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Workshop Writing and Beyond

Valerie Thornton

First, I’ll give you a little background about my work as a creative writing tutor, then I’ll look at the relationship between workshop writing and publishing.

I’ve been leading up to eleven workshops a week during term time, for the last fifteen years, which, yes, is hard work but I love it.

Each group needs to be approached in a slightly different way. In some, the emphasis is on writing as therapy, or as personal development, but mostly, those who come to workshops are there for recreational purposes.

The groups I take are very varied, with quite a few specialist ones, like the Blind Writers or my group in the Alcohol Day Unit at Parkhead Hospital or a children’s group, or over-50’s, women-only or disabled groups.

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Briefly, for those of you who have no experience of a writers’ workshop, in a typical one, each member reads aloud their contribution and this then becomes the catalyst for discussion of both the work and the issues about writing which arise from it.

Most of the work is short stories, then autobiography, articles, novel extracts, with poetry bringing up the rear.

I always have stimulus material by other writers – perhaps from other workshops, or Scottish or world writers – to provoke discussion and inspire the group.

The ideal workshop, from my point of view, has 6 – 8 members which allows time for longer pieces to be heard, like short stories of the 2500 – 3000 word length, which take about 15 minutes to read, and that’s before any discussion.

Typically, though, the numbers are much higher, more like 10 – 15 members, in order to be financially viable. Then, because the class is bigger than feels right, there is the inevitable dropout to around 7 – 10.

Each workshop lasts two hours and we meet weekly or sometimes fortnightly for anything from 8 to 20 weeks.

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I want to read you two very short pieces. These are the first writings of people who haven’t written since school and who wouldn’t have written at all, but for the workshops.

The first is by Margaret Fairbairn, who came to a workshop I was running for the Learning Works Department at Glasgow University.

Childhood Memory

My most treasured memories of my childhood are of my father.

I always thought of my Dad as an old man when I was eight years old. He was only thirty-two but he seemed like an old man to me because he was always ill and quite often in hospital.

When he was well, we would have trips to London, Trafalgar Square, where I would be terrified of the pigeons eating peanuts from my hand and sitting on top of my head.

Then we would go shopping. On one occasion in particular, I remember we went into a leather shop to buy a school bag for me and to this day the smell of leather still reminds me of this.

My most treasured memory is of the last time I saw my Dad. I was eight years old and he was in hospital. He gave me a shoe box containing pens and pencils and a printing set and a variety of objects for school, a transistor radio and a camera for when I would become a teenager and last but not least, a £5 note.

I still have the radio which is now in bits, the £5 is well spent and I have used his camera to take some magical photographs.

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The second piece is called The Plastic Fantastic No. 2. It is published in Salamanca Street Stories, an anthology of work from the Alcohol Day Unit at Parkhead Hospital. All the writers wish to remain anonymous.

‘Granda, why don't you have false teeth?’

It was my sister that answered for him, ‘Your Granda's teeth hurt him so he never wears them, but he’s got them.’

My Granda’s always gumsey. He nanges at his food, like it was made of rubber, and he sucks his gums like they taste good afterwards. He never eats nuts cos he never puts his teeth in.

My brother Joe said it was because they’re haunted. He told me that Granny Eileen came back to haunt Granda after she died, but she wasn’t strong enough to haunt his whole body so she just haunts his gnashers. Joe said that for a while after she died, every time that Granda wore his teeth, he started nagging everybody, and talked about them behind their backs.

I’m not sure who to believe, but Granda should still put his teeth in cos he looks stupid.

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These two pieces are typical of both the talent and potential displayed by many of the writers in my workshops. Whether they choose to develop their talent is up to them but my aims are:

  • To help each writer develop in whichever way they want to go.
  • To help them go in new directions.
  • To enable them to judge the worth of their own work, by helping them define the criteria by which they can appraise themselves. This is largely a matter of making them conscious of the tools at their disposal as writers, and of giving them the confidence both to write and to trust their own judgement.

Obviously, if someone aspires to write like Annie Proulx, and someone else like Irvine Welsh, then they will each have different criteria.

