonded and talked, no one was too shy and no one student took over the class. Everyone particpated, and that awkwardness that comes with meeting someone for the first time didn’t seem to occur.
Perhaps, this was down to the coincidental similarities the classmates shared. The class consisted of twelve women, and while the ages varied we all could be considered in the wiser years of life. But still, twelve women whose ages span a twenty year gap are not necessarily going to get along. They had different tastes in books, and different styles of writing. One woman had written twelve novels, two women cowrote a children’s book, and one woman had never put pen to paper in a creative manner before. Yet, the support and creative interaction that happened was immediately apparent, despite all the differences.
And, what was the outcome of this unusual instantaneous bonding? Uncommonly good short stories written in a quick amount of time. In three days (the class ran from Tuesday through Thursday), each of those women had written a short story that, with a little editing, could be published. I was, and still am, astounded by the talent.
Perchance, it’s not complete down to dynamics, as there were a few external factors that may have helped the creative process.
- I did a creative writing exercise on the first day that turned out to be a real dud. I won’t go into what that creative writing exercise was, but by lunch all the woman bonded over my rubbish experiment. (In fairness, I’d been using this exercise for years and no one has ever complained before.) This not only got them interacting with each other, but it got them thinking about writing on a cognitive level. Why didn’t they like the exercise? What would they have done differently? What could they learn from it?
- There was a goal for the end of the week; on Friday morning each student was to perform a complete and original short story of 1500 words or less. The story was to be read to the public in the café at the Festival. I think the ‘scare factor’ had a big impact. If you’re expected to produce, then homework and class exercises aren’t as optional.
- I put them in small groups. It’s easier to talk to one person you’ve never met before as opposed to a large group.
However, even with these external factors, I’m still amazed. By Friday everyone was life long friends, the email chain has already begun, and a reunion is being discussed.
Lesson learned: a good writing group is worth more than a hundred creative writing teachers, and never under estimate the potential of a support network.