notes on a writers workshop

Notes on a Writers Workshop

by Donna I. from Black Maria (1971) An analysis of a Writers Workshop offered through the CWLU's Liberation School. by Donna I. (1972)

(Editors Note: In 1971, the staff of Black Maria magazine, a literary journal with roots in the CWLU, ran a writer's workshop as part of the CWLU's Liberation School. This article, published in the December 1971 issue of Black Maria, is a report on that workshop)

"Poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father." - Virginia Woolf Woolf

All writing is a social act (even diaries, I suspect), and systems for expressing sounds, words, and ideas have distinguished human societies for thousands of years. Unfortunately, knowledge of the written language has been preciously guarded, more often than not, by an elite group of priests, scribes, aristocrats, or scholars. Even "universal education" has not eliminated the old mystique, so that most people approach our written language with as much awe as they would Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Writing, like any attempt to communicate, is also a risk. Our thoughts will make contact in ways which we cannot control. Perhaps some will not understand, and ridicule what we say. Perhaps others will be grateful that we have expressed feelings and ideas which they have never been able to articulate. Whether praised, blamed, or simply ignored, once words are in print, they no longer belong only to the writer, but take on a life of their own.

Despite the risk and common fear, hundreds of "ordinary" women have come forward, through the support of their sisters, to express their dreams as well as their terrors; to dig up herstory; to argue; to analyze; to invent; to sing. In short, to startle and overturn the old notions of emptyhead, chatterbox, harpy, gossip, and bitch.

The most astonishing thing about this great burst of creativity is that most of the writers are "amateurs." Women are discovering that they are not non-verbal, not illogical, not too emotional and ignorant to finish a thought. We are learning that writing can be an end in itself, for it often helps us clarify our thoughts into ideas and organize our ideas into a point of view; or through word images and rhythm, we may transform perceptions and impressions into beautiful poetry or songs. And that once these are set down in print, we enjoy an invisible communication with many people, beyond the circle of our daily lives.

As we grow in skill and confidence, shall we imitate masculine styles, forms, themes in our writing? Or shall we assert that part of woman which is still to be expressed, still to be explored? Take war, for example, which has often been portrayed in literature but rarely through a woman's eyes. The deadly game has been only partially revealed through images of grenades, guns, tanks, terror, explosion, mutilation, for the struggle to sustain families, production, and hope on the "home front" is an equally fierce battle against death. The futility, the absurdity of war is called "armed conflict." How would women--who must continue to build while governments use their sons, lovers, brothers to destroy--define it?

Then there is sex. Eroticism in literature has been so dominated by male writers that many women feel malformed, neurotic, impure because their experience nowhere resembles man's arrogant portrayal of it. Art reinforced traditional morality in cutting women off from their own bodies, but it certainly did not reflect reality. Now that we know female sexuality to be potentially deeper, richer, more intense, more demanding than the male's, let's bury the old empty-cup-waiting-to-be-filled, dull half-waiting-to-be-made-whole nonsense once and for all. Let the nature of female sexual experience no longer be taboo but a rich and various subject to stir the imagination of women artists.

Examples multiply. Novels, stories, poems, abound in female characters waiting to scratch each other's eyes out at the drop of a hat (or the sudden appearance of a male.) Quickly now, name one example from literature in which two women are allowed to be real friends. Warmth, affection, understanding are as vital as air, food, or water; none of us could have survived without having known strong and enduring bonds among our own sex. Sheer terror must have inspired male writers to so distort the reality of woman-to-woman relationships. Novelist Anais Nin has written: "There is no mockery between women. One lies down at peace as at one's own breast." If this is true--and I believe it often is--the portrait of woman's humanity to woman will profoundly enrich not only art but life now and in the future.

Turn this time to written history, some of the world's most audacious fiction. Judging from it,our sex hardly existed these thousands of years. But what of Mercy Warren, Maud Nathan, Abigail Adams, Aesara of Lucania, Cassandra, Agrippina III Arete of Cyrene, Cleopatra, Clothilde of the Merovingians, Diotima, the Wife of Bath, Alexandra Kollantai, Hypatia, Emma Willard, Emily James Putnam, the warrior Varangians, Charlotte Corday, Louisa May Alcott, Aphra Behn, Madame Curie, Rosa Luxembourg, Emily Dickenson, Eve, Judith, Vera Zasulich, Lucretia Mott, Yosana Akiko, Clara Lemlich, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, Mary Dreier, Mary Emerson, Lucy Parsons, Anne Hutchinson, the Grimkes, Voltarine de Cleyre, Louise Michel, to name only a few? our story is proud, fascinating, and long overdue for telling.

