Áine Greaney

Irish Author

Leading Creative Writing Workshops and Writing Stuff for 20+ years.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Tag: writers conferences

Teaching Creative Writing Workshops: 8 Ways To Prepare and Plan

I often teach and lead writing workshops—primarily in New England and greater Boston—and there's nothing more thrilling than rummaging through my Evernote files and bookshelves to find just that right article or essay or video clip that will, I hope, inspire a group of writers.  

Leading a writing workshop is a delicate balance of pedagogy, grace, humanity, inclusion and authority. It also helps to have a sense of humor. 

I've been designing and leading writing workshops for over 20 years now.  I've taught at libraries, universities, arts centers, assisted living facilities, schools and writers conferences. 

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Each opportunity and each group of participant writers holds the promise of learning new ways to engage and inspire.    

New to teaching or presenting? Here are my 8 Steps To Prepare For A Creative Writing Workshop 

1. Narrow your topic:   "We want to offer a writing class." Sometimes, the host or events person calls with just this request. It's a great request, but it's up to you to ask and get specifics about the projected audience, its demographics, and, if possible, nudge him or her toward letting you come up with a more specific workshop topic or title.  

For example, a workshop on writing short fiction will appeal to an entirely different audience to a session on, say, travel writing. Equally, an active retirement group may want a different type of session from a group of teens--or not. But you must ask. 

2. Check out the venue:  Nothing kills student participation more than physical discomforts, including rooms that are cold, musty, lack windows, enough space or nearby bathrooms. Ask questions. Go on the organization's website. If needed, ask to visit the venue so you can check it out and actually visualize your workshop taking place in that room.  

3. Establish who's boss:   Once, a woman hired me to facilitate a three-day summer conference retreat in a gorgeous mountain setting.  Fantastic, right?  Um ... Two hours into the event, I discovered that this woman couldn't quite decide who was actually leading--her or me. The students were confused and distracted and it was hard to get the writing karma back. Yes, writing workshops are very democratic and participatory, but someone needs to lead. 

If your potential host plans on attending the actual sessions, establish if it's going to be as a participant, a co-teacher, a pop-in observer or as a supervisor of your work.   Then, depending on the response, accept or decline this teaching opportunity.

4. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare:   Participants deserve to get their money's worth and get the most out of these few hours or days. So it's important to really prepare the content, plan the pacing, the writing prompts, the break times, the handouts  and other details.  Always have an alternate set of prompts in case the group energy lags or dynamics change. 

5. Ask about the technology: If you're going to use  video clips, pod casts or presentation software (like PowerPoint or Prezi), establish your future venue's internet capabilities. As well as the resident laptop setup, bring your own and backup everything on a thumb drive.  If at all possible, request to do a test run--in the same room you will be  using for the actual workshop--and make sure the tech person will be onsite or on call on the day of the event. 

6. Talk money: Don't believe someone who tells you that facilitating this retreat or workshop will look great on your C.V.,  will land you a literary agent or give you a free lunch or dinner.  The potential event or conference may, indeed, yield one or all of these, but none of them is a valid reason to donate your talent and time.

Ask for a suitable fee. Here are some tips from my previous article at LinkedIn. Ask for mileage or transportation support. As a writer, you should be a good literary citizen and donate your time. But only to organizations you actually choose.   

7. Learn how to teach: Many writers' events and conferences hire big-name authors as a way to fill the seats and balance the budget.  Often, these rock star authors turn out to also be a rock star teachers. But then, there are those who do not, or who cannot teach. 

Before I was a writer, I was trained and educated as a teacher. But if you've never stood in front of a group before, get online and learn the basics of training and group facilitation. Your students will thank you, and you may get invited back for a repeat gig. 

8. Ask about marketing--plus the minimum and maximum enrollment:  Depending on the topic and venue, there's a magic number for writing workshops. For a fully participatory workshop with lots of peer sharing and review, 9-12 works well. Fifteen is do-able. Anything beyond that switches the dynamics and begins to morph into a lecture style. Too few students, and it's hard to generate dialog and creative energy. Too many? Your participants can feel crunched for time and air space.  

