I’ve talked before on this blog about the range of learning opportunities available to me over the course of my ArtfulScribe writing residency at John Hansard Gallery. One of the areas of potential growth I saw as particularly desirable from when I first found the residency advertised, was in the chance to get hands on experience of running workshops. I won’t pretend that this didn’t also scare me.
As I have involved myself in situations as a writer over the last ten years or so, it’s occasionally come up that peers of mine have built a more secure framework for facilitating learning and sharing knowledge, either through obtaining teaching positions in universities, comparable jobs in arts organisations, or working as freelance educators. My lack of quantifiable teaching experience has felt like a hurdle I needed to overcome to further build my profile as a poet in public. Without going back into formal education with the aim of collecting the Masters and PhD that might offer one (expensive and perhaps flow-interrupting) way of accessing teaching experience, I thought I might be able to achieve some of the confidence and experience I felt I was missing through this structured residency, attached as it is to a university-affiliated institution and with support from a writing charity.
And so it has proved!
The opportunities to deliver workshops have manifested themselves as the Gallery’s doors have swung open. During the opening Gerhard Richter exhibition, I delivered my first workshop. I called it Self-Portrait Writing, Three Times after Richter’s progressively obscured iterations of photographic portraits. I thought that the idea of tracing the personal in a gallery space, and playing with the balance of how much we give away in our writing and how much we choose or are able to hold back, would connect comprehensibly with the writing I was making in the gallery as part of my residency. The prospect of running this workshop gave me the impetus to sit down and read the beautiful poetry/prose book ‘After Language: Letters To Jack Spicer’ by Stephen Vincent, which I had lived with without quite immersing myself in for some years. The beautiful introduction, in which Vincent traces a walk around several art destinations in San Francisco, gave us a solid piece of writing to imagine applying personalising or depersonalising filters to. I was delighted that the large group trusted my idea and committed to going about the Richter exhibition, to make their own three-sectioned pieces of writing in response to their encounter with works in the show.
In the preparation for the workshop, I had gleaned some good practical tips from ArtfulScribe’s Matt. We used the experience of an ArtfulScribe film poetry workshop I had attended at the start of my residency as a source of examples to talk through how I might successfully deliver a workshop. This discussion covered practical details like ways to remember names, to the broader task of building community among diverse participants. This prep stood me in good stead to tailor the workshop for an intelligent and vocal group of 25 people, including a cluster of participants who already were working together through Mayflower Young Writers group. I think my main aim of staying calm and giving out positive vibes must have worked, as my favourite bit of written feedback from the group afterwards was ‘you are very smiley’. Matt’s right! Smile, and you are already feeling happier than before those mouth corners lifted.
It also helped that I’d prepared examples of the exercises myself – examples made it much clearer what I was asking the group to do – so I’m definitely going to use that approach again for my follow-on workshop on Saturday 3rd November ‘Time And Time Again’. This time I’ll be leading the group to think about experiences of the gallery space separated in time, rather than by differing levels of disclosure.
It’s been such a pleasure to put together a structured learning experience, related directly to the things I’m thinking about in my own writing. Preparing workshops has given me the prompt to articulate my thoughts and process. I hope what I have learned in this very direct encounter with ‘audients’ of the gallery runs through into the poems I have made there. I think it does, and the encounter has informed the thinking I’m doing about how cultural activity in a specific venue can resonate within both its own history and within the life experiences of the people engaging physically with such a space and its programme.
As for workshops, now I’ve given one, I am happy to realise that more of my professional skills could be brought into play than I’d realised. I work in arts organisations and have managed teams of people for 15 years. The work I’ve done in structuring training sessions and supporting people’s development is of course, I see it now, relevant to teaching, even if I needed some support to work out how to form quickly the trust demanded by the temporary groupings of workshops.
So yes, I will be fleshing out the part of my writing CV that talks about leading and facilitating sessions. Just one of the ways this benevolent year of being invested in is helping me to puzzle my future writing career into place.
Following the Self-Portrait Writing, Three Times workshop, two of the participants wrote up and shared their experiences. These were delightful to read, and here are links to them. Thanks Dave and Katherine for doing that.
The photos are taken by Ben for CityEye.