Friday, January 29, 2016

The Writing Class

When I retired, I thought I would spend a lot of time writing.  I planned that finally get that memoir written. I had grandiose plans for myself whenever I thought about retirement.  Perhaps, the most grandiose idea of all was that I would spend a lot of time writing.

Since I retired, most of the writing I have done has consisted of writing in this blog.  I took up blogging in 2008 in order to have an outlet for all the writing I envisioned myself doing. It is hard to believe that I have published 372 posts over the past seven years. Blogging  has provided a great platform for writing.  Along the way, blogging gave me a bonus I never expected:  I made many friends through blogging. My life has also been so enriched by learning of so many new and different topics through reading blogs.  News around the world and nation has a new relevance to me because I  have blogging friends living in places where the news event is taking place.  My life has been broadened more than I imagined through my writing.

Even though I have written all those blog posts, I just never seem to get down to the real practice of writing that I envisioned I would do during my retirement years.  I write most days, but if I don't blog,  my writing mostly consists of journaling.  Journaling has become an important part of my writing journey as my journals have been the place where I worked through the grief I have experienced over the past five years after the death of my daughter Julie.

 Several of my dear friends are gifted writers and share a desire to get some serious writing done.  We have met on occasion over the years.  We always make promises to keep meeting to write, but then, life gets in the way and we cancel our next get together and don't meet to write.

In October, five of my blogging friends and I, the Vashionistas, as we call ourselves met for five days
 on Vashon Island in Washington to write.  It was dream come true for me.  I had often thought how wonderful it would be to spend a week writing with these great ladies, and it was great in many ways.  I guess you can say that the experience stimulated that desire to get serious about getting some serious writing done.

When I got home from my time with my blogging friends at the wonderful Lavender Hill on Vashon Island, I immediately began to search for a writing class.  I found that one was being offered through a local writing community that would be taught by Kathryn Eastburn.  I knew of Kathryn because of the writing that she had done as editor and co-founder of the Colorado Springs Independent, a local newspaper.  I also had taken a class several years ago with a woman who spoke highly of all she had learned from Kathryn when she had taken a class in creative nonfiction from her at Colorado College.
I knew that opportunities to take a class from such a great instructor are rare. so I paid my money and signed up for the class.

The timing for the class was not the best in that it would go from October 22 until December 17.  That is right during the holidays, I thought as I pondered whether or not I should sign up for the class that was limited to ten participants.  The timing of the class was difficult.  It certainly added to the stress of the season, but it is also good to have deadlines so that writing gets done.  We met once a week on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8:30.  The class ended just before Christmas.  I felt a big hole in my life when I no longer had the mental stimulation and inspiration the class provided.

I so enjoyed the class.  Kathryn is the best.  She gave me so much insight into reading and writing creative non-fiction.  We had the best reading assignments that have given me great insight into how others have gone about writing memoir.  It was great being introduced to new authors I had never read before.  I wondered at times what rock I have been under that I have missed the work by these authors.  I most enjoyed reading selection from Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, and a selection by JoAnn Beard from her book, Cousins.  An essay that appeared in the New York Times by JoAnn Beard entitled, The Fourth State of Matter, blew me away.  Blogging friends, take the time to read this essay.  It is an amazing piece of work, and a story that won't be forgotten.

Not only did I enjoy some great reading time because of the selections that Kathryn assigned for the class, but I also greatly enjoyed, and learned much, from the discussions we had in class about what we had read.

Every week, we would receive two or three pieces of writing from our fellow classmates to read.  As we read, we were to annotate the piece of writing so that we could workshop the piece in class the following week.  Some of you readers may not be familiar with the term "workshop" as it is used in the context of writing.  Think of writing an essay and then submitting it to several readers for feedback.  The reader is not acting as the grammar police looking for mistakes.  The reader is instead reading to give the writer or author feedback that speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of the writing.  What works?  What doesn't work?  Where should the writer give more detail?

It may seem scary to submit writing to be workshopped, and to be honest, it is.  A very safe and supportive environment must be established in order for this type of writing experience to work for all of the participants.  It is really up to the instructor or facilitator to create this type of learning environment.  Kathryn is an excellent facilitator/instructor.  She creates a stimulating, welcoming, safe, and instructive place where I personally felt very free to create and learn.

