The Wonder of the Workshop

This time last week I was packing for a weekend in London to attend a two-day poetry workshop organised by Poetry London and led by American poet Matthew Dickman. It was an intense weekend and it always takes time for me to allow my thoughts to settle in such situations. Over the course of the week, I’ve reflected often on the special magic that occurs in a creative workshop and just how much work can be produced in a short space of time. That makes me wonder just how it’s done and whether I can replicate that at home.

The first element to recognise is that the workshop was very well organised and held at the Poetry School - a short walk from Waterloo station - in a bright and airy room, well stocked with tea and coffee. I think these are all elements you can replicate at home – make an appointment with yourself to write and honour that. It is very easy to let this slip - there is always housework to do, demands from a boss, a partner or children, a friend you haven’t seen in a while – but there’s no real reason for this. Can you imagine, for example, telling your friend you can’t meet them as you’d promised because you have to finish washing your bath towels? If your friend is worth the commitment of time then so is your writing.

You can make sure in advance that you have everything you need to write and make sure that’s easy to achieve – for me, that’s a block of at least two hours to work, some instrumental music to shut out the rest of the world (current favourite is gypsy-jazz guitarist Remi Harris but I also recommend classical pianist James Rhodes for a more dramatic accompaniment) and a ready supply of coffee. I respect the time I’ve given myself the same way I make sure I achieve work deadlines or meet friends on time.

The second is the external input of new work. Over the course the weekend, Matthew Dickman demonstrated his great knowledge of modern poetry and opened my eyes to some wonderful writers. Again, this is something you can replicate at home, even if you don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the current poetry scene. Sometimes I think coming at something completely new is an advantage: pick up an anthology or poetry magazine and choose a page at random; consider the poem in detail, what it can teach you and how you can apply that to your day’s writing.

Finally, the real magic of the workshop comes, I think, from the fact that there’s no backing out. There comes a point where everyone else in the room has their head down writing and you must follow them. It’s something like the adrenaline rush of an exam and harder to replicate at home. I think it helps to consider the fact that everyone in that circumstance is writing something new and that’s part of why the experience is so creative - that thought is liberating. It means when you sit down at home, you should remember that every writer  - even if they’re not next to you in a classroom - starts with a blank page and has to get their head down right now. There’s no pressure to be perfect or to hit the nail square on the head at the first try, you just have to keep writing.

I have carried more than these lessons with me from that workshop and I’ll include my thoughts on those later. Looking back on such an incredible creative weekend, I am glad to know I can take that feeling with me. There is a special kind of magic in the air at a workshop, for sure, but it is a form of practical magic that is always within reach.

By Matthew Dickman, Michael Dickman
By Remi Harris