Notes From a Writing Workshop

The thing is, sometimes there is no story to tell. Or, you have stories but they’re not ready to be told yet. The blank page does not have to be your enemy. It is not a sign of failure. It just means: Not Now.

“Not Now,” Michele Catalano

* * *

I’ve forgotten how to talk about writing.

The last time I was really immersed in writing — in my own and in the writing of others — was in my MFA program at Goucher College. I worked part-time and lived with my parents, and was able to set aside three or four full days a week to write. Some days it poured out; other days I sat in front of a blank Microsoft Word document for hours until the floodgates opened inside of me. Either way, I had that space: the gestation period for an idea, a chapter, and my entire story was longer. I had the luxury of writing, but also not writing.

Each semester, I had guidance: four very different mentors who encouraged me, who said what they needed to say, at each stage, to get me to write. Most of the time, this simply entailed listening to me, or sending me positive comments — scribbling “yes! more of this!” in the margins of my manuscript. They told me my story was worth sharing. They reassured me I was the one who could tell it.

In “The Myth of the Real Deal,” a response to Ryan Boudinot’s piece on MFA programs in The Stranger, Jennifer Berney talks about teaching writing. She says that every student has something to say, and that “the challenge of teaching is to help them identify which of their stories need telling.”

My first mentor, who I didn’t click with so well, asked me big questions to help me find my focus. From what I recall, she gave me distance to explore, which I suppose was what I ultimately needed. My second mentor was a spiritual cheerleader of sorts, and a person I grew to trust to read the raw material I simply needed to record: to document a world through a window that would soon close. The third professor was enthusiastic like the second, yet pushed me to consider the shape of things to come. And my final mentor challenged me — and told me, amidst all that I’d written so far — that none of it mattered if I was not present in these pages. That I was the anchor of the story.

I wrote a lot of crap, and exposition, and scenes. Some of it worked. Most of it didn’t. But I was writing, moving ideas from mind to paper, actively translating my experiences. I haven’t written like that since.

* * *

For six years, I worked with a fantastic sixth grade language arts teacher in Portola Valley, a town near Palo Alto, California. I started off reading, leaving feedback on, and grading essays on the literature they read, from the epic poem of Gilgamesh to The Monkey King, and Bridge to Terabithia to The Giver to the graphic novel American Born Chinese. I love and miss this work — I learned so much, not just about curriculums and rubrics, but how eleven-year-olds respond to and think about stories and characters, and how enjoyable it is to read their writing — to see glimpses of thought and realization. When I got more comfortable working with these kids, I took small groups into the library to talk about the books they were reading, and worked one-on-one with students on their essays — helping them tease out the main idea. Pinpointing key moments in their drafts. Figuring out what the story was really about.

I recalled these experiences this weekend, at the Press Publish conference in Phoenix, where I led two writing workshops, primarily attended by new bloggers. It was the first time I’d talked about writing in front of people in quite some time, since the years in my MFA program and in that middle school classroom.

* * *

I know that writing is hard. But I was reminded that teaching writing is harder.

In my morning writing class, I talked about the importance of a writing practice — of building a habit, of carving out the space to just write. This group of bloggers stared at me as I stood behind a podium, listening to me, eager to hear my ideas. Why are they looking at me, I thought. I tell them I struggle just as much as they do, that I can go months without writing something. I say that we’re so used to typing in our WordPress dashboards, pressing “Publish,” and expecting our work to be read. To be shared. To be liked and commented on.

We first do a three-minute free write, on any topic, by hand. I mention Natalie Goldberg and my favorite book of hers — Writing Through the Bones — and that we’ll sit here together and write. I suggest not to think too much — to keep their hands moving across the page, to push through the buildup, to wipe away the mental cobwebs.

