At each session the group members have conversations about topics that are important to their lives, and in the course of discussion ideas for writing topics emerge. When it comes time to write, the teacher suggests one or two writing prompts based on particularly compelling issues the group has discussed, and also solicits writing prompt ideas from the group. In this way, the content of the class emerges from the group’s creative work of writing and discussion. However, participants are always free to write about whatever they choose if the options offered are not appealing to them. The teacher encourages participants to respond to the prompt by writing a personal narrative of their experience related to the topic (e.g., a time one was discriminated against, rather than one’s opinion about discrimination.)
There are several reasons for this emphasis that relate to the broader aims of the project:
- Participants who generally don’t think of them as “historical actors” come to appreciate how interesting and meaningful their life experiences are to others
- They come to realize that their knowledge and opinions derive from their experiences: they are the experts of their lives, and their lives provide them with broader insight about the world
- Through personal narrative writing they develop the craft of recounting a good story, which is an effective way of sharing experiences and offering counsel to others
Participants write during the last 15-30 minutes of each session. The idea is not to craft a final draft, but to generate a story that can be the basis for eventually developing a piece for publication. As the workshop progresses, the teacher may decide to include short writing exercises that focus on some facet of writing, such as dialogue, setting, structure, and the like. Or the teacher may bring in a short story or excerpt from a novel or memoir for the group to read and discuss, and then draw on for their writing. These activities support the participants’ development as writers.
It is crucial to the power and purpose of the writing workshop that participants come to simultaneously develop a sense of the value of their lives and confidence in their creative ability as writers. This development occurs when participants feel supported by respectful, attentive feedback from each other and the teacher as they share stories from their lives. The process of conversation, writing, and sharing in a small group over a period of weeks helps to build a feeling of intimacy, which is important for the group’s success. The writing group also tends to be a nurturing experience, figuratively and literally; an important feature of each session, not to be underestimated, is snack food provided by the teacher or partnering organization. This helps make the atmosphere feel warm, relaxed and cozy, which aids the writing and discussion process and supports the development of a community of writers.