I also aim to open up the world of literature to them, both Scottish and International, and by doing so, to stimulate their own development. I’ve had much success with Edwin Morgan’s imaginative themes and forms, Ivor Cutler’s weird takes on a Scottish childhood and the fabulous black humour of Hal Sirowicz:

No More Birthdays

Don’t swing the umbrella in the store,
Mother said. There are all these glass jars
of spaghetti sauce above your head
that can fall on you, & you can die.
Then you won’t be able to go to tonight’s party,
or go to the bowling alley tomorrow.
And instead of celebrating your birthday
with soda & cake, we’ll have
anniversaries of your death with tea
& crackers. And your father & I won’t
be able to eat spaghetti anymore, because
the marinara sauce will remind us of you.

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I also encourage people to submit work to whatever publication might be appropriate if I think it’s in with a chance. I regularly take in bags full of Scottish literary magazines and anthologies, like New Writing Scotland, Chapman, Shorts, Deliberately Thirsty, Cutting Teeth, Cencrastus and many more. I also encourage submission to NWS and to the Macallan.

Until recently, the literary magazines and anthologies have had a fairly low profile, but that is changing now with the formation of ALMS, the Association of Literary Magazines in Scotland.

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In the last 15 years, I’ve probably had over 1000 writers through my regular workshops.

I only started recording publishing successes by workshop members in the last few years and it is interesting to see the range of markets which have been successfully targeted.

At least ten different writers have been published in the now defunct First Person column in the Evening Times, for which a fee of £70 was paid. Two more regularly have letters published.

One had an article on Tinnitus published in the BMJ – a market suggested by another member of the same workshop.

Two writers have featured in Scottish Memories, one with three historical short stories, another with an autobiographical piece.

From my womens’ group in Airdrie, one writer was highly commended for a poem in Scots, in a competition run by the Scots Language Society.

Andrew R C Hamilton has a prose piece called The Big Sister of Marshal Petain in Chapman, No 94, which was inspired when I gave the workshop Carol Anne Duffy’s poem Mrs Midas, and asked them to write about someone famous from the point of view of someone close to them.

Andrew’s story is written in a unique language, so I’m going to read you the start just to give you the flavour.

The Big Sister of Marshal Pétain

(Translated from the French by ma pal Peter fae Partick who lectures up on the Gothic pile at Gilmorehill, on Latin and Greek, I think.)

Madames et Monsieurs,

For beaucoup de lunes, aye fur many months, I am living under le cloud de mon frère, Général Henri Phillipe Pétain. He wis always, what do you say, a scunner.

From the early days I toiled with him oan le fields de ma patrie. Wurking sur le grun he wis nae good, fur he wis no a peasant true blue. He hisnae les fingers vertigrease. He wis a scunner mes amis, very gallus et très stupide.

It is his grande fortuna that I is his sister, his big sister, who he treats like le durt but is rewarde by ma allegiance tout le temps, aw the time ...

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Three other writers (from different groups) have had stories in Cutting Teeth.

Ian Mitchell is one of the 17 winning writers featured in the Canongate Scotland into the New Era anthology, for which he won £1000.

John Steele, is an interesting example. He went to a class in Ardrossan to learn how to type, then came to my workshop in Saltcoats to learn how to write and has, in the last few years published two non-fiction books with Argyll Press, The Tragedy of HMS Dasher and Burning Boats. He’s exceptional in that he knew exactly what he wanted, took what he needed and went on to succeed in what he was driven to do.

Another writer published an autobigraphical article in Take A Break, which is the UK biggest selling women’s weekly magazine, with sales of 1.3 million and over six million readers. It also pays professional rates to its writers, unlike the literary markets, where a fiver for a poem is good, but a subscription to the magazine is more usual. £25 for a short story in the literary market is generous. Angela got £200 for her article.

Another writer has had two short stories accepted by Take A Break – 1000 word twist in the tail, for each of which she’ll be paid £300.

The last writer I want to mention is the finest writer who has ever come to any of my workshops. I often use her stories to inspire members of other workshops and I believe she will go far. Her name is Carolyn Mack.

She has published close on a dozen 1000-word twist-in-the-tail short stories in Take A Break, at £300 a time. These she approaches in a totally professional manner, reading about twenty, then, in the space of an hour and a half, writing her own one. She successfully places about one in two.

In addition to a talent for popular fiction, she has also had success with her literary fiction, which she finds much more difficult to do, but also much more satisfying aesthetically. One of her short stories made it to the last 50, out of over 3000 entries, in the Ian St James Awards and was published in The New Writer.