I set my iPhone timer for three minutes, clicked “start,” and sat on the ledge with my notepad — its first few pages filled with numbers from my recent tax return. On a fresh page, I scribble that I’m anxious, that I’m a phony, that I don’t belong up here. And then I think of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, and the little Dr. Seuss-like creature that Lamott describes — it lives inside me, deep within my gut, and hands individual letters up to me, helping me to create sentences.

I ask myself if I need a muse to write, if I’m silly to dream of a 26-hour day to write. I wonder if it’s in me, this thing called writing.

Our three minutes is up. We don’t share our work aloud. I ask if anyone free-writes by hand like this regularly, and no one raises their hand. I tell them, and I remind myself, that we should allow ourselves this private time to write. That despite a life that unfolds on the internet, we can still write with no intent to publish.

* * *

In my two workshops, I received a variety of questions. Do I have something to say? Is my personal story worth telling? And I generally said, yes, you have something to say, and yes, you have a story that people would like to hear. Some people had fascinating backgrounds — one woman studied hands, and shared a lovely short piece about how the closed fist of a newborn held the secret of life. Another writer shared a draft on Medium with me — a longread about his spiritual journey, which I read on the plane ride home. It reminded me of a comment my younger cousin Terrence recently said to me about the mystical beauty of Sedona — God created the Grand Canyon, but lives in Sedona — and so somehow I feel I was meant to read the piece.

I suppose that’s what I enjoyed the most: connecting with a person, even in a quick encounter, and creating that temporary frictionless space for our ideas to breathe and expand. We all have stories, though sometimes we’re not sure how to tell them. I love thinking about the journey, the lifespan, of a story itself — passed on from mind to mind, reader to reader, morphing in ways the writer might not intend. I read one version of a story, digest it in a way that only I can, scribble notes in its margins, and return this feedback. And in some tiny way, I help it grow or take form — and shine a light on the parts of a page that the writer has not seen, or cannot see.

As I write some lengthy email responses to writers who shared drafts with me, I remember the challenges of teaching writing. I’ve never been formally trained to teach, and I am disappointed in myself when I realize I’m not as well-read as I’d like, or am unable to offer concrete takeaways — move this section here, cut this out entirely — especially if I sense that’s what they want. It’s one of the reasons why I refuse to be called an “expert” on writing, or on anything, because I’m on the same journey as these writers.

Imposter syndrome follows me here, naturally. But still, I’ve received kind messages from people who said they left the conference — and my sessions — feeling inspired. That the hour or two they spent with me made them think. And for those who read this blog, you know I like to just think. To marinate in the process. So, I’ll take it.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

35 thoughts on “Notes From a Writing Workshop

  1. Well stated. Thanks for sharing. The same type of “imposter syndrome” is encountered in software development (another creative outlet). Programmers always feel they don’t know enough and have a fear of being called out on it. I personally feel that I’m not a “perfect” writer, but at least good enough to assist or encourage others.

  2. Such an interesting post! Makes you think! And especially as I’m thinking of starting to write more myself. Thank you for sharing this with us, I find it very helpful!

  3. I don’t think you can really teach writing, anyway. Unless,of course, you’re teaching about grammar and punctuation. I learned more from just following your handwriting exercise than I have in years! Thank you for helping me get back to the basis of writing–the story life has written and is still writing inside me.

  4. I also find that when I write sometimes the inspiration is already there. Other times I force create inspiration by the free write method. Even if it’s a self loathing block of free writing about how I should not be writing at all. A story comes through the cracks of my personal dissapproval. I really appreciate this post and I do hope that you’ll be writing more on here. Selfish reasons of course. I understand needing to take a break though. I hope you find that free space to write publicly again! Thank you for such a wonderful reading experience.


  5. I came here searching for clues to help me tread more deftly on my new path. It’s strangely reassuring to glimpse your vulnerability. I particularly liked this: ‘connecting with a person, even in a quick encounter, and creating that temporary frictionless space for our ideas to breathe and expand.’

