Workshop nurtures creativity

Writing is by nature a solitary occupation, but writers benefit from feedback. When Athens-based, Greek-American writer Amalia Melis felt the need for precious writing time, the stimulation of working with fellow practitioners, and the support and encouragement of a leader, she founded the Aegean Arts Circle to run writers’ workshops on Andros (see left). The first of this year’s workshops has already begun, led by Dorothy Allison, an American author with the reputation of being an inspirational workshop leader. Allison told Kathimerini English Edition what participants can gain from workshops and about her own writing. What do writer’s workshops offer that writers may not get elsewhere? Writers by necessity work in isolation – the writing needs quiet, concentration, and emotional energy. Often, writers reach a point where they need to be able to hear how the work seems to others – to expand the sense of what is possible or to be able to more accurately judge what has been accomplished, and what remains to be done. Very frequently, particularly in the early stages of the writing life, writers need feedback on what they have done and are doing. Criticism that can be trusted is vital. You cannot get that from family or friends; they will just be impressed that you have 30 pages at all, not able to look closely at what you have done on those 30 pages and offer useful suggestions. Breaking logjams A good teacher is also a good editor, one who can critique the work and point the writer where she or he needs to go. A good workshop provides an opportunity and guidance for a writer to begin new work. A great workshop generates new work that follows on what the participant has most wanted to accomplish. My goal as a workshop leader is always to encourage the writer in the direction the writer most wants to move. I want to encourage forward motion in the writer’s creative life, to break up logjams or blockages, and trigger new associations or simply spark whole new stories. Do you have a standard procedure for workshops, or do you tailor them for participants? I have a series of designs for workshops, and I always tailor them to the participants. For this year’s Aegean Circle workshops, I particularly focused on writing the novel and designed a series of exercises to help the participants move forward with the manuscripts they brought with them. With a participant who is working on a biography, I introduced some techniques which address how biographies differ from novels, while trying to help to make the narrative itself more novelistic. For any book, the basic requirement remains how to make it a good read. As a reader, a writer, and a workshop leader, I can help to make that possible. Challenging assignments I also have a number of assignments and exercises that challenge and surprise the participants. Sometimes it helps to feel stimulated in new ways – for novelists to write short stories, for narrative writers to be asked to write a poem. One of my favorite and most successful challenges is to ask the participants to write a bad poem. I ask them to try to write the worst possible poem they can, to compete for worst poem. This often frees them up to write remarkably heartfelt and beautiful material. How does the process of teaching and running a workshop help you with your own writing? Teaching is a form of tithing; it can become a way to give back what has been given to you. It is that for me. I have had the luxury of having the attention of fine editors and gifted writers, all of whom generously helped me when I was most vulnerable and uncertain about my own work. I try to carry on that tradition, the tradition of what comes around, goes around. It is also true that in teaching or critiquing manuscripts, I learn more about my own writing. I see the parallels between my own stalled stories and the difficulties some of my students have in their work. I sometimes find that I set exercises for others that I need to complete for myself. Sharing criticism, I acknowledge my own handicaps and together we come to a shared sense of what is good writing, what is weak writing, what needs to be done and what needs to be avoided or overcome. In the best workshops, we become a community, share resources and spark each other’s imaginations. In this extraordinary place, among people from many different regions and countries, we reaffirm what is most life-affirming about writing and storytelling. It is the story that passes from one person to another, the story told or published, which has the capacity to change the world. Are you working on a book right now? Always. And yes, doing workshops is an interruption to my own writing, sometimes. Sometimes working with other writers is a stimulus to my writing. I am working on a novel, tentatively titled «She Who» which deals with a young woman who has survived a violent assault, her mother, who becomes an anti-violence activist, and the ex-nun who runs a retreat center to which the young woman flees when trying to avoid being drawn into her mother’s political activism. Joy in creation This morning I was up at first light watching the sun come up over the hills and the water brighten with reflected light. This is many thousands of miles from the northern California coast where my novel is set, that goat farm where hurt children from all over the world come to heal at their own pace. But in the pasture near where I stood was a long shaggy goat that reminded me of a scene I had not yet written, and I fell right back into my story. By the time the sun was high, I had six pages I think I will keep, and a rush of love for this landscape and energy for the work I need to do. I am grateful for every morning that begins like that, every time it happens again. Success in this circle will mean every participant will take away from Andros reflections of this beautiful landscape, this rich heritage, this energy and joy in creation. And they too will want to give it back, in beautiful books or in workshops with others. It goes on forever.