I've met some writers who say they can never write poems in workshops and it has always puzzled me.
Today I have been working on a poem I wrote in a workshop given by Australian Irish poet Robyn Rowland. I've been working on it for the past two years and it might turn out to be one of the best I have written in recent years.
It certainly is not a "workshop poem". It followed no recipe or prescribed pattern. It was not a group activity or a guided meditation. It just burst onto the page as I sat in a somewhat disengaged mood among a dozen or so poet friends looking at sheets of paper and photographs that Robyn handed out. Interestingly, I don't recall the "activity" that prompted the words of my poem in the way I recall other "workshop exercises".
Also, I don't recall who was sitting next to me when I wrote this poem but I can recall the angle of the shaft of sunlight, in the Friends School Meetinghouse. And for two years since, I have often recalled what I wrote about. It informed a key passage of my thesis and the poem has been growing. This serendipitous kind of writing that produced a piece of writing I could work with has happened on only one other occasion, in a day-long workshop lead by Arnold Zable. These two expert writers know how to bring the listener-writer to a point within their own creative generative selves where something unique might happen.
Even so, many of the writers I know say they can't produce anything worthwhile in workshops, and I am keen to explore why, seeing that I too offer writing workshops from time to time.
I think the answer to writing well in workshops has as much to do with giving oneself permission as it does with the workshop leader. I mean a certain kind of permission: to sit in a group and yet not be swallowed up into the belly of the group, a permission, rather, to be swallowed up in the moment, concentrating – not on your self, or others, but on the work.
Obviously, I hear to you say. But let's go back a paragraph ... "concentrating – not on your self, or others, but on the work."
Those three things – self, the other, and the work – are the only things a writer has to manage, wherever they are. I nearly wrote, they are the only things a writer has to "worry about" but immediately wrote instead, to "manage" ... And there, in that action, is the crux of the matter.
If you "worry" – about self, or others, especially in terms of what others might think of you yourself writing, then that is precisely where everything goes wrong, especially in a writing workshop. You need to give yourself permission not to worry. About anything. To glide. To slip into a time and space you have paid for, after all, in this workshop. Any workshop. To concentrate not on the person at your elbow or behind you writing, but on the work on the table beneath your fingers, growing. Getting rid of self-consciousness especially in relation to your peers is pivotal for letting your words flow. Wherever you are.
Manage your "self" and your attitude towards "others", and then I believe, your work will flourish. Practice this by writing in cafes or public spaces. See how it goes in your next writers' workshop. I'd be interested to know what happens.