lessons learned, teaching, writing, writing process

What Workshop Taught Me about Writing

Oooold photo of Josh being a silly teacher chap at Sturbridge Village.
Oooold photo of Josh being a silly teacher chap at Sturbridge Village.

My husband Josh and I are both middle school teachers, and this means that we spend a lot of time talking about teaching. (Sometimes this drives my sister crazy.) We teach different subjects (him: English; me: history) at different schools with wildly different populations, so most of the time this leads to productive, interesting conversations that help us deal with problems or revitalize our curricula.* And for the past few years, we’ve also been talking a lot about reading and writing.

Josh teaches according to the workshop model developed by Lucy Calkins at Columbia University Teachers College. It’s all about kids doing the authentic work of the discipline, which in this case is reading and writing, and making choices about what to do. Students might meet with a book club to discuss the last few chapters they all read, or revise a short story they’ve been working on. Writing in the workshop classroom follows a specific sequence of steps. First, you collect ideas. Then you develop, draft and revise. Finally it’s time to publish, which could be anything from sharing your work with five people in school to submitting to a literary magazine.

It sounds very similar to the traditional format I was taught (brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, publish), except for the “collecting” and “developing” phases. This is more free-form than brainstorming and outlining, as impossible as that might sound (what’s more free-form than brainstorming?). Whereas I grew up jotting down words and phrases and maybe drawing a concept web or two in the brainstorming phase, in collecting you can make outlines, write character sketches, do research, write a few paragraphs of description, draw, whatever helps you collect those ideas. Eventually you’ll develop those ideas into a plan, maybe with an outline or something else that makes sense for the project. Then you’ll use that plan to draft your piece. If you find you have to go back to the collecting phase when you’re doing developing, that’s okay. You’re allowed to be flexible.

I’ve been doing this unconsciously with my own writing for years, but in a haphazard, agonizingly unproductive way. I would do only historical research and call myself ready to write, only to find the characters flat and uninteresting, and have to go back to the drawing board. I would collect ideas for a week and dive into the first fifty pages of a draft, only to find the plot messy and convoluted and have to make another outline.

Since I started talking with Josh about it, though, I’ve been much more deliberate. While I’m still dealing with my own impatience, I’m learning to respect the process of collecting and developing. With my latest WIP, I spent a few weeks just collecting (everything from going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole to listing song titles to jotting down character traits), even though I was dying to start writing immediately. I developed those ideas into an outline, reworking ideas until they felt okay. When I finally started to draft, things still felt misshapen and badly formed, so I spent more time collecting, making outlines and character sketches and revisiting CD mixes from my high school years. Now, maybe the third time trying to draft, things are finally starting to feel good, and I’ve seen yet again how important it is to let those ideas and possibilities marinate before drafting.

I read once that Judy Blume fills a notebook with everything she knows about her current project and characters before she starts writing. And I’m discovering that I need to do that, too. As impatient as I am to get to the drafting phase, collecting and developing are crucial steps towards understanding my story. And if we’re being honest, listening to mixes from your adolescence is its own brand of weird fun.

*Yep, I’m a nerd.

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5 thoughts on “What Workshop Taught Me about Writing”

  1. I loved this post, Abby! What you’ve learned about your writing process is very similar to what I’ve learned about mine. So often the “marinating” phase seems less important than drafting a new novel, but it’s just as important (maybe even more important). I’ve had to circle back to that idea-collecting and outlining stage after abandoning drafts that seemed flat too.

    We also have teacher husbands in common! I teach university English and my husband teaches high school physics and computer science, but our conversations centre around teaching much of the time too. It’s nice to have someone to share teaching strategies with but I’m glad my husband and I don’t teach the same subject—we’d be too much in each other’s space!

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    1. Thanks, Clarissa! How funny that you also have a teacher husband! I’m definitely with you – while it’s great to have someone to talk about teaching with, it’s nice to be in different disciplines and schools, to have some separation.

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  2. Okay, so patience is not an object found in my writer’s toolkit box. It won’t even glance at my toolkit box. My writing process is a scenario that would have most folks entirely flummoxed. The fact that I manage to get a beginning, a middle, and an end to any story is a carpet ride adventure that has no set itinerary before I begin.

    And it’s not like I don’t see the value in planning, plotting, gathering and marinating because in all my other art forms I find it a critical must for competency and accuracy.

    Maybe I’m rebelling simply because it does rule over everything else. (And this makes me feel a teensy bit bad when someone like you, Abby, is forced to wade through the muck and mire of my early writings where you kindly point out the gaping holes, the nonsensical drivel and the ‘oh-my-god-this-will-never-work’ plot moments.)

    Love the contemplative husband photo. 😀

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    1. Yeah, I talk a good line about planning (and re-planning…and re-planning), but who knows, I’ll probably have to go back to the drawing board again before this draft is finished. The thing is I KNOW what I SHOULD be doing…I just don’t always do it. That patience part!

      And I honestly love reading other people’s early work, when it’s in the throes of figuring out what it wants to be. It’s so malleable! Even if I do end up making the same comments about plot holes and loose ends…

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