What I Learned from Organizing a DIY Online Writing Workshop

Photo Credit: EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine

My favorite classes in college and graduate school were undoubtedly my creative writing workshops. At the large public universities I attended, they were an oasis of humanistic growth and communal support. I was able to develop my craft while also getting to know like-minded peers, some of whom have become lifelong friends.  I had not taken a workshop or had much time to write at all since graduating from my MA in Creative Writing program, but when the pandemic and the shutdowns started, I had a strong urge both to write and to seek out connections to my writer friends whom I had lost touch with. So, I organized a free, do-it-yourself online writing workshop over Google Meet this summer with friends and acquaintances I met on social media.

I learned from this experience that I didn’t need the official stamp of approval from a university to create a communal environment where peers could share their work with one another, receive feedback, and bond over the experience of writing during a pandemic. However, having participated in many types of writing workshops before, including university courses and weekend writing retreats, I can see that this type of do-it-yourself workshop is not a panacea. There are some things you just can’t replicate online, and there will be some missed insights when there is no established author in the room. Here are some of the pros and cons that I discovered from this experience.

Pros

  • It’s free. I have no objection to established authors and poets who make their living from writing workshops. It is only fair that the people who have the most expertise should be able to charge for it. But for people on a budget during a pandemic, like me and my friends, it’s a hard sell to pay several hundred dollars for a weeklong online workshop or to pay tuition at a university for a part-time creative writing program. I have paid for workshops in the past, and I think those workshops were absolutely worth the price, but I also think that banding together with your friends to create a writing group is also valuable because it is accessible to everyone who has the time to do it.
  • You can receive genuine feedback without external pressures of grades or competition. When I was teaching creative writing during grad school to undergraduates, one of things I liked the least about it was having to assign a letter grade to people’s creative writing. It left me with an icky feeling. I worried that I was just giving high grades to students who adhered to my literary aesthetic. In my online writing workshop, no one had to worry about pandering to the professor’s tastes because there is no professor. We also didn’t feel like we were competing for the favor of the professor or the institution, as grad students in MFA programs often must do to secure fellowships or book deals. We were genuinely interested in helping each other improve, and we could also be explicit about our vision of what we want our writing to accomplish. That way, we could give each other the feedback that we needed to steer ourselves in the direction we want to go. It’s more democratic, although it is not immune to the pitfalls of people’s tastes. I know the MFA workshop has been critiqued before for marginalizing writers of color and women because it prioritizes the perspective of the dominant culture in advising people what literature should sound like. Since all the people in my group are shaped by dominant American literary culture in one way or another, we probably still passed on some of those biases in our feedback. Nevertheless, I tried to establish at the beginning of the workshop that if someone objected to advice they are being given, even if it was a view shared by several people in the workshop, they were free to raise their objections or even to speak in their own workshop if they felt the need to.
  • Another major advantage to setting up your own workshop is being able to set your own rules and norms for the group collectively. At the first meeting of my writing workshop online we discussed what we thought should be the norms of our group and why. This probably should be a feature of most writing workshops, regardless of the setting and who is hosting them, but this was the first time I was in a workshop where I felt everyone had a voice in creating the agreements on how much people should submit and how often, whether the writer should be able to talk during their portion of the workshop, and how we would approach sensitive topics. I try to create community agreements like these with my high school students whenever we are having a discussion, so it felt natural to do so for the writing group as well. After having many writing professors who swear by certain aspects of the workshop and craft being inalienable, it was nice to have the flexibility to make our own decisions.
  • You have a reason to hang out with other writers once a week. Many of us writers are introverts, although, not all, but even for the introverted it can feel like a Godsend to have structured social time planned into your schedule. I have hardly socialized with anyone in person for 6 months. It was really rewarding to get to know some new acquaintances who joined my online workshop through friends of friends and to forge deeper connections with friends I’ve had for years who live far away.

