Every Thursday morning, a group gathers around my dining table for a 2-hour writing workshop. When pressed to describe how the workshop goes, I usually end up saying it’s sort of like an acting improv class, which is more or less true. The improv part is when I throw out a random word or phrase, and then for 5 or 10 minutes we all write like crazy. No thinking before we begin, no pausing to consider how best to phrase a sentence, no lifting of the pen, no crossing out and rewriting. When we’ve finished, we each read aloud what we’ve written. There is no critiquing. If we particularly like a sentence or an image, we say so. Otherwise, we don’t comment.
Sometimes, instead of giving them a word or phrase, I lead the group in guided imagery. I may take them into an enchanted valley, for example, and as they walk along they may meet a tree-sized bird. The bird may be a very wise bird who knows everything there is to know about writing, and if they ask for advice about their current project, the bird will tell them something important. I give them a minute or two to get the message, and then they open their eyes and write it down. Those messages are always right on, every time.
Sometimes I spill a big box of crayons on the table and pass out big sheets of drawing paper. Using our non-dominant hands, we write stories with the crayons. Sometimes I make slips of paper with nouns and verbs on them and put them in a noun pile and a verb pile. We draw slips from each pile and compose sentences with them. Sometimes, beginning with a specific word, we each spend time creating a chain of words — one word making us think of another — until we have a page filled with words. Then we use those words and write a short story with them. Once in a while we actually spend some time talking about the mechanics of writing. How to shift time frames, how to hew to a point-of-view character, how to structure a story so it has a beginning, middle, and end. And did I say we also laugh a lot? And munch on goodies while we write? Mostly, did I say we don’t critique? Ever?
I’ve been leading these workshops for several years, and I never tire of them. The best part is seeing tentative writers turn bold and confident, seeing writers who started out trying to emulate their favorite authors ending up with their own strong voices. The other best part is making close connections to the people in the workshops. I am convinced that writers are the bravest, most humble, most tenacious, most honest, and most likable people on the planet. I am honored to be among their company.