Journey Through the Senses Writing Workshop

Recently, I gave one of my favourite types of creative writing workshop, for one of my favourite organisations. The workshop was my Journey Through the Senses beginners’ workshop. And the organisation was Waterford Libraries. I gave the workshop in one of their busiest libraries, in Ardkeen.

Objects of Affection

This workshop uses the senses to trigger emotions and memories, which in turn can lead to ideas for stories. It’s a nice gentle introduction to writing for beginners. After some icebreakers, I distributed some quirky objects I’ve picked up along my travels: a ladybird whose wings open to reveal a watch, a jade stone, a wooden perfume bottle from Bulgaria.

The participants then wrote the life stories of these objects.  They used the feel and the look of the objects to help them imagine what those lives might have been, what adventures they had and how they came to be there. Some people didn’t like the objects they were given, but I told them that sensations you don’t like can provide just as much inspiration for writing as beautiful ones. The important thing is to evoke a strong reaction.

A Taste of Oranges

We then moved on to one of my favourite exercises, which I’ve written about on this blog before, A Taste of Oranges. Oranges challenge all five of the senses, and people have to let go of their inhibitions about eating such a messy fruit in front of other people. The participants had to describe the oranges using all five of their senses (this orange looks/this orange feels). Eating the orange was an optional extra.

Oranges
Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Once the senses are triggered, I like to expand the activity. After they’d worked their senses with the oranges, I asked the participants to write about a meal that was memorable for a particular reason, which triggered some hilarious and poignant tales.

Musical Moments

I decided to do this activity on a whim, as I don’t normally do it, even though music is integral to my own writing practise. When you do activities, you don’t know which ones will work out. The other activities had gone smoothly, but I was still waiting for that ‘foom’ moment when the group takes off. It came with this activity.

I played a piece of music (Apache by The Shadows), and the participants had to write the names of a person, a colour and a place that the music made them think of. They then wove those three words into a short story. The resulting stories took us on voyages to different parts of the world, and prompted lots of lively reminiscences.

How do you incorporate the senses in your writing? Are you drawn to beautiful sensations, or to more troubling ones? If you’re a workshop facilitator, do you do activities based on the senses?

Can Books Be Introverted?

Have you ever read a book where all the ingredients are in place, but the story fails to ignite? I’m sure the experience will be familiar to many of you. I experienced it recently with a book that came highly commended from many quarters. But rather than simply shrug it off as a dull reading experience, I fell to pondering on what qualities had made the book dull for me.

And I concluded that the book was too introverted for me.

I once heard the acclaimed author Mary Costello talk about writing in an introverted style. She is an introvert herself, and considers loneliness to be a natural state for her human being. This leaked into her writing, into the small, delicate stories she creates.

MaryCostello
Mary Costello: an introverted writer.

I’ve written before about that special quality I call “the crackle,” an extra ingredient of passion or excitement that makes a book to life. Now I think of it, the crackle is a quality associated with extroversion: noisy stories that aren’t afraid to put themselves out there.

You could argue that it’s the writer who’s introverted, not the stories. But I do think some stories give you the chance to experience the world from the viewpoint of an introvert, with inspiration drawn from within.

Here’s my take on what makes a story introvert or extrovert?

Characters

Extroverted stories tend to have a large cast of characters who talk a lot, so there’s lots of dialogue. Extroverts like a crowd, so there always plenty of colourful types to get to know when you’re reading the stories. Introverted stories will only have one or two central characters, and there’s less dialogue. Instead, you’re more likely to get an insight into their thoughts.

Theme

Even when a story deals with the everyday, that can be a microcosm of bigger themes. But an extrovert writer is more likely to sweep you up in an epic tale that tackles themes like love and death on a grand scale, with lots of battles and passionate clinches. In an introverted story, the action could be concentrated on one room, with the theme gradually revealed through the character’s actions and inner dialogue.

Language

Extrovert writers are more likely to write with bold brush strokes, because they want their words to be noticed. Introvert writers use more delicate strokes to paint subtle portraits. Just as introverts in real life like to think things out, you’ll have to work a little harder to figure out what the author is trying to say. This

Do you think stories can have introvert or extrovert qualities? Can you think of examples?