Cons

  • Your workshop is only as good as the writers you invite into it. I wouldn’t recommend creating a DIY workshop to writers who have not participated in a writing workshop before in any setting. If there are a few less experienced writers in the group, you will probably be fine, but if you’re relying on your peers in the group to critique your writing, you need them to have some experience with creative writing and some knowledge of craft because you are relying on them for support. Alternatively, you could incorporate readings from a book on writing such as Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich (an excellent resource, in my opinion) into your group to give you insight if everyone in the group is a beginner, but it wouldn’t be the same as having the mentorship of folks who have been in the writing world for a while.
  • Online meetings can feel awkward at times. By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the strange pauses that accompany online meetings, where you want to speak, but you’re not sure how to signal that you want to talk. You signal that you are ready to talk by turning on your mic, but then your sound and video are delayed for a few seconds, so by the time you start talking, someone else is speaking too. It’s harder to establish a rhythm when you’re discussing a piece in an online workshop, but using an online platform does have advantages as well. I’ve noticed that the chat function makes it easier for people to echo people’s ideas or express their enthusiasm without having to repeat phrases like, “I totally agree with what X said.”
  • There’s no incentive to revise unless you build it in to the workshop. In most of the workshops I’ve taken in an academic setting, the final grade for the class is based on a portfolio of your work that you submit to the professor during finals week containing some new writing and some revised work. This time, there are no grades to motivate me to revise my pieces, so I will probably leave my notes from the workshops in my notebook for a while before I return to them. Still, being in a writing community with others is motivating enough to overcome this hurdle. Reading other people’s work is invigorating, and hearing comments, both positive and negative, about my own writing is a powerful incentive to keep writing.

My summer workshop is over now, but I’m hoping that I can continue to cultivate writing partnerships with the folks who have been in my workshop so that we will hold each other accountable for continuing to work on our writing and our craft.

On Writing and Teaching During a Pandemic

My cat, Lady Sybil, has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort during this turbulent time.

One of my 2020 goals for the year was to post more to this blog. I know, I know, it’s August, but in my defense, for the first few months, I was very absorbed in my first year of teaching, and then a pandemic happened. After really struggling with time management and burnout my first semester as a teacher, I felt like I had just hit my stride when the pandemic hit. I had stopped working as late and had started taking care of myself more. I had developed strong relationships with my students, made major progress with classroom management, and was engaging my students in rigorous learning by incorporating social justice topics into my teaching. Then everything was put on hold. I’ve written more about this sudden transition to distance learning as I’ve reflected on the experience of the past 4 months. In fact, I wrote a whole essay on this topic, which I still hope to have published. That’s one reason it took me so long to return to this blog. I wanted to amplify the story of ending my first year of teaching in a pandemic on a different platform, but thus far I haven’t had much success with my submissions. I’m still hoping I will be able to get my essay on being a first year teacher in this turbulent time published before the end of the summer, but if that doesn’t happen, I will publish it here.

I’ve realized that trying to write timely articles and pitch them to places that pay writers money takes a lot of patience. It can be frustrating to submit something you think is timely only to be told it’s not quite the right fit, or that the publication has already received too many submissions on a similar topic. I have a lot of respect for people who are freelance writers for a living since they must have to hustle constantly to survive on pitched pieces. Many freelancers have been seriously impacted by the plunging economy, since the loss of advertising revenue is causing many magazines to cut back on publishing articles and paying writers. I feel especially grateful right now to have a job where I can earn a steady paycheck with health insurance.

 This fall, I will be teaching at a new high school, after my contract was not renewed at my previous school due to budget cuts. It broke my heart to leave the school where I was first hired, where I had spent a whole year getting to know my students, colleagues, and the community. I knew all along I had been hired on a temporary contract, but no one at the school ever treated me as temporary. At this point, I’ve come to terms with having to change jobs. It took 11 interviews over zoom to find a new teaching position, but I managed to find a job at a school not far from where I live that has a very tight knit community and where I have a lot of control over the curriculum I teach. I am excited to work there, although I am a bit daunted by the prospect of figuring out how to navigate distance learning with students I’ve never met before. I still have a few more weeks to plan for this strange new school year. Since my county is on the California state watchlist, we will start in distance learning, and we will eventually return to the classroom for hybrid classes once the state says it is safe to do so. I feel fairly confident in the county and state’s ability to determine what a safe classroom environment looks like because I live an area that has maintained strict restrictions throughout this entire pandemic. I just hope all the safety precautions will be enough.

