Any teacher knows that a one hour window in which to teach does not actually involve a full hour’s useful time. If you’re lucky and you have dedicated learners, by the time you get everyone settled and have introduced the topic, you have maybe 50 minutes at best. I’m stating this up front, because I recognize how hard it is to fit everything you want to do and say into that kind of time constraint, and I value all the effort that goes into organizing a lesson, workshop, or conference session. It’s hard to do right, and of the three workshops I attended at the 2014 Mass Poetry Fest, two knocked it out of the park and one was fairly disappointing when it didn’t have to be.
What Doesn’t Work (because it’s always worth getting through those first)
1) Actual session activities don’t match what’s described in the festival program – Yes, between when you submit a conference proposal and when you give your presentation/lead your program, ideas can morph. But if your session description asks people to bring their own works in progress, and when you start the workshop you make no mention of that and work with writing prompts instead, you will confuse people even if they are willing to go with it. If you also fail to address anything else listed in the description beyond the vaguest overarching theme, you will end up with at least vaguely dissatisfied participants.
2) What you outline (promise) at the beginning of the session doesn’t happen – Even if you’ve changed your mind about what you want to do in your session, if you don’t follow through on your newly announced plan, your vaguely dissatisfied participants will end up disgruntled. If it’s important enough to you to look at everyone’s work during the session that you say you’ll do it, then actually do it. Otherwise, no matter what other interesting information you dispense, the people who get skipped over will feel like they’ve wasted their time.
3) Wasting time – Be realistic about how much you can get done in an hour, hour and a half, two hours. If you’re used to giving three day long intensive writing workshops, think back over how long your introductory activity takes, and that’s probably about as much as you can cover in this kind of time window.
4) Self-advertising – Not actually a terrible thing if you make your living as a writing coach or a consultant, so long as the session’s gone smoothly and you have a good sense of the temperature of the room. But if you’ve had issues with any of numbers 1-3, promoting your next course is likely to backfire.
What Works! (Yay!)
1) Group participation – Chances are good that most of the people in the room don’t know each other all that well, but a bunch of them likely do belong to writers’ groups and are familiar with both reading their work aloud and collaborative writing prompts. If you don’t have time to have everyone read, that’s fine and people won’t expect it unless you tell them they will, but a writing exercise as simple as Exquisite Corpse works great as an icebreaker. And it makes everyone feel included without taking any more time than you might have given to any other writing prompt, sometimes with bonus hilarious results.
2) Handouts – Seems pretty common sense, but if you’re referencing a bunch of works, poems or otherwise, having at least a bibliography and at best a set of full text, along with whatever prompts or resources you’re using in your presentation. It frees people up from stressing about taking notes, so they can pay more attention to what you’re saying and really take it in. Plus it’s helpful when they want to go back and reflect after. I’m really looking forward to reading carefully through the poems provided by Elisabeth Horowitz in the intensely enjoyable “Writing the Sea.”
3) Spare paper and pens – Okay, at a writers’ event, this may be superfluous. But notebooks fill and pens run out of ink, so having extras makes you look sweet and thoughtful. Because you are!
4) Personal touch – Best practices and survey data and such are useful, but the reassurance of a personal success story shouldn’t be undervalued. And admitting where things went wrong is as interesting and useful as the list of things that went right along the way.
5) Interesting, diverse writing prompts and/or discussion questions – Form, theme, vocabulary, cultural context – there are so many options for cool prompts, and even mixing up the general (‘rivers’) with the specific (line beginnings and ends must match) can lead to really interesting variation that makes people think fast and write fast and be more willing to share, in general, than the things they’ve slaved over and have more invested in. And it’s not all about the writing either – time for questions is equally important!
6) Homework assignments – In the corporate world, these are called ‘action items,’ but the point stands: especially if you’re leading a session on practicalities or logistics, like Susan Rich’s excellent session this weekend on “From Manuscript into Book: Demystifying the Process,” giving participants ideas on what next steps they can be taking once the session is over is great. I have a number of ‘assignments’ to add to my running to-do lists thanks to Susan, and I’m actually really looking forward to it. Who knew a task like ‘list the titles of the poems you know you still need to write’ would be such a spur to creativity?
Have you attended any particularly good (or regrettable) conference/festival sessions? Any helpful hints to share in the comments? Please do!