Stephen Krashen, a linguist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, my hero when it comes to teaching and learning in the area of linguistics and second language learning,  teaches teachers about of the affective filter.  Many students in the literacy classroom come equipped with a well constructed affective filters through which they pass the instruction being delivered by the teacher.  This filter must be lowered by the teacher by creating a safe learning environment before the student is able to comprehend the input coming from the teacher.  This theory hold true for me as an adult learner.  If I don't feel safe in a writing community, or in the environment in which I write, I am not able to write if I don't feel safe and supported.  I am grateful that Kathryn created such a community and environment and restored my confidence in writing for others.
Over the course of the weeks I took the writing class, I was able to produce quite a bit of writing.  The feedback I received from the pieces I submitted was very positive.  As a writer, I am my own worst critic.  I think the things that just won't work in a piece of writing are surprisingly the things that my readers liked best.

After the class ended, and after the holidays were over, my fellow writing group ladies and I began to email each other about how much we missed our Thursday nights together.  After a bit of discussion on where and when to meet, we settled on a plan to continue to hold writing workshops on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8:30.

Last night five of us met at the appointed time in the upstairs room of a wonderful coffee shop in Old Colorado City.  Each of us armed with a pot of tea, our notebooks, pens, and books, ascended the staircase to sit in an inviting private room around a large round oak table.  We are reserving the room for a month on Thursday nights at a rate of $25 a night which can be covered by our tea or food purchases and a bit more.

We will follow the same format as before.  Work will be submitted on Sunday nights for the others to read and annotate.  We will produce writings twice during our month together.  We shared the books we have been reading.  We share personal stories of the storytellers in our life.   We determined our plan and process.

The writing group continues.  Perhaps, this month I will actually get  a chapter written on my WIP (Work in Progress).  The group has really helped me find a focus and the work is seeming less scattered.  I am so looking forward to seeing what we all will produce.


Barb said...

How exciting, Sally. I'm glad you're going to continue meeting with this group. It seems just the impetus needed to write. Deadlines (with others involved) are often a good way to get the words on paper. Ann Patchett is one of my favorite writers. I read Truth and Beauty several years ago. I'm going now to read the essay.

Barb said...

Wow - that essay was very powerful.

Olga Hebert said...

What a wonderful post. I have taken some writing classes, not all of them worth the time and money. But I belong to two writing groups.

In VT I meet twice a month with three other women. In fact we meet all year long because I Facetime my presence while in Florida. We also do writing field trips together, going to hear author readings, a trip to the Middlebury College Breadloaf campus, sometimes just out for glass of wine or a pizza. These are three women who over the years have become increasingly vital in my life, not just writing life.

i belong to a group that focuses on poetry in Florida. We meet twice a month and workshop each other's poetry. This group has experienced some growing pains, but is now a solid group with a clear vision of how we want to function. Some writers only want an audience for their work, applause, not any kind of critical feedback, and we have learned to be clear that this is not that kind of group. These four other women and two men are also becoming an important part of my life's journey.

Certainly, I do not come close to meeting the expectation I had for myself around the writer's life I imagined upon retirement. But I can honestly say that I have grown a great deal as a result of the support if these two wonderful groups.

You are onto finding treasure.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

So glad to hear about your writing group, Sally! The support and the commitment can make such a difference! (I loved the Joanne Beard piece -- blew me away, too!) You've done so wonderfully with your blog. And regular journaling is no small thing. I know your memoir will happen in time, especially now that you can look forward to having WIP on a regular basis!

dkzody said...

Good for you. It sounds like you have found just the right group with which to write and share. I admire the fact that you are able to do it in the evenings. I'm sure it's making you very happy.

#1Nana said...

Lucky you! Wish I lived closer. I have to wait until next October for the Vashon group, until then it's only grant writing for me.

The Furry Gnome said...

Good luck with the group. It should be really helpful in keeping a focus on writing. I too have done most of my writing in the blog, and so far avoided the bigger things i want to write. Need to find a focus too.

Diane P said...

As teachers we know that practice is what we expected of our students! Congratulations on putting yourself in the student role. Writing workshop is a very powerful tool to learn about your writing.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

This is very exciting to read. Sometimes it just take a bit of time to get the ball rolling. As you get better, you will find the kind of writers you want to work with more and more. Those whose critiques you find most useful. Those who grow as writers as you want to grow. Possibilities are endless.