How to Run a Great Children’s Writing Camp

For the first time in over two years, I ran a children’s creative writing camp. After such a long gap, the prospect of this camp was quite a challenge. Especially since I had changed the format of the camp. Previously, I had run the camp in five two-hour sessions. But this year, I decided to run a three-day camp, with each session lasting 3.5 hours. Feedback from parents told me that this would be much more convenient for working parents.

The thought of holding children’s attention for that long, and indeed keeping up my own energy levels, was quite daunting. What’s more, the children who enrolled were a mix of ages and abilities. Three of them were boys, and my experience with them was more limited, as it’s usually girls who show more interest in the writing camps I run.

Here are three things I did to help me overcome these challenges.

Prepared Well

I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to hold the children’s attention. As well as my usual writing activities, I thought of word games and picture based activities that would offer a bit of variety and hold their attention. I also had to think about what we would do during the break, rain or shine. In the end, I didn’t need the extra activities. Since the length of time for the camp was more or less the same as in my previous camps, I had enough material with my main writing activities to last for the entire camp. And the children’s concentration never flagged.

Asserted Authority

This is the most challenging aspect of running children’s camps for me. You’re not the children’s teacher or parent, so you can’t discipline them. But you’re also not their friend. Creating a warm, trusting relationship and giving clear instructions for activities wards off a lot of issues. But when issues did arise during this camp, I made it clear what I didn’t like and how I wanted the children to behave, I also took any actions which I felt would be in the best interests of the group. As a result, I felt more in control, and the children didn’t step outside the boundaries.

Set Concrete Tasks

This group of children responded better to activities that had a clear outcome at the end. The more whimsical activities went down less well because they couldn’t see the purpose of them. The boys in particular were more likely to switch on if there was a clear end in sight. As a result, when it came to writing a full-length story on the last day, they were very focused, and you could see their skills starting to come together, they began to see why we had been doing all these activities, and took pride in the end result.

Children's Summer Writing Camp 2017
Children at writing camp hard at work creating stories.

 

Outcome of Camp

Dare I say it, this was my most successful children’s creative writing camp. Much of the credit for this goes to the ten lovely children who came to the camp. They were open, creative, kind and respectful to each other. The children not only wrote their own original stories, but read them in front of an audience of their parents. They may have forgotten about it all by now, but I can only hope a little seed of creativity was planted, which will bear fruit in later life.

If you run a children’s activity, what do you do to make it fun and fulfilling for them? If you’re a parent, what benefits do you hope your children will gain from attending a camp?

A Wonderful Writing Workshop

In February, I was to give a memoir-writing course in Dungarvan, but the numbers weren’t high enough for the course to run. This was becoming a regular pattern for my workshops, and I decided it was time for a workshop revamp. After all, I love giving them, and the people who come to my workshops seem to love attending them. I decided I would take back control of my own workshops and promote them myself. My promotional campaign was a success, and on the day of the workshop, 12 souls arrived – my biggest number ever. People were even fighting for places, which was a great boost to the ego.

Workshop Introduction

The workshop was being held in a truly heavenly location, the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore. The day happened to be sunny, and the sea views were stunning. The windows are deep-set, and some of the participants used the window ledges for their writing, looking out the window for inspiration.

Coastguard Cultural Centre

Coastguard Cultural Centre. Pic taken from the centre’s website.

After introducing the workshop and talking generally about the evolution of memoir as a form, we kicked off with the warm-up exercises, which were all designed to help people tap into their natural storytelling abilities. A Chinese Whispers style exercise showed them that stories can take you to unexpected places. A paired exercise where people told stories about their day helped people to see that ordinary lives are rich with events that provide inspiration for stories.

Shaping the Story

In this workshop, my goal was to give people the tools and confidence to put a story together and realise how doable it was. As it was a three-hour workshop, a relatively short space of time, I kept the focus on plot and structure, in particular, the three-act structure. This is a classic structure. In the first act, you set the scene, in the second act, the action unfolds and in the third act, the story reaches a resolution.

