Solving the mystery of the writing workshops - Ian McMillan

Over the years I’ve run hundreds if not thousands of writing workshops and it’s only recently dawning on me that not everybody knows that a writing workshop is, and I’m not explaining its function fully when I invite people to come along and spend a couple of hours playing with a words in a library or community centre.

Indeed, once a man came to a writing workshop I was running in Pontefract and much of the allotted time in telling me and the rest of the group about the pen he was writing with and that it cost him £200.00 and then proceeded to write in copperplate on the one of the pieces of paper I’d given out. I realised that he thought the writing workshop was a handwriting workshop with calligraphy pens.

So I thought I’d describe in detail what happened at a writing workshop I ran recently at the wonderful Darfield Museum, and then we’ll all know what happens and we’ll all want to go to the next workshop we see advertised.

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The workshop was advertised to begin at 18.00 and last for about two hours, but I know from long experience that often someone will turn up early just so that they get the chance to write more poems, so my job as workshop leader is to head them off at the pass and triple bluff them by arriving even earlier.

Poet Ian McMillanPoet Ian McMillan
Poet Ian McMillan

As luck, or something, would have it nobody turned up early so that gave me time to arrange the equipment that I always bring along (or in this case my mate Jeff brought along) to this kind of event.

There’s the flipchart for the writing of the group poem which is often a good icebreaker and there are the pencils and pens and paper that are the tools of the scribbler’s trade. I find it best to scatter the pens and paper around the tables because if they’re stacked too neatly then the nervous first time writer will be put off.

It's always good to have lots of pens too because you’d be amazed how many people come along to writing workshops without the means to write, which is a bit like going to a gliding workshop without a breeze.

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This particular workshop was one for all comers from beginners to experienced writers, and I was going to concentrate on poems because it’s often easier to write poems, or the beginnings of poems, at a writing workshop.

Five people turned up, which was a good number for the space, and we began by writing a poem together with us all talking and scribing on the flipchart in my indecipherable scrawl.

We wrote a sonnet together; a sonnet is a particular 14-line poetic form with a certain rhyme scheme and that means that if you follow the rules you can write a poem as a technical exercise even if you don’t feel inspired and even if you don’t consider yourself a poet. Everybody enjoyed it, which was a bonus!

I then gave everyone a piece of paper and we did an exercise to make strange and weird poems; we wrote a line, folded the paper over and passed it on. We then wrote another line, folded it and passed it on. After a while we unfolded them and I read them out, to murmured approval.

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Finally we wrote something about a room from childhood, guided by questions from me.

And that was it: lots of writing done, plenty of happy people.

And that’s a writing workshop: no mystery, just paper and pens.

See you at the next one!