Not only have I run creative writing workshops, but I’ve attended a fair few as well. They are enormously beneficial for writers of any level, but they are often hugely entertaining in quite unexpected ways.
My very first ever creative writing workshop almost proved to be my last as half way through the course the building had to be evacuated when the fire alarm went off! It was a fiction writing workshop held, along with other courses, in a former old people’s home.
One of the exercises involved drawing a character name from a hat and then giving a verbal portrait while holding a lighted match! You can imagine how this concentrates the mind! In spite of extreme care, there were one or two nipped fingers! To her credit, our tutor was quite safety conscious and made us hold the matches over a small bowl, which alas, did not contain any water. If it had the partly spent matches would not have ignited during our lunch break and triggered the smoke alarm!
Oblivious to the drama, our little group sat happily in the sunshine munching our sandwiches and wondering which classroom was burning down! A slight exaggeration as the only damage was a heavily scorched table and the loss of our morning’s writing prompts. I often wondered if that little episode robbed me of a best seller!
The Right Priorities!
Not exactly a creative writing course, the audience development workshops for creative industries was by invite only. There were a series of 6 stretching over a six monthly period. It was invite only and to this day I’m not sure how I managed to get a place as until that moment, I’d only ever run one workshop and that was for members of my local writers circle!
Suitably honored, I arrived at the English faculty at one of the local universities in a smart suit clutching a brand new attaché case and hoping no one would realise that the nearest I’d ever been to a university campus was 10 minutes earlier when I’d parked my car!
All my fears vanished in less than 30 seconds when during the pre-course coffee natter, I realised that everyone present was more interested in the buffet than any pointers re bums on seats! I am going back quite few years here, but in those days, these types of courses were run by universities on the back of grants and arts funding and all the ones I attended always had a sumptuous buffet! In fact, I don’t think much has changed as a similar thing happened a couple of years ago when I attended an arts meeting in Derby. The next time you hear the Arts Council bleating about their funding being cut suggest they tell their meeting delegates to bring a packup!
Not Seeing The Wood
This little story happened much more recently when I ran a short story workshop for a small arts festival. We had about 12 students all of varying abilities. By far the most novice of these was Mr R! It wasn’t that he couldn’t write, his grammar and spelling were perfection! The problem was he was so utterly boring that I found myself struggling to keep from yawning every time I looked at him and that was before he ever read anything!
Anyway, being my most diplomatic, I suggested he write something based on his own experiences rather than continue the mind numbing tale of unrequited love and suicide that he was aiming for the women’s fiction market.
He replied that he had worked as an accountant all his life, never married and really hadn’t much of a life to base personal stories on. What he didn’t say, until we drew it out of him in the manner of pulling teeth, was that his accountancy had been with an international charity which had sent him all over the world including some of the most violent trouble spots on the planet! He had first hand experience of prison and refugee camps, feeding stations and medical units!
He knew all about shame trials and mock executions and had even sat in terror as a prisoner had been interrogated by prison thugs! When I pointed out that this kind of material was priceless to a fiction writer, he looked at me in surprise and said …
“but, it isn’t fiction, it’s all true!”
I was lucky enough to win a place on a writing course after entering a short story writing contest. It took place in a rambling old house set in the leafy suburbs of Leicester. It had once belong to a baronet called Sir Richard somebody or other and had a magnificent staircase which spilled onto a wide hall where students usually gathered for a pre-dinner drink.
There were at least three creative writing courses taking place so there were a lot of us milling around and chatting. At some point I noticed one woman sitting alone on the staircase. No she wasn’t a ghost! She was in fact SF, quite a famous astrologer and as I had just started to study the subject, I was familiar with her books and eager to talk to her.
I was prevented from doing this by the course tutor who intercepted me by saying SF was talking to Sir Richard and mustn’t be interrupted
“But there’s no-one there!” I said.
“Of course there isn’t,” she replied. “He’s been dead nearly two hundred years!”
Not quite what you expect when you attend a creative writing workshop or course, but what fantastic material to weave into fiction! In fact I have used all these anecdotes as prompts and plots for short stories over the years and a lot of my characters are based on the larger than life types you often come across when you move out of your comfort zone.