We did brainstorming to help the group come up with an event in their lives that they could develop into a story. I asked them to identify three events in their lives, big or small, recent or from the distant past. Out of those three, they would choose one to expand into a story. At this point, there was some confusion. The group were finding it hard to see how this process would lead them towards a story. There is always this point in a workshop, and as workshop facilitator, you ask yourself if you’ve taken the right path, or brought the group beyond where they’re able to go.

Writing the Story

But then, once they had chosen the event, I gave them a questionnaire to fill out, based on the three-act structure, and once they started to fill that in, the structure started to make sense. As the group started to write the story itself, “the hum” had begun. This is what I call that moment when all the pieces start to fall into place and a workshop group starts to understand how powerful writing can be. The air goes still, but there’s a current of concentration in the air, a current so strong, you almost fancy you can hear it come.

Some groups need a lot of time to put their story together, and I had allowed plenty of time for that. But the stories came together remarkably quickly for this group. I had noticed that before when I used this structure with the group, and I thought that was a one-off. But it seems that using the three-act structure really does help ideas to fall into place. Some of the group read their stories, and the room filled with laughter and tears. By the time the workshop ended, each person had created their own unique story, something I hope they will always treasure.

My Upcoming Writerly Year

A new year, a new start. Even the most cynical soul can’t help but be seduced by the thought that 1 January means a new beginning. It’s a cliché at this stage that a new year goes hand in hand with new year’s resolutions, but I’m allowing myself to be seduced, and I’ve put together some writerly resolutions for the year ahead. Some are personal, and may be revealed in due course once there’s something to reveal. But for the moment, I’m going to concentrate on my goals for the three main writing-related services I offer.

question-marks
What are my writerly goals for the year?

Creative Writing Workshops

I’m hoping this will be a packed year for writing workshops for adults and children. I’m relaunching my children’s writing camps for Easter and summer, which will be for 8-12 year olds. I also want to give more memoir workshops and am scheduled to give one for eight weeks in Dungarvan starting in February. I’m also gunning hard to get funding for workshops for people with disabilities, in particular with the National Council for the Blind in Dublin. We’re planning to apply for funding from Arts and Disability Ireland and by the end of the year, we’ll know whether we’ve succeeded.

Content Writing

Towards the end of last year, I noticed that businesses were starting to contact me again about writing content for them. I see this as a sign of economic recovery and will be looking to write more content for small businesses, and possibly on an outsourced basis for larger companies which specialise in marketing. I’m particularly interested in helping businesses develop an overall strategy for their content, which will give them the tools to create their own content.

Editing

I’ve done some proofreading and copy editing courses, and this year, I want to put the skills I’ve learned on those into practise. But I believe I can be of most help to people in the area of developmental editing: in other words, helping them with the overall structure of their stories. A lot of the work I have done has naturally fallen into that category, and it’s a privilege to help people bring their stories to the next level.

What are your writerly resolutions for 2017? Are you going to finish that novel or develop a new service? Or are you simply going to write on? Whatever you do, best of luck to you all and a happy, writerly New Year.

A Tale of Two Creative Writing Students

When you give creative writing classes, you develop a real bond with your students. The process of writing means you automatically go beyond the surface layer that people present to the world, and you have the privilege of glimpsing what lies underneath. Then when the class is over, these people disappear from your life, and it’s a wrench. Apart from missing them personally, I often find myself wondering how their stories ended, in life and in books.

Though I’m not known for my discretion, I try not to talk about the individual students who come to my workshops. What happens in class is often too precious to broadcast. But last week, I heard the stories of two students, so I’ve decided to make an exception and share those stories.

Publishing Success

Every so often, a student will come into your class who has an extra bit of spark, a quirky way of looking at the world which they’re able to put into words. Joannie Browne was such a student. Her writing was incredibly droll. When I asked the class to deliberately write a piece that they thought was crap, she satirised the idea wonderfully and had us all in stitches.

Now Joanie has channelled that humour into poetry and contacted me to tell me she has published a book of humorous verse called Views to Amuse. It’s a self-published book, published by a printer that specialises in self-published authors, and it’s available in bookshops in Cashel and Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It’s a handsome little production and she is quite rightly delighted with her success.

 

views-to-amuse
Joanie Browne’s creative writing success.

