Lessons From a Writing Workshop

In an admittedly frantic effort to make the most of the last year of my 20’s, I drafted a list back in January. This list consists of a ridiculously ambitious curriculum of workshops, classes, and books to be completed before my birthday in November.  And, although the list was born of a full-on panic that has since receded (at least for now), I’m still plugging away at it. Not because I feel obligated to follow through on a  neurotic resolution, but because these are things I’ve been wanting to do and study and read for as long as I can remember and I’m enjoying every minute of finally, actively pursuing them. What percentage of these self-ordained pre-reqs to my 30’s will actually be completed before I enter the next decade of my life remains to be seen, but I do know that I want to record my biggest takeaways from these little adventures. And I’ve decided my blog is as good a place as any to do so.

It seems appropriate that my inaugural post in this series should center on a writing class. Last weekend, I attended an all-day workshop at The Newberry Library, taught by Carol LaChapelle, the author of “Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories.” I’ve never attended any sort of writing workshop before, and so I made my way down the stairs into the Newberry basement with a certain amount of trepidation.  My nerves, however, were quickly erased by the easy humor of the teacher and the infinitely supportive environment she managed to create. By the end, I was voluntarily reading my work aloud for my classmates to critique, the very idea of which would have paralyzed me in fear only hours earlier.   In addition to pushing me so thoroughly outside my comfort zone, the workshop also offered the following, very useful bits of wisdom:

1)  “All writing is rewriting.”  (John Green) You have to be willing to let yourself sound stupid on the page because, when you first start writing, you are.  Your first drafts are a journey; never think of them as the end product.

2) If you get stuck, consider making a list within a category (ie: rooms in my childhood home, things I regret, my favorite colors, people I love … any category will do.) After you have a list, make a forced choice between list items and begin “free writing” on that topic. Don’t stop for at least ten minutes – or until you come to an organic endpoint.

3) Whatever you want to be writing is what you should be reading.  You have no business writing poetry without reading Keats and Plath; no business writing novels without an awareness of Hemingway and Dostoyevsky.  Write in discourse with the best. Learn at the feet of the masters.

4) Stories that resonate are told in service of something larger than ourselves. No reader cares about our particular story unless we  use it as a vehicle to convey universal truth.

5) Writing is an act of discovery. Don’t wait to write until you can articulate how you feel or what you think. Write first. Figure it out as you go.  “We don’t write what we know. We write to find out what we know.”

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