It’s September, and even though the first day of Autumn is tucked into the end of this month, today is a hot and humid 90+ degrees here on the coast of Maine. Hard to imagine apples crunching, leaves rustling and sweater-wearing on a day like this. The up-side to the high temps is that a dozen or so birds have been cooling off just outside in the wee birdbath, offering me much delight and amusement.
In my last blog post (yes…it was a while ago) I said in future posts I would address each of the Essential Practices of the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) Workshop method, so today the first practice I want to tell you about is how we respond to writing in AWA workshops: We respond to brand-new, just-written work with positive attention given to the strengths of the writing.
From time to time I hear people who don’t understand the AWA method say things like it’s ‘too easy’ on writers, that giving only compliments and no criticism isn’t valuable or helpful to a writer. So, here’s what I tell my workshop participants after I read this key practice aloud during our very first workshop.
I tell them that as writers we absolutely do need balanced feedback about our writing, and that there is, without a doubt, a place for critique of our work…but that place isn’t in this AWA writing workshop.
And then I tell them why.
In a workshop where we all (myself included) write at the same time in response to the same prompt, we are each creating a first draft of work. When we put our pens to paper or our fingers on the keys, we have no idea what direction our writing is going to take. We are giving ourselves permission to open a door that has just appeared, without any idea of what’s waiting behind it.
If someone chooses to share what they’ve written, and we respond with details and comments about what’s working in the piece, what stayed with us, what touched or moved us, and the places where we connected with the writing, we give each other encouragement to go through that door again, and again, and again.
In the act of first draft writing we dive into unknown and sometimes murky waters and come back up with a rush and our hands full of things we haven’t been able to look at yet. We haven’t had the opportunity to see what we’re going to keep, or what we’ll let go of. We bring it all up, and open our hands in front of the group, and we discover together where the treasures are. With this kind of encouragement we might dive deeper and further away the next time.
Writers in an AWA workshop take risks. They risk writing into the unknown, risk sharing work they haven’t even read yet, and that risk is met with respect by the group and gratitude by the writer.
We give brand-new, just written work the space and respect it deserves, and the writer leaves the workshop with valuable feedback should they decide to develop the piece further.
(The AWA workshop method does have practice for giving feedback , at the request of the writer, on work that is beyond first draft, with the goal of helping to make the writing the strongest it can be. I will write about that in another post.)