Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Journal writing about journal writing workshops

Let's face it, this blog is really just a public journal. I mostly talk about myself, my writing failures, successes, frustration, and inspiration. I guess this alone qualifies me to teach a journal writing workshop. I've been hosting such workshops at the San Antonio Public Library every six months, for teens and preteens who are interested in journal writing and want to know more about how to do it, and why they should bother.

Here's how these workshops go down:

After our introductions, I begin the workshop by telling the writers what I believe to be the benefits of journal writing. For me, journal writing offers the following:
  • a record of life events (no worries about faulty memory)
  • perspective on current situations, which allows me to decide what my goals are and what I need to change in my life
  • distance from emotions
  • safety (if I write or even draft a post, and I decide I don't want to share it, I never have to.) 
  • proof of how far I've come
  • a reason to write 
After this introduction (sales pitch), we trade our own journal writing practices, if any, and we get ready for the fun stuff. The prompts.

I only have one ground rule for my workshops, a rule inspired by Natalie Golderg's Writing Down to the Bones (a book I often use in my beginning writing classes at San Antonio Community College). Everyone is asked to respond to a specific prompt and let go; allow the mind to be free to wander on the page. I set a timer for 10 minutes, and the only rule is to keep the pen on the paper at all times. No stopping! Just keep the pen moving, Goldberg suggests, and I insist. I like this idea because it means the goal is to shut off the censor and let the writing itself take over.

It doesn't always work. Not the first time, anyway. But the second or third or fourth time, it works, and once it works, it continues to work a little easier each time you sit with pen and timer. If you stray from a prompt, so be it. If you end up writing a grocery list or a list of wishes, so be it. Just keep writing.

Okay, here are the prompts, a few of which I've actually used in workshops:

  1. Food: Think about a family meal, a holiday or celebratory meal, and begin to write about what you ate. What did it taste like, smell like, were you a child and if so, did you get to sit at the same table as the adults? Were there other children there. Begin to write about the meal, and see where this memory takes you.
  2. Aspirations: When you were ten years old, what did you think you'd become when you grew up? Why did you think this way, and did it turn out to be true?
  3. Change of scenery: Write about a place you used to visit that no longer exists, a restaurant that has closed or a lot you used to walk through on your way home from school that is now a pizza place. 
  1. How do you feel? Let it out.
  2. Write about who you were two years ago and who you are today. What's changed? 
  3. What did you dream about last night? Be as vivid as possible.
  1. Aspirations: What do you expect your life to be like in 5 years? How about 10 years?
  2. Fears: Let them out, and write your worst case scenario. Seeing our fears on paper, really written out, can make them far smaller.
  3. Goals: Write what you need to change and how you plan to change it.
  1. Write a list, like this one, that recounts what you did to today: 1.) Woke up and hit the snooze button, 2.) Dog licked me in the eye, so I had to get up and walk him, 3.) Got the mail and found yet another envelope addressed to Elida. Who the hell is Elida?, 4.) Listened to Christmas music on the way to work. Stopped singing at the stoplight when the guy in the truck gave me that Texas serial killer look.
  2. Write out a list of what you need to do this coming weekend.
  3. Write your actual To-Do list and then the To-Do list you'd have if your life was exactly as you wanted it to be.
  1. Write about what you imagine your life would be like if you were a man (if you're a woman) or a woman (if you're a man), tall (if you're short), etc..
  2. Write your ideal day/date/evening/family gathering.
  3. Choose your own adventure: Explore on paper what it might have been like if you went overseas to teach, after all; if you decided against that MFA program you're currently paying off, if you went for that Art degree, despite your parents, or if you'd had/not had that elective surgery. You get the idea. What if you took the other path?
  1. Write about those family members, friends, or role models that keep you striving.
  2. Write about what makes you happy each day, the little things such as the first cup of coffee or the good seat in Monday meetings.
  3. What are you thankful for? In AA, there is the common practice of keeping a gratitude journal. This is kind of what we're going for here... write a sort of thanks-giving post. This is a very helpful tool for people who need to feel grounded or haven't taken the time to reflect on how far they've come.
So, pick one, write for ten minutes. Don't stop. If you go off-topic, so what? It's your journal.

In my workshops, I make the offer to those who want to share writing with others, and a few take me up on the opportunity. This is the beauty of journal writing. Sometimes excellent creative work, some damn funny reflection, or even new realizations, will come up and you'll want to share. But, you're not sitting down to write with the intention to share, so there's no pressure. That's the freedom!

I always look forward to these workshops. I'm holding one tomorrow. We usually only have time to complete three prompts, and it's just enough. A good half an hour of solid, non-stop writing; and then we all part ways with our journals a little fuller. Hopefully, we leave with a little more clarity on some aspect of our lives, even if this clarity comes from a simple scene from our past, perhaps how much we really disliked turkey as a child but ate it willingly on Thanksgiving because when it was served, the entire family became quiet and happy, if just for a moment.

Well, that was a nice warm-up. I'll be hosting a workshop tomorrow after work. Can you tell I'm excited? Have a good week. If you use any of these as catalysts to write, let me know how it goes. 

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