Sunday, May 30, 2010

Anatomy of a Successful Writing Workshop

When I first decided to organize a critique workshop, I didn't know heads or tails about forming a group in the publishing capital of the world. What did I know about interviewing and screening potential workshop members without insights into human nature, psychology, or human resources training?

I'd reached the point in my life when I had transitioned from auditioning, cattle calls, and acting to other. I'd been in collaborative creative environments as an actor, the school band, member of the glee club, and probably thought I'd always rely on others to initiate a project. 

My earliest writing was personal, not meant for public eyes and scrutiny. I read and wanted to work through the Artist's Way, but I was terrified to go to those spiritual and emotional places the author suggested for deeper writing that would unleash a waterfall of creativity and connection or reconnection to the universe and/or a higher power. My foundation was biblical, not touchy feely, writing letters to myself or to those who I felt wronged me and blocked my creative path. The book would require lowering and eventually removing my actor's masks.  

The original goal was to a create a collaborative writing workshop to improve my writing and eventually find an agent and get published. It was easiest to plan a screenwriting and playwriting group back then. Fiction was an unmanageable beast. Writing for the stage or screen was more direct and second nature for me. I thought it was similar to being a carpenter and stage manager.  

I can't recall now how I recruited the various would-be, never would-be, and promising writers. I remember my small living room filled with bodies in folding chairs, squeezed onto the loveseat, snacks on the coffee table, and the mess the participants left in their wake. On second thought, I most likely recruited people from the last few plays and independent films I appeared in or worked on. Most meetings were held in my apartment until folks began complaining about traveling to the Upper West Side. The fair thing to do was alternate among members' homes or office conference rooms, which later proved problematic not only because of the trek to the outer reaches of Brooklyn or Queens, plus all weren't committed and would show up. 

I felt something was missing. But what could it be? Was I getting in over my head? Should there be more structure? Should I separate the genres into different groups? Should there be safe words and boundaries as there are in therapy or in a dimly-lit room of pleasure and pain? I dismissed these questions as soon I registered them. I didn't want to tip the already shaky canoe.

I didn't know how I would proceed, but I did. I knew on some level that I should stick with it one day at a time. Morningside Writers Group felt right in my bones. I named the group because of my proximity to a once-derelict park that was being refurbished. What now seems symbolic didn't occur to me until years later. A novel or any other creative writing is a pile of leaves, branches, dried soil in need of watering, discarded syringes, and pill bottles. The city and park volunteers sorted and cleaned debris and restored Morningside Park. How many manuscripts begin the same way and are helped through a workshop process? 

The first year was bumpy and emotionally taxing, yet I pushed through the bad behavior, withdrawals, and need for organization and bylaws. Oftentimes I thought about walking away and strengthening my writing in solitude. Over successive months and years, I enrolled in several writing workshops, but none worked for me. I felt that I was on a factory conveyor belt. I kept coming back to my idea my idea of creating an intimate writing salon closer to my Southwestern sensibilities. 

To overcome the early false starts, I had to return to my stage acting core accustomed to research and script analysis. I looked for articles and books on critiquing, editing, copyediting, writing groups, and creative communities. The two books that stood out were Immediate Fiction and Writing Alone and With Others, and a series of technical, business, and creative PDFs.  

All research and theory don't make for an enduring and successful writing workshop. I'd have to put my findings into action with a new group of strangers who might not share my beliefs and publication goals. After I regrouped, the meetings were better because I knew things about myself, writing, and the applicants that I hadn't before. 

I set a bar of excellence that I'd have to achieve along with the others. I read everything I could get my hands on, subscribing to several mail-order bookclubs, literary, and writing magazines. I had to become a home-schooled literature professor in a matter of months, versed in popular and obscure fiction, scripts, and memoirs. I had to distinguish between mediocre, good, and excellent writing. I had to guide others toward more polished drafts. 
The writers would have to have a common set of protocol when evaluating manuscripts and offering constructive feedback. The writers would have to share a vocabulary and representation and publication goals.  

I had a huge learning curve because I took people and the application process too seriously. I had to become less of a father and scout leader, and more of a moderator and business owner. I had to overcome my fear of failure and plod through to the end of each new workshop until I found my footing. It was difficult to say no to unqualified candidates, and tougher still to read angry e-mails and forum postings afterward.

I'm a better moderator now because I developed a thick skin and focus on who and what matters, and ignore the petty stuff that only results in headaches and heartburn. If someone complains about not being accepted, I don't internalize and dwell on the attack. I've created multi-genre professional workshops and writing classes that have recurring yearly participants. Morningside isn't for everyone, and I've learned to live with that. It can't be all things to all people, and it shouldn't be.


Stela James said...

I enjoyed this post.

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The Jaded NYer said...

As someone who is doing the same with a small writers group in Brooklyn, I really related to this post. We are coming up on one year of existence and it's definitely a labor of love.

I appreciate you sharing this experience!