I got to talk with a bunch of wonderful writers at a recent workshop at the Midwest Writing Center in the Quad Cities on the subject of scenes and scene-writing, something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Sitting at the table reading and talking and writing with these talented folks, I realized that I really do love teaching.
I really do. I’ve had my doubts lately in the midst of yet another semester teaching Comp, as I’m doing again this semester. Comp is important, yes. It’s a gen ed class for a reason; it teaches crucial components of critical thinking, writing, and community. It demands precision of language, logical argumentation, clarity of purpose, and smart organization. I enjoy teaching all those things in terms of how to build a solid argumentative essay.
But let’s face it: I love teaching creative writing a whole lot more.
Students don’t get really excited about writing argumentative essays. It doesn’t take their breath away. They do the hard work because they have to, but they’re not in love. It’s not a huge surprise to admit that I’d rather teach creative writing over anything else, and after that, I love teaching lit classes. I’m never going to complain about having a job teaching writing, but comp is, I admit it, third pick.
But I realized something else at this workshop in particular: I love teaching workshops. Creative writing classes are terrific, and I was excited about and invested in every class I got to teach at Lewis-Clark. (I still remember my students with great fondness and, in some cases, awe.) But there is something concentrated, honed, particular, and concrete about the deliverables for a workshop that brings out the part of me that went for a first career in management consulting. The part that loves organizing, designing, developing, testing, rolling out, sitting around a room talking with people, making a client happy, and then going out for a tasty adult drink before moving on to the next project. The part of me that likes using language like “deliverables.”
So here on some thoughts about how to run a successful workshop. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and I’m still learning, so if you’ve got things you’d like to add, let me know! But here’s a start.
- Pitch the workshop around one thing that writers will learn to do. Not discuss. Not hear about. DO. Make sure your workshop description completes this sentence. “In this session, writers will learn how to . . .”
- Have a script plotted out for time. I learned this from prepping for classes: don’t try to wing it. If you do, you’ll spend 35 minutes of the workshop rambling away or repeating your introductory material, and you’ll never get to the good stuff. I’m not talking about timing things to the second, but have a ball park notion. Introductions: 10 minutes. Introductory slides: 5 minutes. First writing exercise: 10. Build in some wiggle room, and be prepared to pare your script if discussion gets into interesting territory. But do have a sense, going in, of how much time you’re going to spend on each point.
- Balance talk with action. I know that whenever I’m in a writing workshop, there’s only so much I want to hear from the leader, even if they’re a super-duper writer and a great lecturer and raconteur. At some point, if they’re doing their job, I’m eager to write. So build practice drills or exercises into your workshop. After all, most people learn by doing.
- Give participants time to talk. Yes, you might get the eager beaver who wants to railroad discussion into talking about their own work, or lives, or other workshops they’ve been in, or whatever–and you need to know how to get things back on track, out of respect for the other people who paid to hear you, not Beaver. No, you shouldn’t expect your participants to generate all your talking points. But take the opportunity to learn from your listeners. And take the opportunity to have them share their work. My favorite workshops, as participants and leader, were the ones where participants got to chatting after and walked away with a new beta reader, writing buddy, critique group, or writing coach. Those connections won’t happen unless you give everybody a chance to look at and listen to one another.
- Have a backpocket. You might get a really studious crowd who whisks through all your talking points right away, or gets the concepts really quickly. Have something in hand for the “advanced learners.” If you don’t get to it in the session, it’s a follow-up you can send out later. Or another workshop to design. But this was a trick I learned from consulting: always have a back pocket. At the same time:
- Be prepared to cut. If you pack your program too tightly or schedule too much detail, you’re bound to run long. I look at my script in advance and have a beta script or backup plan I’m willing to put into play.
- Leave Q&A or discussion time. You might get a shy group who doesn’t have questions, or doesn’t know what questions to ask. This is where I share something from my own writing experience, and ask them to share theirs. This is often my favorite part of the workshop.
- Assign homework. In consultant-speak we call this the “action item”: who has to do what next. It’s a class! Give homework! You’re not going to correct it, but send everybody out the door with a next step. Not just a “go write” sending forth, but a specific way to put your teaching into action.
- Share your slides, have handouts that recap what you said, or issue a list of “further reading.” Maybe this will tie in to your next workshop and you’ll get repeat customers. At the Writing Center I call this the “takeaway:” the students can point to what they’ve learned. This helps, because once the buzz of excitement wears off and they realize they can’t read any of the inspired scribbles they did in your workshop, they still have the takeaway to remind them of how much bang they got for their buck.
- Hand out swag. This is something I learned from classroom visits. At first I would just give out my business card and invite students to get in touch with me later. But then I realized that something of material value translates to something of emotional value. It doesn’t have to be big: a bookmark, a pen, a postcard. A folder to hold all their handouts, with your business card in a pocket. But something to hold in their hand–and store their “further reading” list–gives participants a concrete feel for the value they got out of your workshop.
There’s more to say on the subject of visuals, types of exercises, and how (or how hard) to sell your own books when you’re a workshop presenter. I’ll save that for another installment. For now, I’d love to hear from you on workshops you’ve enjoyed, as student or teacher. What makes the magic happen for you?