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Fifthaversary

Start Writing launched September 2009 to help writers of all levels further their craft using the AWA (Amherst Writers & Artists) method. Here’s a kitchen sink look back at the last five years.

When it was time for my first session as workshop facilitator, I was determined to provide a safe environment for writers. I wanted to show that everyone has the power to tell great stories, if given the opportunity to write without pressure or expectation. I brought pens, prompts, handouts, and a secret weapon: I was cheating.

How? I’d intentionally choose exercises I thought I’d do well at. Sometimes I jotted down ideas in advance, or lines I thought would merit ooohs and aaaahs. In those first few sessions, I didn’t want to be the weak link in the chain. I didn’t want to be the one who couldn’t come up with anything to say in real time.

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When I’d share one of those early pieces for feedback, the response was not what I expected. The bits I came up with in advance never got mentioned. Some small indignity, frustration or desire I drew upon from the past, even earlier that day, would inevitably be the section most commented upon.

After a couple of sessions, I stopped this cheating. Despite the training, the planning, and knowing the importance of writing without fear, I had fallen victim to it myself.

I remember the fear on the first day! I remember feeling incredibly vulnerable but also proud because I had two goals in mind when I signed up for this workshop. One was to give myself a chance to be creative – the other was to open myself up to others – shortcomings and all! So it was terrifying.
And then it was so wonderful! I wrote stories! And I read those stories out loud! And people seemed to like them, or parts of them, and I did too.
And I was lucky because my group was amazing. I felt honoured much of the time to be listening to the stories of such talented people. I sometimes felt I was learning more about myself through their stories then I was through my own – I felt like I was in the presence of genius sometimes – that was the energy that pulsated from the group.
I loved the whole experience, I would do it again. Thank you David!  Christie

I had skipped the first and most important part of the process: I had not accepted myself as an artist. Taking this simple but crucial step brings with it the freedom to make mistakes, to experiment, and to face plant without penalty. It’s a process you begin each time you start a new project; perhaps each time you sit down to write. I made a promise to remove all expectations from my first drafts. Sometimes I love what I write. Other times I can’t stand myself. Liking your work isn’t the point though. The point is to write. The rest is just smog.

Keep writing. Don’t edit as you write. Edit later. Notice things and people. – Dale

“Writer’s Boot Camp”

Before that first workshop kicks off, so much work takes place behind the scenes. There are websites to be built, venues to be sourced, writers to be found. Posters came highly recommended to me, and my first batch went up around the city in the summer of 2009. My first workshop-related email came a few days later. I opened it with quickly fading glee as I realized the sender wanted to take issue with my grammar, not my workshop.

My posters advertised “Writer’s Boot Camp,” and the email suggested that, given the plurality of writers in a group, it should be “Writers’ Boot Camp.” I had cheated here too, or was at least guilty of trying to be overly clever. My goal was to emphasize the individual nature of each participant. But the singular just didn’t look right after that and the posters were quickly updated to “Writers’ Boot Camp.” Over the next few months, I’d occasionally run into one of those first generation posters that had yet to be papered over. I always felt like someone was judging me over my shoulder.

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The limited edition “Writer’s Boot Camp” sessions took place at Fraser Studios, then on the Danforth at Broadview. I miss Jason and his group. They were supportive and always tried to make their space work for you. Unfortunately, their space was primarily home to actors. Every now and then a sporadic burst of “F*** you.” “F*** you!” would come from the rehearsal space next door.

This was the place where I found out that I really COULD write and had a voice; a sometimes dark one but it was a voice… – Monica

The guiding philosophy at Fraser Studios was the Meisner technique: an approach where participants repeat the same line back and forth infinitum, learning how to emote and extract different meanings from the same dialogue. It generally descended into two voices screaming “F*** You!” “F*** You!” back and forth. This is hilarious the first couple of times. After that, not so much.

Our groups were united by a passion for art but separated by paper thin walls. As much as I loved the location, I needed a safe, quiet environment for writers. After a year at Fraser Studios I went out on my own.