Having touched briefly on what women might choose to write, let's return to Woolf's belief that poetry should have a mother as well as a father. What did she mean by that simple but puzzling phrase? We know and could cite evidence of society's attempt to straitjacket woman's mind. But that does not mean that the real, the essential, did not struggle a gainst what was imposed. The mother, the sister, the girlfriend, the wife does not look out on life only through the blinders of her role. In those private moments when the blinders are not on--what and how does she see? what does she know? It is not that women should write like women, but that expressing our unique vision will -expand, add new dimensions to a language which men now own:

man n... at the highest level of animal development, mainly characterized by his exceptional mentality.

woman n...the female being(distinguished from man).

or reason n ... the mental powers concerned with drawing conclusions or inferences.

intuition n ... direct perception of truths, facts, etc. independently of any reasoning process.

These key definitions are clearly biased, certainly inaccurate. Woman is called any being that is non-man, and the form of knowledge proverbially associated with her sounds more like a physical than a "mental power". From these "definitions" and the many more there is no room to quote, it becomes obvious that the language we grew up with is not enough; ordinary words and meanings must be transformed, discarded, or reoriented as women begin to speak their own piece. A whole new range of sounds, rhythms, shadings, accents, images will accompany woman's voice; and we shall invent brand new forms to express what we have felt and believed, what we see and need and plan to do:

For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics. But this creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men.
--Virginia Woolf
A Room of One's Own

With some of these ideas consciously or unconsciously in mind, the Black Maria Collective set up an eight-week Writer's Workshop, which was offered to Chicago-area women through the Liberation School of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. Through our efforts to scout up articles for the magazine, we discovered that many women whose experiences, work, or interests might have produced fascinating and valuable articles were not writing. Those we contacted generally pleaded a lack of time. But when we looked into ourselves and asked why we weren't writing either, we guessed that lack of discipline, and more importantly, lack of self-confidence were probably the biggest stumbling blocks for "non-professional" but potential women writers.

We started out on the theory that all women have something to say, but that their talent is buried under many layers of conditioning. If all went well, we hoped a writer's workshop would fill three related, vital needs. First among these is a warm and supportive atmosphere where the creativity of all workshoppers would be stimulated and encouraged. Second, because writing in total isolation is often a dead end street, the group would offer the kind of constructive feedback--criticism, praise, suggestions- which is so much a part of any healthy work-in-progress. Third, we hoped that discussing already published writings of the Women's Movement, from a stylistic rather than purely political point of view, would sharpen our understanding of what makes good writing good, bad writing bad, and suggest the variety of approaches possible (book reviews, reporting, polemic, collective writing, historical and biographical sketch, etc.) Finally, our practical goal was for every workshopper to complete a piece of writing on her own time.

Although we had planned mostly for discussions, six out of the eight meetings included in-class exercises. Generally very brief (15 to 20 minutes), these writing sessions ended with us reading aloud and commenting on what we had just written. Since the convenors hadn't foreseen the necessity for writing during our meetings and hadn't thought through a variety of techniques, most of these exercises were limited to writing movie reviews, critiques, etc. Yet it is a measure of women's real hunger to express themselves that most of the workshoppers found the very act of writing a anything a rewarding experience.

Two high spots of the workshop were our first and last meetings, during which we wrote to music and art. Photos, posters, paintings were pinned up around the room and music by Ramsey Lewis, Smetana, the Beatles, Eric Satie, Moussorgsky was played on the phonograph for 45 minutes. Everybody was asked simply to write and the results were spectacular.

We had come together in a small room, wellstocked with old, but familiar-looking chairs, sofas, small tables. During the "experiment" some of us stayed at the meeting table; others curled up in corner chairs; I was most at ease stretched out on the floor. This freedom of movement reinforced the attempt to liberate our imaginations. At the same time the well-worn look of the room, it's space limits, provided a sense of intimacy among the strangers gathered there.