I have been really privileged to be able to use the time I’ve been sheltered in place at home to work on writing, and I know that many people who have been directly affected by the virus or by the economic consequences of the shutdowns have not had the same opportunity. It took me a while before I could get back into writing even though I was staying at home all the time. At first, I was overwhelmed by the demands of distance learning, and I was too anxious to do anything in my free time but watch TV, read a bit, and listen to podcasts. Now, in the last few weeks of the summer, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing almost every day, sometimes for several hours. It’s a luxury I know I won’t be able to maintain once the school year starts in earnest, but I’m hoping that at the very least I can carve out the forty minutes or so I would have spent commuting if I were working on campus to devote to personal writing.

One of the positive experiences I’ve had during quarantine is having the time to participate in writing communities, whether they are online or in my neighborhood. A few weeks into quarantine, I saw a flyer about a new literary journal in my city started by a neighbor. I submitted to it and had the opportunity to be published in it. It wasn’t a prestigious journal, but it was nice to contribute to a community project and feel connected to the other writers in my city.

I’ve also been working on some shorter pieces which I have had the chance to share with a group of peers who joined me in a DIY online writing workshop that I organized this summer. I have really enjoyed the experience of interacting with fellow writers in an informal workshop setting. I have participated in writing groups before, but this was the first time I tried to create one that replicated the format of a workshop. There is something invigorating and inspiring about spending time in the company of other writers, whether it’s virtually or in person. When I first thought of holding an online workshop, I imagined creating a community similar to the ones I found in workshops in college and grad school. While it’s not quite the same, in some ways it’s better because there’s no pressure to impress a professor or to compete with the people in your workshop. I have more thoughts on creating a writing workshop with friends, but I will save them for another blog post or article once my group has wrapped up its last meeting.

The other main writing project I’ve been tackling is writing the novel that I’ve wanted to write since I was fourteen. It’s loosely based on my grandmother’s life growing up in the Ming Quong orphanage in Oakland. To write this story, I’ve had to do a lot of research, and I’ve been teaching myself how to do it as I go. I’ve mostly only read secondary sources, although I did have a chance to talk to my grandmother once before she died about her childhood, and the stories she told me in that conversation have become integral to the book’s plot. A couple years ago, I also interviewed Nona Mock Wyman, who wrote a memoir called Chopstick Childhood about growing up in the Ming Quong Home in Los Gatos (there were several homes for Chinese girls and women started by Presbyterian Missionaries throughout the Bay Area in the early twentieth century). I’ve also been reading The White Devil’s Daughter by Julia Flynn Siler which has given me excellent background knowledge on context in which these missionary homes were founded. Siler’s book has enlightened me to the repugnant history of sex trafficking of Chinese women in San Francisco Chinatown, which I never learned about in any history class in school.

On a side note, I’ve been expanding my understanding of systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy in this country in order to be able to better enact anti-racism as a teacher and as a white-passing mixed-race ally.  I’ve found a lot of food for thought in Siler’s book. While it focuses on the experiences of women in the Chinese American community and does not address anti-black racism, I saw a lot of parallels in the book to the recent media coverage of widespread misuses of power by police across the country that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests. For example, in the late 19th century the police in San Francisco blatantly beat Chinese people in the street with little to no provocation while at the same time tacitly accepting bribes to allow brothels to continue to operate. The missionaries often operated separately from the police because if the police were involved, they might have tipped off the brothels and prevented the missionaries from rescuing trafficked women. Crazy stuff.

Anyway, I’ve realized that writing a novel is something I can do on my own, even though it feels like a daunting process. So far I’ve written about 24,000 words, over half of which I’ve been able to write since March. The hardest part of writing a novel when you are not part of a program or a fellowship is that you just have to believe in the power of your own storytelling without any outside validation. I know that the quality of my writing is probably not up to snuff since I can’t stop to second guess whether every sentence I write is warranted. Instead, I just plunge ahead, crossing my fingers that whatever I produce on the first draft will be salvageable, that I’ll be able to revise to make it good. It may never see the light of day, but I’m determined to finish this novel, even if it takes me several years. The legacy of my family history is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a writer in the first place. My grandmother never went to college, and she hardly talked about her life, the hardships she experienced or the joys. I am determined to tell a version of her story, a version very much mediated by my own literary interests and my own personal experiences. I don’t know if she would recognize herself in it, but I hope that if I am able to finish it and one day get it published, at least one of my readers will connect to her life through my writing.