Reflections on Conducting a Writing Workshop on the Threshold of Hell

“Say whaaaaat?!” I squeaked in a tone only dogs could hear upon finding out that I would have to teach a series of writing workshops in a community setting as part of the class. “Me, teach a writing workshop in the community? Are you effing high?! I don’t know if I have what it takes.”

My hands trembled; my eyes molested the exit sign; my butt rose from my chair in the anticipation of a hasty retreat. But something kept me there. Perhaps it was the wry smile and the mischievous glint in the eye of the unconventional and heavily tattooed college instructor. Perhaps my curiosity outweighed my fear. Perhaps I knew I would get a chance to make some kind of difference in my community. Perhaps, as it all-too-often does, my curiosity got the better of me.

I recently spent 11 weeks conducting creative writing workshops in YDI’s GED program as part of my Writers in the Community class at UNM. The “Hell” aspect of my melodramatic title was the product of my own self-doubt, the concern that I may fail to deliver something helpful to the students. In fact, the Hell only lasted a few minutes before I started to enjoy it.

I put myself in touch with the director of YDI’s GED program, who said they were eager to have me. The ultimate goal was to assist students in passing the timed, written portion of the GED, and I thought by boosting their confidence via positive reinforcement and generating an interest in writing, I might accomplish that. I didn’t have to grade or penalize anyone. I was only there to encourage students to express themselves in creative ways.

I’d like to title this next section “Tips for Leading a Successful Creative Writing Workshop for GED Students,” but I may never know for certain if my efforts were indeed a success. With that in mind, here are some observations about what worked.

One: Relate on any genuine level you can. The students were immediately put at some ease when they found out I dropped out of school and got my GED 20 years ago myself. The air in the room lightened considerably after that revelation, and I believe the frank honesty was also appreciated.

Two: Don’t be pedantic. In this setting, I always began the writing assignments by saying, “I don’t care about your spelling, grammar, or punctuation. I’m just interested in your ideas and opinions. Let me hear your voice in your writings.” I found this eased the tension prior to the assignments, especially among this demographic, who showed me indirectly through their reactions and comments that they were used to only their faults being pointed out. A little positivity went a long way. If a student botched the directions and took the prompt in a completely different direction, I found something good to say about what they wrote.

Three: Be confident, and possibly outright silly. I’m 38 going on 12 (or so my wife says), which often makes me very relatable to kids. I mess up, and I’m usually the first one to laugh about it. The students could see that I don’t take myself too seriously, and as I continued to be goofy and open, their walls came down.

Four: Be flexible. My class size fluctuated between 5 and 18 students, and I never knew how many would be in that day’s class until I showed up. Some prompts work better with larger groups, and some with smaller ones, so I learned to have a utility belt, so to speak, of prompts I could utilize in my varying circumstances.

Five: Engage their senses. For one prompt I brought in a scary looking, but tasty, soft drink from some remote part of Asia. I poured a little of the bizarre, viscous liquid (which, to be honest, looked like the result of a refrigeration unit failure at a sperm bank) into a clear, plastic cup for each student. I told them to look at it, and write down their thoughts and feelings about it. Then I had them do the same after smelling and tasting it. The prompt was a hit.

Six: Be observant. A few students said they didn’t know how to write a story, but would then launch into an entertaining oral anecdote. I decided to have them write a story out loud, as a group, one person giving one line at a time. They enjoyed it so much, it stretched into two classes, and when I delivered a typed copy to them the following week, they proudly insisted on sharing it with everyone who wasn’t a part of it.

It was no Stand and Deliver—let’s face it, I’m just not Edward James Olmos cool—but I’d like to think I left the group with a little more confidence in their abilities, because I left with a little more confidence in my own.

Afterward: The article above was written for publication in 2014 after completing an 11-week section of fieldwork for the Writers in the Community class in the the University of New Mexico’s Chicana and Chicano Studies department. While the publication fell through, I still feel it’s a noteworthy essay on the value of expanding your horizons, even when it’s terribly outside of your comfort zone.

Since then, I’ve given countless presentations and writing workshops at the University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College, Native American Community Academy, and other schools and programs. That class also opened my eyes to the positive impact a single person can have serving their community, and ignited within me a strong ethos of community involvement and volunteering—something that’s had quite a ripple effect.

Growth is scary. Seek challenges. It’s worth it!

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