What comes to mind for me is David’s ability to make everyone feel safe, at ease and unafraid. Of the work done in the workshop, I’ll never forget the response to a prompt that had to include ‘a delicate flower’. A young woman breezed in and knocked out a tale of a couple of young love birds, drunken, puking, straddling the toilet bowl kind of lovers. Maybe it was a well-practiced bit, I don’t know and I don’t care. It has stayed with me. It rivalled vomit scenes in The Goldfinch.
I also still have my own response to the prompt to write a dialogue between an animate and an inanimate object. I chose a woman arguing with an unopened bottle of red wine on the counter. It was/is pretty good! Don’t know if I’ll ever use it, but thanks David, for helping me write it. – MK

Venues and journals

The Start Writing studio was a short-lived experiment at Avenue and Eglinton. There’s a good reason most workshop facilitators don’t have their own commercial space: the economics make no sense. I knew this, I suppose, but justified the decision as a chance to have my own writing cave. The writer’s elusive place of my own. Once I got the keys, I did drop in most days. I’d unpack my bag, scribble a few circles in the margins and take a nap before returning home. I was fortunate my landlords were accommodating. “This was never going to work,” the building’s owner told me, not unkindly.

Still, in the few months that space was up and running, great things happened. I launched a second workshop stream. The Manuscript Club was a fusion of the AWA’s non-critical aspects with a supportive peer review component. Over 10 weeks, we wrote and revised selected pieces to appear in a printed journal. The Manuscript Club became known as the world’s longest 10-week workshop: well after our last session, additional months were used to send drafts back and forth, complete layouts, and review proofs. When it came together the group met for drinks and distribution and a distinct feeling of having accomplished something.

A manageable size, people interested in writing & willing to put in the time & effort to be there & participate – inventive stimulating writing exercises – it was here I learned about NaNoWriMo & thanks to Nano have two unedited but complete novels to tame. – DA

I titled the journal Sterling, after a group member from my first workshop session (read why here). Since the third issue, Sterling has expanded to include contents from writers outside the workshop. Issues 3-5 feature poems, comics and stories submitted by writers from all over the world: England, Ireland, America, Israel, Germany and Australia have been represented between the covers. Five issues have seen the light of day in four years, many featuring poets, writers and illustrators seeing themselves in print for the first time.

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Between Sterling’s first and second issue, the venue search resumed. I thought I had a permanent home at 918 Bathurst, a not-for-profit culture centre run out of a converted Buddhist Temple. Unfortunately, it went the other way. Every week my group was moved to a smaller and more sub-basementy dungeon to accommodate what sounded like armies in the main hall. The conditions made one long for cursing actors. Then I remembered my studio landlord mentioned a space in one of their buildings at College and Bathurst. “It would be perfect for you,” he told me a few times. Not knowing what else to do, I finally asked to take a look. And boy was he right. It’s an enormous multi-purpose boardroom, with huge wooden beams and space for 30. I shifted my group over mid-session and have been hosting groups there going on three years. Like any space, it’s not perfect. The room can be too hot or too cold when you’d least expect it, sometimes in the same evening. But I know what else is out there, and it would take a lot to pry me out of it now. If we have a chance to write together, this is likely where we’ll meet.

I loved my experience at Writers’ Boot Camp. It’s a great environment for writers of any level to share their voice and hear other people’s. Sitting at the table, it truly felt like no one there was any better or worse than anyone else. I would recommend it in a heartbeat. – Sam Bean

Side trips with seniors

In the summer of 2013, I got an inquiry from Scarborough Arts about facilitating a writing workshop for seniors. You bet! Scarborough Seniors Write kicked off with a motley and large group: 25 writers showed up for our first session. That’s more than twice the size of a standard AWA workshop. With a lot of figuring it out as we went along, the group clicked.

Despite the collective experience in the room, and the impossibly great stories that were shared, a common utterance before each piece was, “this isn’t very good.” As listeners we rarely agreed. Each tale told generated plenty of comments and the occasional lengthy discussion. Sometimes it was hard to get back on track: keeping 20+ seniors focused on a common task can be the equivalent of herding cats. It didn’t take long for these sessions to be the highlight of my week though, and I know many of the participants felt the same.