Another, published also in Chapman 94, has been picked up by a German educational publisher too, and when I encouraged her to submit three short stories to the Macallan last year, out of over 2000 entries, two of the three made it to the last 29 and were published in the Shorts anthology.

Carolyn readily acknowledges the importance to her of the support and feedback from the entire workshop which has enabled her to realise some of her potential.

The effect on her of this success was paralysing. She hasn’t submitted any literary stories since, and she hadn’t written at all since last summer, apart from a Take a Break story about a haunted mini which she wasn’t happy with. However, a couple of weeks ago, she wrote an excellent, original literary short story and earlier this week heard that Take A Break wanted to publish the haunted mini story.

I think this is a powerful example of the fragility of the writer’s ego, of the importance of counter-acting the almost-inevitable lack of confidence which can strike at any point. After all, an enormous part of getting your own writing published is about setting yourself up to be rejected, either directly with the return of yet another unwanted manuscript, or indirectly with the all-too-familiar endless silences from targeted markets.

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I hope that résumé gives you a kind of a picture of the many directions in which writing from workshop members can take off into the wider world. In terms of numbers, I would say that one in ten workshop members gets published, and of those, half are publishing in the literary world. (There are of course many workshop anthologies, but they are essentially private publications for members, family and friends.)

It’s also of interest to note that the majority of writers write in Standard English. I have had no experience of anyone writing in Gaelic in any of my workshops and I would be unable to help them. I do come across many varieties of Glasgwegian dialects which can be tricky for the writers to put on the page because of the need for consistent phonetic spelling and clarity of communication. Carolyn writes in both Standard English and Glaswegian dialect and although it has to be acknowledged that dialect writing doesn’t travel as well, it has power and quality, whether it’s Shetland, Doric or Glaswegian.

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When I knew I was going to be doing this, I thought I’d put a questionnaire round my workshop members. 52 responded, from workshops here at Strathclyde University, also Bearsden, Cambuslang, Springburn, Temple, Airdrie, Giffnock and Ibrox. It’s good to see quite a few familiar faces from some of these workshops here today, and many thanks for filling in those questionnaires.

The results are interesting and challenge some of the assumptions that I’d made about why people come to workshops and why they write.

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The vast majority, over 90%, come not only to improve their creative writing skills, but also to meet other writers.

Half of them had written before, or had tried to, although often this was academic, technical or transactional writing. Half were new to writing.

When asked about correspondence courses, no-one was in the least enthusiastic about them – too expensive – although written crits were appreciated and the point was made, which I agree with, that hearing a piece read aloud is not necessarily the best way to appraise it.

Many positive points were made about the benefits of a workshop – contact with others, feedback, exchange of ideas, a live tutor, a positive class ethos, inspiration from others, motivation of a weekly class, interaction with like-minded but very different individuals being a bonus.

Others reasons for coming to a workshop included: to keep my brain active; as self indulgence because I have always loved words; because I’ve always wanted to write; because I wanted to see if I was any good.

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I asked why people returned after their first course.

There was a 60% return rate, and of that 60%, 85% of them felt – or hoped – that they were improving. Some didn’t but it kept them focussed. 90% came because they also enjoyed the company of the other students, and 95% found their tutor supportive, constructive, encouraging and informative. Which is flattering, but it would also be interesting to know why the 40% who don’t return, don’t return!

It was heartening to learn that apart from one person who apologised for not having any time to read, and one who apologised for never reading poetry about 85% of the workshop members read, 50% sometimes, and 35% often. Non-fiction was the most popular category, but only by a small margin, over poetry, popular short stories, literary short stories, popular novels, and literary novels.

Asked whether they felt more connected to either Scottish literature or world literature through their workshop, just over half felt more connected to Scottish literature and just under half to world literature, although one commented: ‘Sadly, I find quite a lot of Scottish literature hard to take these days ...’

Many people have told me informally that they only write while the workshop is happening, but when asked in the questionnaire, just under half can’t or don’t write unless there’s a workshop to write for.

Two informed me categorically that summer is gardening time and that writing is a winter activity. Others need a deadline, like school, or have a self-discipline problem or confess simply to being lazy, needing a task or an audience. One said they wrote what I thought was long love letters instead, and I thought how romantic, but I misread it, it was simply long long letters.

