Shaun Levin

What a Writing Workshop Can Be

In Writing Workshops on February 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm

A writing workshop is a place to gather more material, to generate new stories, to be invited to look at the world and at writing in unexpected ways. Unexpected because new. You go to a writing workshop and you hope to do something with writing that you’ve never done before. That’s what you want when you sit down to write. At least that’s what I want, that every story I write will take me somewhere I’ve never been before, and that I will keep finding new ways to write stories.

Picking people’s work apart is not what interests me in a writing workshop. I think we have to do a lot of the shaping and forming on our own. For me, workshops are about helping others to see that we are bottomless wells of stories, that there is always something new to write about, always different ways to tell a story that we think we’ve told already. I think that a lot of the struggling with our stories has to be done on our own. And then, it’s important to share the questions and dilemmas and choices that are part of that struggle with others, but to actually live with the shaping of the story, its gradual transformation into an organic thing, a world, that’s something we do on our own.

Implied in the workshop set-up is often “I know what’s good for you.” I try to avoid that. It’s tempting to go down that route, but I’m not sure it’s helpful for the other person. A workshop is a space to think about stories, about what goes into a story, what makes a story, and what makes a story last. All this is achieved through talking about great stories, about what word happened first in the sentence, then the one after that, then the one after that. Looking at where the punctuation goes, and what kind of punctuation. I think the most profound course I ever attended at university was a seminar on Conrad’s Lord Jim. It was supposed to be on Conrad in general, but the lecturer spent the whole term on Lord Jim, and from what I remember, pretty much on just one chapter of the book. That’s probably why I don’t remember the book as a whole, but rather that chapter where Jim spends time with the butterfly collector and studies his cases of dead insects.

What I like about going to a workshop is being shown: Look, you can do it this way. You can make a story out of something like that. Or: Read this; this is how you make a story out of two people waiting for the train that’ll take them to a city in which one of them is going to have an abortion.

We have to learn to live with our own stories, to grapple with the gestation and their coming into being. We decide when to let a story go. We have to learn to listen to our stories. In the commotion of a workshop you can lose sight of your story. Stories get lost in workshops. We have to learn to listen to when a story stops needing us, and when our work is done. But most of all we have to learn to listen to where a story wants to go. It’s a process of letting go and following the story. It’s an inward journey to a place that has no words, and because of that, the tools we have – words – are always a gesture of translation, always doomed to be as close to precise as we can.

One thing I love doing in workshops is looking for the connections between the fragments someone has written, to see if you join Fragment A and Fragment B (and C) in this way, layers can be added to the drama of a story. Or: if you’d just tweak this in one or two of the Fragments, the story will fall into place. It’s easier to do that with other people’s work. You need an outsider’s eye for that. An outsider’s eye is really the equivalent of time and distance, because with enough time and distance we become outsiders to our own stories,. Then we can see – if we’re lucky, if we’re open – the connections between the Fragments that were hidden to us in the initial stages of creation.

Writing workshops are a good place to accumulate Fragments.

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