Ask about the maximum numbers of attendees and how the venue plans to post  and advertise the workshop event to the public. Also make sure you view and approve your instructor’s bio.

As a workshop participant, what would you like to see from facilitators? Or as an instructor, share your tips with us. Write in the comments below. 

 

 

Going On Writers Retreat: It's An Art

My messy table at writers retreat

My messy table at writers retreat

I'm on deadline for part of a book and a brand new essay and oh, yes, I need to catch up on some emails.  So I did what always works: I packed up my notebooks, laptop, books, pens and sweat pants and booked myself a room at my favorite retreat for artists and writers. This is Day 3 and the last night of my short residency. 

I've been here before. And before. Fifteen years ago, shortly after it was opened, I was one of the retreat's first residents, and now I'm a frequent flyer. I've come here in winter, spring, summer and fall. I've come when I've been under deadline, under stress, under duress and, once, after a family bereavement, in that underwater silence that is grief and loss. 

I've done my best work here.  I am my best self here.  I am equal parts productive and contemplative and have often banged out 60 - 100 pages in one long weekend (O.k., so on those mega-output stints, the personal hygiene is .. ahem .. spotty). 

Tonight, I just had one of those great writer-retreat conversations.  

Downstairs, at our lamplit dinner table, the retreat 's assistant director was marveling over how resident writers just seem to naturally and automatically respect each other's space--much more so than, say, passengers in an airport or guests in a hotel.  

"Do you think there's some secret or art to this?" She asked. "To being on writers retreat?" 

"Yes,"  I said. "Yes. Yes. and, well ... um .. Yes." 

"You're sure about that?" she teased. 

I laughed. 

There is an art. It isn't enough to just book a flight or plug the retreat address into your GPS and "head west, young writer."  Whether you're booked for a week or a weekend or a month, you will need to be ready and prepared to ... well ... retreat.   

Based on 15 years' experience (I also write about this in my book, "Writer with a Day Job") here are my personal tips:  

6 Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Writers Retreat

1. Alone or with writer friends? This depends on the friends and what you're working on.  If you're collaborating on a project, then a few days away together works perfectly. But when you go on writer's retreat with a friend or friends, make sure to establish work time and socializing time and to stick to your mutual agreement. If you do go in a small group, respect the other residents (outside of your group). Unless you've reserved every single room, it's not your group's exclusive space. 

2. Writing materials: Pack what you will need (laptop, charger, thumb drive, printed manuscript with hand-edits, audio interviews, books, research notes). But leave yourself open to new possibilities, new sides of yourself. Bring a few paper notebooks and pens. Once you settle into this slower, complete-immersion space and pace, you may want to mix it up and try new writing tools and approaches.

3. Food: Unless the place includes a meal plan, pack some easy-cook or easily defrosted or ready-to-eat meals. Yes, it's fun to join in communal writer dinners. But you're really here to work, not perfect new recipes or waste time driving around looking for local restaurants. A must have: One ready-to-eat meal for that arrival day or night when you'll probably be travel weary and just getting unpacked and used to the vibe. 

4. Be open to new experiences, new people, a new way of being and writing: Especially if this is your first retreat, and especially if you're used to writing on the fly or snagging time in between parental or other family duties, the solitude may take some adjustment time. Be ready for that. Allow yourself at least one day to settle in. Resist the urge to call home and check in. Ditto for social media and email. And if you must check in at home, assign yourself one check-in time each day.  

5. Set a goal and have a plan: Yes, I know I said you have to leave yourself open and go with the flow.  But with all this unfettered, unpunctuated time stretching ahead, make sure you don't just waste these precious hours or days. Set yourself some goals. Have a loose plan for what you will accomplish by retreat's end.  

6. This is not like a professional conference: If you work a second, non-writing day job (and which of us doesn't?), expect a retreat to be very different from a professional conference.  For one thing, it's unstructured, non-instructional time, without breakout sessions or round tables or focus groups.  And for another, it's all about respecting your own and your fellow writers' space and solitude and silence. Although you may have fascinating or fun chats, the primary focus is on working, not NETworking. 

Are you extra or less productive when you write away from home or go on writers retreats? If extra productive, share you personal tips. If less productive, what does work for you?

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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