Every year Short Story Day Africa receives inquiries from generous souls willing to run a writing workshop in a school, library or youth centre but the generous soul doesn't know where to begin. 'How do I run a workshop?' they say. So we've gone out and asked a few writers who have previously braved the stomping grounds of our youth to write a guest post: How To Run a Writing Workshop. Our first guest is Cristy Zinn.
I love running creative writing workshops - it's a rare opportunity to be part of a writer's journey and encourage them to keep writing. Or better yet, inspire them to start writing. I've heard many a writer say that writing cannot be taught. Well, maybe you can't teach the natural instinct of beautiful prose but you can certainly coax words from people and help them express themselves. Workshops are not expert-creators, they are small windows of opportunity to grow a writer. I know each facilitator has their own methods for coaxing this kind of magic from people, so I can only share what has worked for me.
As I prepare for each workshop I spend some time considering what I want my participants to walk away with and even more so, what I want them to experience. Regardless of my topic, I usually structure my workshop in five parts (not necessarily in this order):
1. An imagination sparking exercise 2. Information regarding the topic 3. Brainstorming 4. Writing exercise 5. Sharing
Those sections will overlap and sometimes, I will merge the second two and explain as we write. Even though I have a structure to the workshop, I keep things relatively fluid so that I can adapt to the group. In each workshop I always try to utilise the following tools:
- I share personal experiences. I have quite a few stories about my own desire to write when I was in school and how that desire was both thwarted and encouraged. I talk about rejection letters and bad feedback. I talk about the excitement of being lost in a story. Sharing my own writing journey is a great way to communicate my passion for stories, in hopes that my passion with be infectious.
- I keep the informational part short. I have been asked to give workshops with specific topics such as, characterisation, world building, story arc, description and so on. I try to boil my topic down to no more than four easy-to-remember points and will often use visuals to reinforce each concept. The key is finding the balance between providing the basics the participants might need without overwhelming them to the point of hindering their creativity.
- I read examples. Whatever focus the workshop has, I make sure I read examples. I find that hearing well written words inspire participants to write, as well as read. Who better than the experts to give these budding writers an example of how it's done?
- I use visuals. I am a graphic designer by day so visual images definitely inspire me - I use them in every single stage of the workshop (mostly laptop to projector or print out's if the former is not available). Recently I did a workshop with a visual story starter exercise. It was a great way to get the participants to understand that they can all see the same image and yet come up with different ideas. It encouraged them to embrace their own imagination and not settle for imitation. I have also done a similar exercise with music, however I found (interestingly) that music tends to create similar emotions in more than one person. Perhaps music is a better medium to use if you are wanting to evoke a specific emotion in the group.
- Actual writing. We do this in the form of an exercise. Sometimes this will be done in groups, and other times individually. I usually have a list of about three exercises that I prepare so that I can choose which exercise will best suit the group once I have spent a little time with them.
- Sharing. This is difficult for writers but I have found it to be something that builds courage. It takes a lot of nerve to stand up and share something you have written but once participants do, you can see a new level of confidence burgeoning. I am clear that sharing is optional because there are always those few participants who just aren't ready to go that far. I encourage the listeners to mention one specific thing they liked about the piece as well, to encourage positive feedback.
Some workshops run smoothly and you walk away feeling as though something was awoken in the participants but there are other times when you know that, for whatever reason, it just fell flat. Every bad experience let's you know what isn't working and so, you hone your workshops. I am by no means an expert but my hope is that participants will walk away with at least these two things: ideas and confidence to try. Writing can only be improved by writing and sometimes all these young writers need is a nudge - I consider myself very fortunate to be the one giving it.
Cristy Zinn is a speculative fiction writer from Durban who recently published her first short story in AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers. She is also an active member of the South African Writers’ Circle and is the administrator for their website: http://sawriters.org.za/. In partnership with the SAWC she has started an initiative called Write Start (www.facebook.com/writestartkids) which aims to encourage and inspire young people to write. You can read her blog, interviews and other short stories at www.cristyzinn.com