That means that over half do write outwith the workshops. One was driven by anger, one by guilt at not writing, a few because they enjoy it, one was ‘compelled by a semi-happy urge’, one to pass their time, another to solve a problem, or get a plot and ensuing story out their head and onto paper.

The most emphatic response was to a question about how therapeutic they found their writing. 70% in total said they did, and 50% added ‘very’.

One found writing nonsense poems brought release from grief at the death of a close friend, another swears that writing ‘rhyming doggerel’ helps her arthritis. Other comments included: it helps me feel I can still do something worthwhile; it’s like meditation; and someone who didn’t know said, ‘my wife says it’s been very therapeutic for me.’

On the negative side, one said that time constraints can be very stressful, another illustrated that by saying, ‘it might be therapeutic if I got peace to get on with it.’

And two people said they didn’t find it specifically therapeutic but they did get a lot of pleasure from it.

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When I asked if people felt more confidence in their ability to write since coming to a workshop, an emphatic 96% said they did. One said they’d found the courage to read aloud, another that although they felt more confident, writing was still difficult. One said ‘I suppose I’ve seen possible subjects, but lack of time shows I’m not committed’, another felt I was perhaps uncritical to the extent that they’re not sure if they’ve ever written well.

I had been afraid that people were writing only for other workshop members, rather than for a larger audience, but a question on that evoked the response that only 10% write specifically for the workshop. One said that the potentially inhibiting effect was far outweighed by the advantages of feedback from an audience.

I then asked about literary ambitions.

20% hoped to make a living as writers of literature, 80% had no ambition that way. Comments included: the pressure would remove the pleasure, several felt they were too late, another would like to, but acknowledged that it was too hard work, another that it was too ambitious.

As for being published, 10% didn’t want to be, 40% wanted a little to be published and 50% were desperate to be published. What I find really frustrating as a tutor, is if someone who is undoubtedly talented and who is producing excellent work, doesn’t care whether they are published or not, and can’t be bothered sending any work out. I have two writers in that situation, one who has been writing quirky short stories for the last few years, and one who was new to writing last October and who is producing work of the quality of Alistair MacLeod, whose Lost Salt Gift of Blood is one of the finest collections of short stories I’ve ever come across.

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65% wanted their writing to be worthy of payment, 35% weren’t bothered.

One said: I am ‘paid’ by the effect my writing has on other workshop members ... but others commented: payment from a reputable publication is a useful criterion of merit; it’s a form of recognition; payment implies literary value.

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Finally, I asked about their aims as writers, both specifically and generally.

80% had a specific project in mind – the most popular was short stories, followed by poetry, autobiography, novels, local history, children’s short stories, a weekly satirical column, a crime screenplay, articles.

More general aims as writers included recognition as ‘fair’, maintaining a consistent standard, to interest, entertain and amuse, to develop, to keep writing, to start writing again, to change the views of the establishment, to meet other, more famous writers, to stay alive to see another workshop member’s book published, and ‘to prove, or aim at the hope that, in all I have written, perhaps somewhere I have written something of worth.’

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I hope it’s become clear from what I’ve been saying, that there is a direct line from workshops to new Scottish writing, both non-fiction and fiction, and within fiction – both popular and literary.

Without the workshops, most of those mentioned here would probably not have become published writers.

For the future, I would like to see more creative writing workshops in schools, led by writers who can also teach. I recently had the luxury of working with small groups of third year pupils in Penilee Secondary and it was hard-work but rewarding for all concerned.

I also think it’s really important to instill self-esteem and a spirit of self-motivation in young people. These are essential for future writers, and, in the deadline-driven, assessment-driven and examination-driven culture of schools, can easily be crushed.

Finally, I draw hope for the future of Scottish writing from the increasingly high profile it’s being given. Not only by organisations like the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, with its promotion of new writing in the annual New Writing Scotland anthology, now in its 18th year, or the vision of this City of Glasgow in appointing a Literature Development Officer (Catherine McInerney) and a Poet Laureate (Edwin Morgan), but also by major competitions like the SoS/Macallan and the wide range of writer-centred activities being promoted in the many bookshops and libraries around the country and given street credibility by the page now dedicated to literary activities in the Central Belt’s List magazine.

 

Copyright © Valerie Thornton and the individual authors, 2000

 

Last updated 24 August 2010.