I absolutely love attending poetry workshops. When I looked back through September ahead of this post, I counted up that one third of the poems within it started life in a workshop.
I recently attended a workshop run by Offa's Press, who hold two-monthly day-long sessions in their HQ village of Pant (in Shropshire) which combine study of appropriate poems, little writing games or exercises, a walk around the locale, and plenty of writing time.
Something about the combination of an early morning, black coffee, gluten free biscuits and lots of dedicated writing time just seems to spark something off. Time is a luxury I don't have in my day-to-day life, so when I have so much of it for one purpose, I try to make it productive. I rely on workshops now to give me time to write that I otherwise lack!
That said, I used to struggle with generating ideas at workshops - I couldn't force myself to bring anything to mind. Nowadays, I'm more practiced in freewriting and other 'inhibition-removing' techniques, so I just write anything and hope something good comes out! But the success of a workshop relies on the leads being able to help elicit ideas from you.
At the recent Offa's Press workshop run by Ros Woolner and Simon Fletcher, Ros led us in a guided freewriting session, to stimulate ideas about 'beginnings'. We used what we liked from this to draft a poem. I wrote about one of my many house moves.
I would never have organically thought to write about this seemingly unremarkable event. Outside of writing prompts, I get hung up on my poetry being dramatic, emotional and epic - like I have to write about life-shattering events to move people. Actually, I know in my heart of hearts (and from knowing some of my fellow Offa's Press poets who do this so well, like Bert Flitcroft and David Bingham) that writing about everyday experiences makes your poetry relatable.
A writing prompt is one thing. But a good workshop helps you to develop an idea, and supports you to move it towards a tangible output (a poem, usually, in my case). A workshop shouldn't teach you how to write poetry (that's what creative writing classes and courses are for). A workshop should equip you with inspiration.
When I ran an Offa's Press workshop with Simon Fletcher back in September (on the theme 'Seasonal Emotions'), I really wanted to help the writers to join up emotions and observations to create beautifully metaphorical poetry. I introduced the group to the concept of 'mind-mapping' as a way to generate ideas and imagery.
The idea is to start with a word and do a simple word association, writing down words which come to mind in relation to the first word. Then move outwards and do the same for all of those words. Eventually, you'll end up with something that looks like this:
If you follow a branch, you'll end up with unexpectedly stunning lines. For example, river-fish-silver-foil-crinkle-lightning could become 'fish crinkle in the water like lightning' (I'm impressed with myself!). We ended up with some wonderful images on the day - I particularly remember one poem which described autumn as 'dragon's breath'.
I have been fortunate to attend many helpful and productive workshops. In my experience, they look a little like this:
- Sets a theme to help you focus
- Starts off slow to help build ideas
- Shows how others have succeeded in what you're trying to do
- Pushes you to where you didn't expect to be
- Helps you to develop your ideas into a piece
- Gives plenty of writing time
- Allows replay or feedback time to share ideas and work
- Biscuits also help
Now, I know that I have the privilege to attend workshops which can be time-consuming and expensive. Sometimes, especially around literary festivals, projects, initiatives and so on, you'll find them being run for free. If you are not able to attend workshops as often as you'd like, make sure to seek these out on Facebook, Twitter, or your local literature events websites, and book a spot. You will probably learn some techniques you can take home and incorporate into your own creative practice.
There is nothing like the feeling of walking away from a session dedicated to writing, having been surrounded by like-minded people, knowing that you have a great starter for ten on a new piece of work. Even better if its genesis surprised you in some way. I will continue to attend as many workshops as I can, and encourage all writers to consider the same.