Building a Writing Community Overnight: Slice of Life #sol18

bemidji writers conference

I just spent a wonderful week at the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference. I’m thinking about a lot of things from the conference, but today I want to think about writing community. I always think of community as something that is built and developed over time, but in my workshop, led by creative nonfiction author Alison Hawthorne Deming, there was a feeling of community by the second day. I’ve been trying to figure out how she did it. Certainly it was partly the serendipity of the class make-up, but mostly, it was her choices as a writing instructor. There are some things I hold sacred when it comes to building community in the writing workshop–writing together, for instance–that we didn’t do a single time!

What I usually do: Start each class with writing.
What Alison did: Started each class with talking.

Each morning, Alison had a different question or prompt for us–but instead of writing about the prompts, we talked about them. We went around the circle and discussed the question. We didn’t write about it. This felt very strange to me at first. It took up a large chunk of valuable class time, and since there was no writing connected to it, I wondered if it was a waste. But it was invaluable in helping students make connections with each other and discover shared histories and interests. It was invaluable in creating a portrait of each person as a writer–goals, past experiences, hopes. The questions were always related to writing, so we were processing and growing as thinkers about writing.

What I usually do: Use texts as the common shared experience
What Alison did: Took the class on a walk as a common shared experience

After introductions and a brief lecture on creative nonfiction, Alison invited us to leave the classroom and go outside for a walk. The focus of this workshop was place, and we were at a wonderful place to write about in Bemidji, where the college campus is right on Lake Bemidji. There was a writing assignment attached to the walk: notice and try to capture sensory details. It was extraordinary how often the noticings of this walk showed up in people’s writing and conversation throughout the week. We also shared plenty of texts throughout the week. But I think the walk mattered more, as we were all moving and seeing and thinking together.

What I usually do: Focus on building student-teacher relationships
What Alison did: Provided space for student-student relationships

I have always thought that the quality of a writing community is largely the result of the effort the teacher puts into building relationships with the students and creating a safe space for writing and sharing. But in a weeklong workshop with a visiting faculty member you’ll never work with again, teacher-student relationships just aren’t the focus. There is a general feeling of good will and care, but the teacher doesn’t make an effort to get to know you outside of class and there is no expectation that they will. That leaves a lot of space for students to connect with each other both inside and out of class. When students take ownership of their learning experience and feel engaged in a common purpose, the teacher just isn’t as necessary for building community.

What I usually do: Start by having students write to me
What Alison did: Started by having students write for each other

If you wanted an individual critique, you could pay extra and sign up for that. But otherwise, Alison never collected our work and didn’t provide any feedback beyond some comments and questions in class. It was our fellow students who were reading our work very closely and providing detailed feedback. As much as Alison was a generous, wise ear for our writing, shared incredible insights and asked really good questions, it was the other students in the class we were writing for. I feel like I spend a lot of time in writing classes trying to redirect students’ focus on me as their audience to each other, trying to help them write for each other. Sometimes I never get there over an entire semester. I wonder if I would be better served by changing my students’ first writing assignment so that they aren’t writing a letter to me but writing to each other. I also wonder about one other sacred practice of writing workshop classrooms: the teacher writing alongside students and sharing her work with students. Alison didn’t share any of her writing. She didn’t even talk about her writing that much. And that provided so much more space for student work to be the center of the class.

What I usually do: Give students time to generate, write, and revise before sharing
What Alison did: Asked students to share work on Day 2

Naturally there is a sense of urgency and compressed time frame when you have one week to write together instead of the fifteen weeks of a semester. But something interesting happened when homework was assigned on the first day and expected to be shared on the second. People wrote–and they wrote well. We didn’t need two weeks to generate and produce a 500-word piece of writing. I’m not sure my students do either. By the end of the second day, we knew so much about each other as writers, and we also knew so much more about writing from the experience of reading and critiquing those pieces.

What I usually do: Remove the constraints from assignments
What Alison did: Added constraints to assignments

I resist giving assignments or even word counts. I find the perennial question of “How long should this be?” quite tiresome. It should be as long as it needs to be! Ask the writing, don’t ask me. But creativity is a funny thing: constraints tend to spark more of it. Some of Alison’s assignments were very constrained: our first 500-word assignment, for example, was 200 words on our nature walk by the lake in Bemidji, 200 words on a place that was meaningful to us, and 100 words connecting them. I would never dream of assigning something like that to my students. And yet, it was incredibly generative for every writer in the room. Of course we all knew we were free to go in a different direction if the writing demanded that–and many writers did. But it was the initial constraint that provided the spark. There was very specific homework every night–not just word counts but what to do within those word counts–and every night, my writing surprised me. I was able to think more and do more as a result of the constraint.