    1. Thanks for visiting and reading, Susan. (I’ve stopped posting on this blog and converted it into sort of an archive, at least for now.) I think this particular post is a good overview of my general thoughts on writing and teaching writing, so I’m so glad you found it 🙂

  6. As a former typing teacher, like the photograph of the old manual machine. After students learned to type, I gave them composition assignments . . . hopefully typing became more than pounding out business letters.

  7. I know exactly what that “imposter” feeling feels like. I never took any art , even in high school, yet somehow I turned out being an artist, so I started teaching watercolor workshops, and many times felt I had to over prepare because I was under qualified, but I decided that an artist, weather painting or writing, or sculpting is born from experience, not necessarily in a classroom. Anyone can learn how to write well, or paint well, but not everyone have the stories inside, the ideas, the visions stirring within them, or those unique , sometimes distorted ways of seeing the world. Anyone can sit in a class room and learn techniques. People who haven’t learned “formally” , yet still write prolifically, have a well spring of untapped creativity that flows from a deeper place and in my opinion a lot to offer others. Your not teaching them from a book and a distant mind, your teaching from your own passion and heart. thanks for sharing. It’s great to read that other writers and artist experience similar feelings.

  8. I am happy to have found your blog. I am another struggling writer and I’ll continue to follow your blog for inspiration and validation! Thanks!

  9. In an unrelated note, I did find that writing because it is satisfying becomes a rare thing when the day job consists of tons of writing. I’ve worked at newspapers before where I had to write tech news every day. At the end of the day, I had so many original posts (inspiration that hits me, instead of yet another news article) in my mind but I simply didn’t have the energy to write. I did write anyway, because I find it refreshing. It’s also the same with photography. I love photographing people. But whenever I’m on a paid job to do the very same thing I enjoy doing, I feel stressed.

    I guess I’m not the only one.

  10. I can truly say that I was inspired by your workshops, in Phoenix, and that it has changed my writing experience or I should say the lack of writing. Since the workshops I have dusted of some of my writing books, one being, “The Right to Write” by Julia Cameron and I have been doing the exercises regularly. Thank you so much for taking the time to make suggestions about my writing because it was truly what I needed and it gave me the perspective that I was looking for. I look forward to rewriting it.
    Imposter I think not.

  11. I often imagine it to be like pottery. You shape and shape and put skill and instinct into it, and then, hopefully, something beautiful emerges. And there are many ways to make it beautiful, a dazzling, intimidating number of ways. But also, like pottery, if you’re trying to make a mug and you end up with dinner-plate, it’s reassuring to recognise that beautiful things can also fail to fit the purpose they were made for.

    You sound like a good workshop-leader. I’d trust you.

  12. It was nice to take these blogging/writing conversations off-screen for a change and meet some WordPress users face-to-face. What a nice opinion! Hope to meet face-to-face with someone who is using WP.

  13. Wonderful post about the frustrations of writing… The part where you mention that it is OK to let things stew, to not “publish just to publish” whether it is a post, a work report or even an email back to a friend as if improvement is possible, there is nothing quite like understanding that “you have stories but they’re not ready to be told yet…” but when it does finally come together it is a great feeling. Funny, sometimes I get such feelings even with small, innocuous email banter with friends. When it comes out ready, its good no matter what the venue is.

    It is also often said, that those with imposter syndrome are the one to learn from, as they not only have the gift are ones who will share as well. Would love to take a workshop with you one day, please let me know if you will be in HK with such a course soon 🙂

  14. Beautiful recount of your time in Phoenix, and sorry to have missed it! It’s lovely hearing writers talk about writing because guess what: like anything else, a writer writes differently, finds a way to say a lot with a little, and keeps me engaged at a time when it’s probably harder than ever to earn and hold a reader’s attention. I liked Bird by Bird for that, and I’m picking my way through it myself too, on this journey that’s really not about the destination. Peace be with you and yours.

  15. Thanks for the hints! I regularly write, but lately I can’t focus on long novels or fiction; I just write poems, incipits and something like a daily journal. Among these I only write the latter by hand. Maybe I should focus more on writing and not on sharing, as you said!
    I need to rediscover the pleasure of writing instead of regretting “why do I not write a long novel? Why do I have good ideas but can’t I put them on paper (real or a Word page)? Every word matters.
    Thanks for making me think!

  16. Too bad I hadn’t been around to attend this conference. I would have liked to say hello in person. Two of the books you mention happen to be favorites of mine too, with Anne Lamott remaining such a warm voice for writers. What I liked most, however, in your post is what you write about working with kids, reading their work and being aware of the challenge of teaching writing. Considering the eloquence of your posts, I hope that you won’t give up on writing and offer us the chance to read a book of yours sometime soon.

  17. This is incredibly interesting to me. I’m graduating in a few weeks and I’ve been working on a portfolio for my MFA application. I’m glad to know you’ve found the MFA to be helpful. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews on the subject.

    1. Well, I do have mixed thoughts on my MFA experience, or perhaps doing my program when I did. Part of me says I wasn’t quite ready; the other part knows that if I’d waited (and did my MFA now or in the future), I wouldn’t have written what I did, with certain experiences fresher in my mind.

      Here are two older posts on my MFA:

      Congrats on graduating soon! 🙂

  18. What a beautifully written, thought-provoking, inspiring post. It’s a little master class in itself. Thank you, Cheri.

  19. This is why I love writing. it is a pretty deep, existential, psychological or dare I say mystical or “divine” activity. It is riding space between normal moments. Writers, and artists more generally, really are the most interesting thing out here. When you fully embrace your writing, there definitely is that weird click, where you realize you are basically doing it for you, for your own inner development I guess. That does sort remove a lot of the social pressure I think. You realize that what you are attempting is so difficult that it is noble and worthwhile just to try. And you love it. Great post.

  20. The funny thing about writers — we have to get in a private space to write or we find that something begins to shrivel and die. We long for what you have so eloquently described — “connecting with a person, even in a quick encounter, and creating that temporary frictionless space for our ideas to breathe and expand.” And we wish to see our work “… passed on from mind to mind, reader to reader, morphing in ways the writer might not intend.”
    Even when there is no one to comment or give feedback, we must write on, sure that we, ourselves, have been changed by the careful sculpting of our thoughts. I guess that’s why I’m trying my hand at blogging (though not consistently enough), so that I can pull out of my journal and into a place where I can interact. I do some freelance writing and what an awesome thing it was to have an editor give me some bullet points to help me improve my work. Your work matters and if I start talking about that- my comment will never end. LOL.
    This was a great read and so well written…

    1. Isn’t that book just so good? I have a tiny pocket-sized version that I sometimes bring with me on trips. I love how you can open to a page — even one you’ve read many, many times — and continue to be inspired and surprised by it.

  21. It seemed that regardless of which sessions I attended at Press Publish and how much I enjoyed them, I felt like I missed something important by not attending the other choice. I’m sorry I missed your workshops! (I’m not apologizing to you; I know you understand. I’m sad that I missed out.)

    One thing I know for sure is that imposter syndrome is pretty universal. The older I get, the more I realize that most people are figuring things out as they go along, and many, many people are faking it. I think refusing to position yourself as an expert (refusing to fake it) makes you a better teacher, because it makes you more open to learning through the process, which of course makes you a more of an actual expert. That openness also makes you more empathetic to your students.

    As always, I appreciate your thoughtful posts. Hopefully there will be another Press Publish and this time I’ll make sure I get in on your clinics.

    1. Meg — it was good to meet you and I’m glad we pieced together, during lunch, who we were and that we’d had a previous exchange online. Hope you enjoyed the conference and got something — whatever you personally needed — out of it. There were some moments and encounters with people throughout the day that resonated with me, and it was nice to take these blogging/writing conversations off-screen for a change and meet some WordPress users face-to-face.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: