2018 March Medley Writing Workshops by Carla M. Cooke

I enjoyed participating in all four of the Straw Dog Writers Guild’s 2018 March Medley Workshops.  The collaboration between SDWG and the Northampton Center for the Arts allowed me to affordably experience four excellent local workshop leaders’ offerings—voice-finding, collaging, playwriting, and songwriting.

I jumped at the chance to participate in Dori Ostermiller’s workshop on March 4.  Her review of technical elements like perspective, using specific examples, transitioned smoothly into a discussion of developing one’s voice as a writer.  Her handouts were helpful in explaining the components of voice and the power it can wield in telling a story.  The writing exercises made me think differently about point-of-view and ways to explore writing outside of the “this is who I am” box.  At one point, she had us write about a single event from two different points of view.  She suggested journaling and paying attention to “what you love in writers you love.”

About six years ago, I took a workshop with Becky Jones that led to starting my own writing group, so I knew her and was already familiar with her collage process.  On March 11, she brought participants into a meditative space, suggested we let a question or issue come to us, and then encouraged us to look through several tables of collage materials, including old magazines, calendars, and clippings of all kinds.  She said, “let the images pick you.”  Participants worked quietly, choosing images, text, and colors to create brilliant and unique pieces; the only sounds in the room were the shuffling of paper and scissors slicing through it.  Becky’s gentle yet profound writing prompts led us into deep reflective writing, which we read in small groups.  As the workshop ended, we briefly shared impressions of the beautiful and inspiring collages.

It was a privilege to be in the classroom with Meryl Cohn on March 18 and learn about the elements of playwriting.  Short plays, she explained, are “heightened moments”: characters, motivations, and conflicts must become clear quickly.  During the workshop, a short play was read aloud and discussed; a handout on writing ten-minute plays provided cautions about “keeping it simple” (e.g., setting, cast size, lighting, props).  A brief writing exercise explored desires and obstacles that might be faced by a character of our own.  “Showing not telling” and eschewing exposition are particular challenges of playwriting; this workshop was a terrific introduction, and provided great ideas for developing character, plot, suspense, etc., in any writing.

Before March 25, I had never attempted songwriting.  During her workshop, Pamela Means explained basic components of songwriting and her own process, and performed two of her songs.  She referred to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones as helpful in getting started, saying “you can’t edit a blank page.”  Participants ranged from musicians quite familiar with songwriting techniques to many for whom this was completely new.  Pamela suggested a simple chord progression and then let us loose to make music.  I was able to draft a poem; there wasn’t time to apply Pamela’s advice about rhyming, but I began to understand how that could be done.  In the last moments of the session, guitar and ukulele players performed their new songs, and others read what they had written.  I was the last to read—a wonderful way to end the rewarding, pleasurable, and challenging March Medley!

Since the workshop series, I have felt a shift in my own writing and in the groups I facilitate:  a willingness to experiment with different points of view, to be bolder with dialogue, to notice and employ alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, to offer fresh prompts to the writers in my circles.  I am grateful to all the workshop leaders, Macci Schmidt, Laura Stone, the Straw Dog Writers Guild, the Northampton Center for the Arts, Eli Daniel Nemetz Todd, and everyone who made these offerings possible, as well as to my fellow participants for their creativity, generosity, and courage.