Years ago I went a Creative Non Fiction weeklong workshop in Baltimore at Goucher College. It was led by Lee Gutkind (the self proclaimed king of Creative Non-fiction.) Twas an excellent motivator for me at the time. Rebekah Skloot (of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and and her dad(great essayist and poet) were my workshop leaders. Certainly turned things around for me.

Maybe I need to do that again? To get back on track. Anyway, excited to read this and I wish you continued success in your new group.

Tom Sightings said...

Yes, it is scary to submit writing to be work shopped ... but we all need honest feedback to improve and sharpen our own writing, and we also learn by seeing how other people approach different topics -- their observations, their tone, their development. Anyway ... I salute your bravery!

DJan said...

This is wonderful. I'm off to read that essay now, but I'm so glad you have found this group. Vashon Island has been a game changer for many of us, hasn't it? :-)

Lin Floyd said...

a critique group really helps and meeting regularly. I joined a group of writers called League of Utah Writers and Utah State Poetry Society-really enjoy meeting monthly...also email groups can be formed-happy writing!

Arkansas Patti said...

I am so glad you have found and kept your writing group intact. You are right, nothing is more mentally stimulating than critiquing other's work or having your own examined. Fresh eyes are a great help. I really enjoyed the group we had here but it just kind of fizzled. I gave up my thoughts of a novel years ago when I started blogging. I love the small time investment of a blog post and the instant gratification. Me thinks I might be a bit lazy.

Linda Reeder said...

I read the article you linked. It is beautiful writing, but I found myself impatient with it. Get to the point, I kept thinking. I guess that means that we all have different styles and prefer different styles.
I finished my memoir first draft last fall. It is not beautifully written. It is straightforward. At some point I will begin to edit it into the final draft, print it out and bind it, and then put it away. It is not for publication or sharing at this point. It is just my story, to be shared after I am gone.
I am not a poetic writer, although I do have poetic thoughts. I write about events and ideas. Blogging keeps me writing, composing my own posts and commenting on others. While I enjoyed my one brief visit as an honorary Vashonista, I don't know if I would like long term involvement in a writers group. I think I am much more a doer than a writer.
So glad you have found what you were seeking in your journey as a writer.

Jeanie said...

I'm very impressed with your commitment, and very excited for you. I've always found it exciting and more productive to create in company -- even though much of that process is done individually and in private, to have someone with whom to share, to learn from, to trust for the support of constructive input and praise, is truly helpful to the creative process in general and the human process in particular.

Sometimes it is difficult to keep a group like yours together after the class has ended and I really admire the commitment you and your fellow writers have. You're right -- it IS hard to have a group like that during the hectic time of year and I really think it's terrific that you not only survived but thrived!

Perpetua said...

Well done, Sally, both on signing up to the original class and on helping to create an ongoing writing group. I wish it and you every success. I've never thought of myself as a writer and have surprised myself by how very much I enjoy the writing involved in having a blog.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

I'm glad you were able to find such a supportive group of writers to continue to meet with through the writing class, Sally. It must be very rewarding to know you are on the way to fulfilling your dream of completing your WIP. I read the essay you linked to in the New Yorker Magazine. It made the hairs of my head stand up with suspense--very powerful!

Pam said...

That sounds wonderful: a way to motivate yourself. Good for you.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

There's always some reason not to sign up, some reason this is a bad time, but you went ahead and took the plunge. And then kept things going! Congratulations on taking charge and taking a risk and following through on something you've really wanted to do.

Maggie May said...

Marvellous that you found a group like that and I hope it leads on to really good things.
I did have a yearning to write but apart from my blog and journal, I haven't settled to it. I did blame Harry's illness and subsequent death, but now there are no excuses........ I just have to get more focussed. I have been enjoying other things though so I suspect it's early days yet.
Maggie x

Kay said...

This sounds like such a wonderful writing group. I know you must all be a good sounding board for each other. As a teacher, you would be a valuable member to the group.

I guess I've always enjoyed writing and blogging certainly gave me an outlet for that need for expression. As you said, it's also provided me with such marvelous writer friends throughout the country and world. I'm so glad you're part of my world, Sally.