Discovering Creativity

The second story is more bittersweet. I was contacted by the husband of a woman I had taught. I remembered her as a person whose formal exterior hid a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for dark, gothic writing. She hadn’t written in decades when she came to my class, but the text from her husband told me she had written 10 short stories since then. He also told me the reason why I was hearing from him instead of her was because she had died. While I was saddened, I was comforted by the thought that she had reconnected with her creativity, and I hope her husband is too.

Have you ever heard from a former workshop student? Or have you as a student ever contacted your tutor when you’ve had a publishing triumph or tribulation? We do appreciate hearing from you!

Christmas Writing Workshop for Children

I’m delighted that after a gap of a couple of years, I’m giving a Christmas themed writing workshop for children. Christmas is a time for stories, and this workshop will give children a chance to write their own stories. Have you ever noticed that a lot of Christmas stories are about unlikely heroes: a grumpy Santa Claus, a disruptive elf, a seemingly nerdy child who prevents his family home from being robbed?

The Christmas story the children in this workshop tell features an unlikely hero, an elf who’s clumsy, and who the other elves laugh at. But this elf has a secret power, so when the treasure that gives Santa his magic is stolen, only this elf can save Christmas for all the boys and girls in the world. The children will build this story step by step, and by the end of the two-hour workshop, they’ll have completed their story?

Here are the steps we’ll be taking.

The Warm-Up: This part won’t have anything to do with either Christmas or storytelling, but it’s necessary for building bonds and getting in the mood. I will do activities that have been very successful in other workshops, which will make the children laugh and help them get into the right frame of mind for writing.

What If: A lot of great stories start when the writer asks what if? The children will imagine three things they would do in the event that different unlikely Christmas events may happen: for example, if Christmas were cancelled. Some of the scenarios will relate to the upcoming story, such as what they would do if they got control of Santa’s sleigh.

Character Sketch: Every story has a central character, and this activity will get the children thinking about theirs. They’ll receive a picture of the hapless elf and come up with a bio for them, using different headings laid out on a page. The most important aspect of this character is their special power. This is what will drive the success of the story.

christmas-elf
The elf at the centre of the children’s Christmas story.

Creating a Country: Stories also need a world for the characters to live in. This workshop is for 8-12 year olds, and this age group loves world-building, the power that comes with creating your own country. In this case, the children will imagine that Santa’s workshop has relocated to a magical Christmas land of their own making.

Story Spine: The previous activities helped the children come up with the ingredients for their story. The story spine will help them put those ingredients together. In a story spine, you are given a set of sentences with blank spaces, and you fill in the blank spaces to create the structure for a story. The children will use the information from the previous activities to fill in the blank spaces.

Writing the Story: With the story spine, the story is more or less complete, but the children can also use it to expand the story, to add flesh to the basic details. Most children come away with a one-page story, complete with little pictures to add colour.

What’s your favourite Christmas story? And have you ever written a Christmas story of your own?

Writing History: Stories of Waterford Women in 1916

It’s hard to escape the 1916 Rising in Ireland at the moment. It’s being commemorated in all sorts of ways. And I’ve decided to play my own small part, with a project that tells the stories of ordinary women in Waterford City during the Rising. The idea planted itself in my head when I went to a meeting in Waterford City Library announcing a funding programme for projects commemorating 1916. It occurred to me that creative writing can be used to give a fresh perspective on history. It gives you the freedom to imagine what it was like to live in another time, and it fills in the gaps that facts miss.

I felt that in particular, the voices of ordinary working women were absent from history and that the women who fought in the Rising did not necessarily represent the majority of women. I came up with an idea for an exhibit that would use various creative techniques to tell their stories. For various bureaucratic reasons, it made more sense to do the project under the umbrella of a community group.

Women and the Rising
Telling the stories of ordinary women during the 1916 Rising

Pic from Ireland.ie

1916 Creative Exhibit

I knew that there were women’s groups at St Brigid’s Family and Community Centre in the heart of Waterford city. I approached them and they were receptive to the project. We worked together to fill in the application form, to define the project, outline a budget and give a timeline for completion. The project would be an exhibit about Waterford women in 1916, comprising diary entries, crafts, photographs and other artefacts. The participants would be woman of all ages and backgrounds in Waterford City.  