What I usually do: Celebrate but always seek improvement
What Alison did: Simply celebrate

Katherine Bomer would love Alison’s style of giving feedback. She focused on what she loved and didn’t usually even mention what wasn’t working about a text. She was an incredibly generous reader. There were a couple of pieces shared over the week that I didn’t see much in. But Alison managed to find their strengths and beauties and celebrate the pieces as writing. And it was interesting to observe what happened to those writers who received that warm praise: they were so eager to go off and write some more. By the end of the week, several students were skipping the conference extras (craft talks and author readings) just to have more time to write. And of course by writing more, they are improving. Praise helped the writers focus on what they needed to do more of. There was a choice to focus on the one moment where a writer slowed down time and provided the rich sensory details that made the piece come to life or to point out the ten times she summarized and got us all confused about the time frame. Alison focused on the craft specifics of what made the moment of slowed-down time work so well and never mentioned the messy parts that took the reader out of the narrative. In that writer’s next piece, there were several of those slowed-down moments and it was a much more effective narrative. I have always believed that we can grow writers by only talking about what works, but I often feel this pressure and unspoken judgment from others to make sure I’m also sharing one thing the writer needs to work on. But after seeing what Alison was able to accomplish just through focused and thoughtful praise, I’m going to feel more confident following my instincts in how I critique student writing. Her careful words of celebration made the writing seem necessary, needed, important.




25 responses to “Building a Writing Community Overnight: Slice of Life #sol18”

  1. tbreitweiser Avatar

    What interesting nuances to change!
    I am jealous that you were in Minnesota! I love it there!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It was so beautiful! I enjoy all the trees and water–not things we have much of in western South Dakota! (well, trees, yes, but not much variety.)

  2. arjeha Avatar

    The wonderful thing about attending a writing workshop is that we come away looking at how we approach writing and the teaching of it differently. We see that things we would not have thought of or normally do change the whole dynamics of writing for ourselves and our students.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I had initially planned to attend a workshop about teaching writing, but I think I made the right choice with a workshop that focused on the writing rather than the teaching of it. I also LOVED being a student and getting to take my teacher hat off for the whole week.

  3. Akilah Avatar

    Oh, this is great. I’m teaching a writing class this summer following a script my coworker provided and it includes many of the same things here. I am loving teaching this way. I wish I could do it in comp.

    That workshop sounds fabulous. I’ll have to think about the very specific constraints on writing assignments. That would prove a challenge and I love challenges. Students probably would too.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I was really surprised by how generative the constraints were–and seemed to be for everyone, not just me. Of course we all also felt perfectly free to go off the rails with the assignments when we wanted to, and that was fine too. Not sure students would feel that same agency, especially at first.

  4. mbhmaine Avatar

    This is a wonderful post and so well structured! I love how you so thoughtfully analyzed the building of this writing community, contrasted it with your own practice, and then so generously shared your reflections with us. You’ve given me a lot to think about — Thanks!!!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Thanks for your comment! It was so enriching to get to experience such high quality teaching over the week. I feel like I really lucked out in the workshop that I chose!

  5. margaretsmn Avatar

    I like the way you fashioned this piece with the things you usually do and what this new experience showed you. I feel if the teacher is an enthusiastic coach, her methods don’t matter as much. This teacher had a heart for writing and inspiring writers. You got so much more than writing practice out of this workshop.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I agree with you, Margaret: the methods don’t really matter that much. There are many possible paths to the same end. I could barely keep up with notetaking in my notebook because I was trying to write down every brilliant thing she said about writing but also note the teaching choices she was making.

  6. elsie Avatar

    Lots to take into consideration in this post. I love the way you analyzed your usual practice and Alison’s method. It’s got me thinking about how I approach writing.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I really appreciated getting to observe someone else’s teaching craft. We just don’t have enough opportunities as teachers to be students in other teachers’ classrooms!

  7. Ms Victor Reads Avatar

    I loved your set up as you told us what you would usually do and then what happened and the benefits you saw. Sounds like a week that will stick with you!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It certainly will! My TBR list also exploded, as so many of the students in the class read such different genres than I normally read. Can’t wait to get to the library and find some of the books they recommended!

  8. Stephanie Klansek Avatar
    Stephanie Klansek

    Never thought about how building student-student relationships are just as important as building student-teacher relationships. Lots of practical ideas to think about implementing for next year. Sounds like a wonderful week of writing.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I had never really thought about it either or wondered what, if anything, I do explicitly to build those relationships beyond the usual ice breakers and group work. It’s definitely something to think about!

  9. Shari Daniels Avatar

    Now, if you do this again next year, let me know and I’m signing up, too. 🙂

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I am hoping to make this an annual trip. It’s really wonderful! Tons of learning, great people, gorgeous setting, very impressive faculty, and it felt pretty amazing to focus on my own writing for the week. I do a lot of professional development throughout the year but it’s always focused on teaching. This workshop was helpful for that, of course, but it offered so much more.

  10. Catherine Flynn Avatar

    This sounds like a wonderful workshop! Thank you so much for sharing your insights about how Alison structured your time together so successfully!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It was such a treat to have such a great class! And so refreshing to be in the student role.

  11. Trina Haase Avatar
    Trina Haase

    This sounds like a perfect writing workshop! I love how you noticed the strengths based approach…perfect for any writer!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It really was a perfect workshop. I feel very lucky!

      1. Trina Haase Avatar
        Trina Haase

        I think it would be cool if a bunch of slicers met up at a writing retreat

  12. […] Some thoughts on building a writing community […]

  13. SaraCottinghamAuthor Avatar

    I loved the way you contrasted your approach to the teacher’s approach. It really allowed me to think about how I would have done things. We can always find ways to improve ourselves through other’s example.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: