Saturday 6 July 2024

The value of writing workshops and courses

I have heard a lot of criticism levelled at writing workshops and courses and I would like to set out my case in their defence - and not because I run workshops, but because as a writer I find them invaluable.

I have spent the last couple of years (well longer really) working on a collection loosely themed around grief and loss. I was lucky enough to get an Arts Council DYCP grant last year which enabled me to take valuable time away from earning a living to write, to travel to Wiltshire to revisit where my mum is buried and I was also able to participate in two different Arvon at Home weeks.

Sometimes my students and mentees are surprised when I tell them that I feel it is important that I still attend workshops and writing weeks. I think they imagine that by book four you will magically have the formula for a good collection at your fingertips. Not so. The truth is that despite doing research - reading around my subject area (loss/grief themed poetry, fiction and non fiction) and attending a course about grief - I was still left with myself and my own style of writing, my own preoccupations. Although I had written some poems I was happy with I had come to a point where anything new I was writing felt a bit samey. and there were also one or two events that I wanted to write about but hadn't managed too. One of these was my mum's funeral and the other was the trip I had made to where she was buried - when there my friend and I had immediately seen an enormous hare followed by deer - this had felt like some kind of sign, but for the life of me I couldn't write about it. What I needed was for someone to rattle my cage, to jolt me out of my comfortable writing rut.

The bones of the title sequence 'Grey Time', came out a zoom prose poem workshop with Carrie Etter. I started writing it in the workshop and just couldn't stop writing for about an hour afterwards. Sometimes an exercise, a poem, or something someone says can just unlock something in your head. 

What those two Arvon weeks did was to give me me new ways to approach my subject matter - new ways into writing. In the first of the weeks Rebecca Goss introduced us to a recent form called the centena - a poem of exactly 100 words (excluding the title) opening and ending with the same three words. This tiny form proved to be exactly the kind of container I need to talk about my mum's funeral. It might sound counterintuitive but sometimes a tight writing constraint can actually be freeing. I surprised myself!

The second of the two courses was with Tara Bergin and Yomi Sode and was looking at ways of using research in poetry. This course yielded a massive harvest for me in terms of moving my book forward. Tara's writing exercises are very complicated, but precise, and this somehow opened up mind to possibilities and ways of writing. I was able to bring to the table things that I might never have considered using - map references, references to art works etc. I did a lot of research and reading that week - none of it specifically about grief, but all connected to things I was trying to write about. I wrote a lot that week - all of it surprising, and several of the poems have become the backbone of the collection. One of the components of an Arvon course is that you get a tutorial with each of the tutors and this was really fruitful for me too. Yomi offered me some excellent editing advice on the poem that now opens the collection and Tara made a suggestion that changed how I thought about the collection entirely. I had a sequence of prose poems that ran over two or three pages - just a couple of line breaks between each one. Tara suggested that they each needed to be on a page of their own. This blew my mind - I knew immediately that she was right, but it meant that the sequence would run over nine or ten pages rather than two. This meant I would need to take  more poems out. I was reluctant to do this at first, but realised as I was editing that I needed to take out everything that felt that didn't feel like it fitted with my main themes - loss/grief/, violence, motherhood and neurodivergence. This sounds like a wide remit but actually the themes really feed into one another - the main thrust of the collection being different types of loss. I took out a lot of poems but the result is a collection that feels much more coherent. 

I want to say here that workshops and courses aren't always entirely pleasurable. Sometimes they push you into uncomfortable territory. Sometimes exercises seem pointless or you feel resistance to them (the ones I resist most usually yield the best results), sometime they make my head hurt - but in a good way - because I am learning and being pushed out of my comfort zone. As a writer I feel I need this otherwise I would just write the same book over and over again. Yes, my preoccupations may be the same but challenging myself gives me new ways to come at them, new insights, new ways of working. Hopefully the results are worth it.