In December, we were delighted to discover that we had received funding from Waterford Council for our exhibit. The diary entries will form the centrepiece of the exhibit, and the other exhibit items will be decided upon by the women. I’m hoping the exhibit will play to their strengths. They may be interested in crafts or art, in which case they might like to create art or craft items inspired by the Rising. Or they may enjoy research, so they may want to collect artefacts from the time, or bring in items that belonged to their ancestors.

Writing Diary Entries

I will be responsible for helping the women create the diary entries, and we will do this through six 90-minute workshops. During the workshops, the women will create characters, ordinary women like themselves, who may have different perspectives on the Rising from the traditional historical one. They were the ones who stayed at home and kept the show going while the men fought, in the Rising itself or in World War One. They may have wished to fight themselves, but not be allowed. The participants may choose to write about their own ancestors and imagine what their lives were like. The women will also time travel to 1916, getting a sense of the atmosphere of the times and what was important to people who lived at that time.

After the participants have done all this, we will have a session devoted to the creation of diary entries. Aside from the chance to look at history in a new way, the participants will experience the sense of achievement that comes from creating their own piece of original writing. And they will learn a new skill, the skill of storytelling. The beauty of this project is that the participants won’t need an extensive knowledge of the 1916 Rising to take part. They just need to be able to imagine what it was like to live through it.

Do you think that using fictional and creative techniques offers a fresh perspective on history? Or do you prefer historical accounts based on solid fact?

How to Make Your Creative Writing Workshops More Interactive

Dave Lordan is a man on a mission. He is determined to professionalise the practice of teaching creative writing in Ireland, as it is in the UK, America and various other countries around the world. He’ll be delivering a six-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre to help creative writing tutors improve their ability to deliver creative writing classes in school and community settings.

I attended Lordan’s one-day “crash course” on the subject back in March and it’s inspired me to change my approach, particularly when it comes to doing creative writing workshops with children. Lordan’s watchword is “interactive.” His workshops are high energy and aim to bring out the storyteller in everyone, even if they are not natural writers.

Talk out the story first

Writing is daunting for many children – and adults. Engage people’s interest and warm up their brains by talking through the story first. For example, you might want to create a lead character who’s a wizard. Ask people to give the wizard a name. Have a brainstorm about superpowers that they think are really cool and assign one to the wizard. Write down people’s ideas on a flip chart or an interactive whiteboard, and they’ll start to see the stories emerge. This approach will get people into a storytelling frame of mind, and they’ll see that they’re free to be as wacky as they want.

Interactive writing lets your imagination go wild.
Interactive writing lets your imagination go wild.

Tell stories in other ways

Not everyone is a natural writer, but everyone is a natural storyteller, so help people find other ways to tell their stories. Doing this is particularly useful for people with low levels of literacy, mixed-ability groups of children and people who are doing a creative writing workshop out of obligation rather than because they want to. Encourage people to tell stories using drawings, songs, oral storytelling and more modern mediums like blogging and video. This will tap into their own natural abilities.

Respond to your participants

Tailor your approach to the needs and interests of the group you’re teaching. If you have a group of sports mad boys, have them tell stories about soccer matches or meeting their favourite rugby player. If you have a group of older people, they may enjoy sharing memories of their local area. The group’s interests will become clear during the warm up when you’re getting to know them. Don’t be afraid to ditch your careful plans and shape your workshop according to what they tell you.

I’ve always felt my own approach to teaching creative writing has been a little on the academic side, which is fine for people with a high level of education or who are already comfortable with writing, but may be a struggle for people who aren’t naturally academic. I’m hoping that incorporating these techniques will make my workshops more fun – for me and the children.

If you’re a creative writing tutor, how do you incorporate interaction into your creative writing exercises? And if you’ve taken creative writing classes, have you ever had a tutor who took an interactive approach and how did you find it?

Facebook Group for Irish Writers

As a writer with a slightly unhealthy addiction to social media, I realised I would need to channel that addiction, so that I could justify the amount of time social media sucks away from my ‘proper’ writing activities. I was a member of many groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, but noticed that they were quite American and internationally oriented. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if there was a place I could go to that would give me information that was specific to Irish writers. There didn’t appear to be any, so I decided to set up my own.