The 45 minutes up, we came back together around the meeting table to share what we had just written. Real enthusiasm and warmth sprung up in the group, although most of us experienced a few moments of real terror as our turn to share came around. Some of us had given in completely to the experiment-situation; some resented it. But we all had written, and written hard. One woman had vividly recreated her young son's joy in what the world feels, smells, and tastes like. Another had written a poem about rhythm. Another had let her imagination lovingly follow a wooded path portrayed in one of the posters displayed in the room. The music had unlatched the door to an interior world of colors, sights, and sounds which daily life and socialization stiffly and deny.

Almost immediately it became evident that our workshoppers were at different stages of writing development. Though painfully aware, we acted pretty helpless when people's different needs were sometimes at odds. At one early session someone had brought her writing for discussion, but was too timid or too intimidated by our "schedule" to say anything. It must have seemed to her that we piddled the evening away in writing exercises and film viewing, while she had some real, live work in her pocket all the time. Yet others needed the exercises simply because it "forced" their pens to paper and gave them a healthy feeling of productivity.

Unfortunately the convenors had not prepared for the natural split which existed within the group: those who were already writing and wanted feedback on their work, and those who believed they couldn't write, didn't have anything to say, or didn't know how to say it and wanted practice. The "alreadys" generally had to give way to the "not yets," which meant it took us four or five weeks to get around to one woman's article simply because we always ran out of time. Ideally, both convenors and workshoppers could have dreamed up many more games and experiments (similar to the music-exercise) for those who needed to work up their writing courage, while those seeking criticism and comments could have spent their time in valuable discussion.

Fortunately, anyone who was working on a writing project did get the benefit of the group's (or part of the group's) comments sooner or later. But surprisingly, we were often more shy about giving criticism than receiving it. one night several poems were passed around, read, and then a deadly pall fell over the group. Who'll be first to speak? What do I say? What do these mean? How will she feel? our poet waited. Finally a couple of people cleared their throats and ventured a sentence or two. Did the poet interpret our silence as disapproval--or worse-indifference?

When we talked a little about this failure, it became clear that people wanted very much to respond.

Unfortunately most of us seemed to feel incapable, inadequate, unsure, tongue-tied. For some, giving "constructive criticism" was a brand-new experience, and it is likely that many genuinely did not know what was expected of them. Just talking about it seemed to produce a painful, embarrassed tension.

For others who may try to set up workshops similar to ours, the same problem may come up again. Perhaps some time could be spent at one of the first sessions talking about what can be gained from criticism, the kind of comments we look for or have been most helpful to us in the past, and emphasizing that questions are sometimes the most helpful of all. (I now wonder what would have happened on the night of the "silent treatment" if someone had been frank enough to admit they didn't understand. It would surely have broken the ice.) Even more important, making sure that everyone who will be involved in the discussion has a copy of the written work at least a week in advance might go a long way toward avoiding the confused emotions of doubt and fear which spoiled one or two of our criticism sessions.

There have been writer's workshops before, but what distinguished ours was the belief that an woman who wanted to write could. She had only to believe in herself first:

The sincerity and friendliness of the group has facilitated an atmosphere of helpful criticism which improves each member's writing skills. (A.S.)

I think we are at least to the point where each woman feels capable of writing something. This is a big step, given the pre-conditioning we had all been subjected to. Another accomplishment (which, together with the first, just about breaks the field right open) is the willingness we developed to share our writing with others and to accept criticism. (K.R.)

A larger understanding has been evolving- that the participants can write and do have exciting material to write about. It seemed as though every woman had an "I'm not sure I can do it" feeling that first evening. There have been less apologies as time passed one. (K.N.)

I personally benefitted from the "exercises" we did in class ... because the experience made me feel like tackling other projects. I _always went home feeling especially good on those nights-_ full of words and ideas. (D.I.)

(from evaluations written by workshopppers.)

In the case of our workshop, women's energies were directed toward the obstacles that keep us from writing. However, the real victory was not so much words put down on paper but that we got back in touch with our imaginations. objective analysis is necessary, but developing solutions to the misery, rigidity, and isolation of American life will take every ounce of creativity we can all muster. Few of us suspect how much of what we will need for the struggle ahead we already possess. But why take my word for it? Remember your daydreams and nightdreams. Listen, for a moment, to yourself.