I just spent three good days leading a writing workshop in Brenham, Texas in the pleasant company of an interested, interesting and talented group of folks.
Most of them had a unique story they want to tell, and I hope our total of sixteen hours spent sitting around a big table looking at ways to help them become better writers, and at various devices to manipulate words and plots (and readers) will be beneficial to them on their journey. On the final day we took sharp pencils in hand and plunged into several pages of everybody’s writing, the group scratching away at the papers and then discussing what was done well, what needed to be done better and what shouldn’t have been done at all (we call that clutter in the land of creative composition; William Zinsser, one of the patron saints of effect composition, once called clutter the disease of American writing). We located perfect first sentences where they were hiding, buried deep in in the text, and elevated them to their rightful places of honor, we shifted words and phrases around, and we found gaping holes where something that should have been there … wasn’t.
The beauty, and the magic, of collective textual analysis – we call it critiquing – is that a writer ends up with a plethora of options from which to choose when doing a second draft. It’s the embodiment of the old “several heads are better than one” approach. Of course, the writer doesn’t have to take any of the advice. But if seven of ten people concur that the third sentence in the second paragraph doesn’t work, you can pretty much bet that it needs some reworking or a quick exit.
In that little group we had a retired English teacher who can’t quite believe she’s a poet (she’s an excellent one), an engineer, a local businessman working on his third novel, two people who want to write memoirs, and an actuary for a big insurance company who’s working on what has the potential to be an intriguing novel of suspense. And we had one or two at our table who just wanted to become better, clearer writers and had no specific project in mind.
I love doing workshops. Just hearing participant’s ideas, and watching them sting words, sentences and paragraphs together is mighty good stuff for an old wordsmith like myself. It’s what C. S. Lewis would have called “red beef and strong beer”, a phrase he employed for any particularly enjoyable undertaking in his memoir titled “Surprised by Joy.”
At the beginning of every workshop I lead I tell the group that creative writing is made up of two things: craft and voice. Craft refers to the many metaphorical tools in a writer’s kit, everything from grammar to cadence to sentence length variation to point to view and a hundred or so other ways to move words and stories around. Craft is manipulation; it’s rabbits pulled out of hats. Voice, on the other hand, is the way an individual writer uses some or all of those tools.
On the first day I told that group in Brenham that I could hopefully be useful to them when it came to the tricks of the trade that we call craft. But finding their unique voice would be a personal path that can only be traveled alone.
And I told them, at the end of our workshop, that I hoped they would use that voice to make themselves a promise to keep writing, be it fiction or fact, poetry or prose, and to share it. I also encouraged them to get themselves into a critique group that meets regularly.
If you have a story to tell, I encourage you to do the same. Find a creative writing workshop or a writing conference or a critique group and get some real feedback on your efforts.
Finally I told that Brenham group that it’s comforting, and admittedly a bit egotistical, to think that when you’ve written something that is published it might be read someday by someone who might pull it down from a dusty bookshelf or pick it up in a used book store, years and years after you’re gone. And when that person reads your pages you’ll be alive again, for a little while, and telling somebody your story, in your voice.
That little hope, or dream, is neither craft nor voice. But it’s a surprisingly pleasingly sweet justification for using both.