From my experience on other groups, I knew that Facebook groups were far more interactive than pages. I already had previous experience of the power of groups to bring people together through the LinkedIn group I had set up, but to be honest, Facebook is more popular than LinkedIn and I knew a few lively souls who were on Facebook but not on LinkedIn and who would be sure to interact in a Facebook group.

What are Facebook Groups?

This probably explains why Facebook groups are taking off in recent times. Groups are very similar in structure to pages. But while pages give businesses, community organisations and non profits the chance to promote the services, groups are all about building communities and finding a common ground. As a result, the interaction tends to be livelier on Facebook groups than on pages. They tend to centre on mutual interests or locations. Groups give you the chance to target your social media communication, and if you set up your own group, you get to decide who to interact with and what to say.

In late January, I set up Irish Writers, Editors and Publishing Professionals on Facebook. It was like lighting a match and whoosh, flames light up the night sky. When I posted, I got instant replies. I asked the group members to suggest a cover photo for the group, as they’re not my strong point. Within minutes, a member had kindly given me permission to use this beautiful, quirky picture of a bookshop in a phone booth!

Book phone box

Structure of Group

I wrote a description of the group, outlining its goals, membership criteria. Essentially, the group is an information point for people in the book industry in Ireland, in any form, where they can make contacts and share information. I chose to make the group a closed group, which means that posts are only seen by members and that people have to request to join. Members can invite people to join by email, and these requests will also be approved by the admin.

Posts

The posts I encourage in the group include information about resources, celebration of good news, like awards or publication deals, and discussions about challenges that writers and book-industry professionals face. If members have questions they’d like to ask or topics they want to discuss, they can use the group as a forum. My description states that overt plugs for books will be removed, unless they’re to announce that the book has just been publish

Membership

Because I feel there are already enough groups for American, British and international writers and book professionals, I’m quite strict about the Irish criteria. Members must be Irish people living in Ireland, foreign nationals living in Ireland or Irish people living abroad. I will consider people whose parents are Irish, but further back, the Irishness becomes diluted.

When people request membership, I look at their profiles to see if they have friends in the group or if their profile mentions writing or books. If it doesn’t, I send them a message asking them what their background is in writing or the book world. If people don’t seem to be Irish, I ask them about their links to Ireland. Most people answer, and then I let them in through the hallowed gates.

Evolution of the Group

A lot of my Facebook friends are writers, so the group acquired over 100 members right away. Membership has grown steadily since then. As admin, I feel it’s important to keep the conversation going, but I haven’t had to worry too much about that. Members regularly put up posts and sometimes there are three or four posts a day. As admin, I can see who has seen the posts, and they’re getting a lot of visibility, but the replies are what counts and overall, people are pretty generous in their replies.

There have been a few challenges, like what to do about people’s writing. IT is a group for writers after all, and some people want to get feedback. Far be it from me to censor anyone, but at one stage, posts containing poems and stories dominated the group, pushing the more information-based posts downwards. I felt thatgiven that the group is an information point, I wanted those posts to take priority, so people would get the answers they needed.

Facebook doesn’t let you set up sub-groups yet, which is a pity, as it would facilitate people who want to use the group for their writing. I tried to organise the writing into a thread, but a lot of people didn’t see the thread, even though I pinned it so it would appear at the top of the page. Some members put up their writing. While I’ve no desire to censor people, and it’s good for people to get feedback, I felt the group was becoming dominated by the writings. So I left the writing as it was, and left a few comments encouraging people to comment on other people’s posts as well to build relationships, which in turn would give them the feedback they needed.

While I have had the odd overt plug or nuisance post, the group has remained spam free. I genuinely hope it’s a valuable resource for the people who use the group and I’m delighted that so many of them post so enthusiastically. It’s nice to feel I’m not alone in the universe and to get a response to the questions I post up. It’s also gratifying to see other members get the answers to their questions and share their achievements. I look forward to watching it grow over the next few months. I enjoy it so much, I’m afraid it may become yet another social media addiction! If you’re Irish, a book professional and have a similar addiction, here’s the link to the group.

Do you participate in Facebook groups? Have you set one up? How have you found the experience?