Scarborough Seniors Write ended with the launch of Moments, an anthology of short stories and poems in print and audio CD editions (available through your local library branch). I wasn’t directly involved in producing the anthologies, but I was present at the creation for most of its contents. Scarborough Seniors Write is a great program. I hope it continues and spawns many imitators.

Freebies (for the would-be facilitator)

I’ve had some small, personal revelations along the way. Here’s a few current and would-be facilitators are welcome to.

  • Keep track. When I started leading workshops, I put a checkmark beside each participant’s name after they read a piece. Halfway through a session though, I couldn’t tell who had read recently. Now, I put a mark beside everyone’s name, including mine, after a round of reading:. I use a checkmark for those who read, a non-judgemental ‘x’ for those who didn’t. This took two years to discover. Genius!
  • Take pictures. Especially with people. Sifting through my photo folders, I realize most of my workshop-related pictures are of empty spaces. There’s very little romance in empty rooms. People make the space.
  • Take risks. Just as every writer has a unique perspective on the world, so does every facilitator. Use prompts and exercises that you find exciting, even if they’re weird and take five minutes to explain (this happens with my exercises more often than I’d like). Not everything I’ve tried has worked. I’m particularly bummed that two attempts at a workshop for teen writers never got off the ground. But, as with most things in life, you learn a lot more from the moments when things don’t go quite right.

Should I take the AWA training program? 

I get this question from time to time. I will read a statement and take no questions.

Exposure to the AWA method has changed my life. The idea that writing isn’t hard, but we make it feel that way by the pressure we put on ourselves as writers, has been instrumental in my evolution from someone who thinks about writing to someone who actually writes. However, I am no longer affiliated with the AWA organization in any way. Despite what I believe are good intentions, I have found that the organization is focused almost exclusively on creating new affiliates, not on supporting existing ones. Depending on your goals, this is no big deal or a deal breaker.

If you are interested in running your own workshops, I do advise you to acquire a copy of AWA founder Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. Everything you need to know about the AWA method and how to get your own group off the ground is located within. After finishing the book, you should have enough insight to decide for yourself whether you’ll benefit from a formal training session.

What I remember. 

Half a decade ago, I wasn’t sure “Writer’s Boot Camp” would attract any writers. After it did, I wasn’t sure I’d find enough writers to run a second workshop. Five years later, I’ve run hundreds of sessions through my own programs and in libraries, synagogues, assisted living facilities, corporate offices, and hospital wards. I’ve published five issues of a literary journal, and helped bring three self-published projects to life. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers from mid-teens to late-80s. At least two romances got their start in my groups. I have witnessed many writers enter my groups saying “I can’t do this” or “I don’t know how” and watch them come away with belief in their own ability to tell stories. This is the most rewarding aspect of what I do, and it never gets tired.

The multitude of stories for each given prompt. The variety of people attending these workshops (I have taken eight so far) each with their own voice. The pleasantness of the evenings, not realizing how quick the time went. Most of the time I felt the workshop ended too soon. – Simona

I believe that when you travel with people you get to know something permanent about them. And a writing workshop is a journey. Like a road trip, you open up over the long haul. Even if you write exclusively about other worlds and other times, your writing will reveal something personal about you and the way you see the world. While I don’t remember every one of the 8,000+ pieces I’ve heard over the last five years, I remember something about every person I’ve written with. Some have become friends. All have been inspirations. I’m grateful that what began with an impulse to write ended with the opportunity to help others fulfill the same desire. And best of all, I get to meet so many lovely travellers along the way.

I remember being wowed by at least one something every single time I wrote with every group. It’s affirming and inspiring to write with talented writers from different backgrounds, and the method is a great equalizer. It also moved me to be accountable to show up for a few hours a week, and I can see definite changes in my attitude and craft because of presence of Boot Camp in my practice. I remember David saying “but you’ve done it” when I came back after two sessions, but it’s a dynamic process because we all keep changing, so we’re never really done with that. I appreciate all the spirits-wild and cautious, and to David for doing a pretty good job recruiting and wrangling us all. That’s what I remember, and that’s what stays with me. – Angelica

* About the quotes

When I started thinking about this post, I asked writers on my mailing list if they would share some thoughts about their experience in my workshops. The quotes above are taken from their responses.

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