A Viable Writers' Workshop Model
Written by
She Writes
May 2019
Written by
She Writes
May 2019

This guest post is from award-winning writer Nancy Freund Bills, MS, MSW, is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is also a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty-year-long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker and a psychotherapist. Her full length memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, has received a Kirkus star from Kirkus Reviews; the review concluded that The Red Ribbon is “a keeper of a book by a talented author.” The Myth,” a chapter in Bills’ memoir, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, The Goose River Anthology, and in The 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), Bills lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats.

Find her online at nancybills-memoir.com.

A Viable Writers' Workshop Model

Five years ago, a fellow writer and I offered to become co-facilitators of a Fiction Writers Workshop at OLLI/USM, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine. We had been members of the workshop for many years, and the previous leader was ready to be relieved. By then, I had been in a variety of writing groups and believed I had some innovative ideas. I especially liked the model of co-facilitating the group; my fellow writer was willing to interface with OLLI administration, and I was keen to put my group leadership experience as a psychotherapist to work. We both liked the freedom of being able to take off a month if we wanted to travel.

The writing workshops at OLLI required that participants be members of OLLI for the nominal fee of $25.00 and that they register for the year-long workshop in late summer; the cost for the workshop was $50.00.  The workshop met monthly on the third Wednesday afternoon of the month in the attractive library of Wishcamper Hall on the USM campus. The size of the group was determined by the university--twelve, ten members and two facilitators.

Writing workshops at OLLI had previously been taught by retired teachers; although I have a master’s degree in twentieth-century literature and have done some teaching, my background is primarily as a psychotherapist. My co-facilitator also had a psychological background, and both of us were focused on meeting the needs of the participants; that meant encouraging the members to share changes they would welcome.

My first focus was on time management; I had been frustrated and seen others roll their eyes in more than one workshop when time ticked by. When time was squandered on non-writing related subjects or spent on a single writer, some members didn’t get to read their work or have it discussed. This had seemed unfair to me as a student, and now as a facilitator, I was determined to correct this inequity. When I raised this issue with workshop members, they agreed that if they spent a month writing a piece, they were discouraged if it was not discussed.

We were fortunate when one of our members volunteered to be our timekeeper; she was courteous but firm. She divided the amount of minutes available beginning at 12:45 pm until 3:00 pm by the number of pieces to be discussed; at the one minute-to-go mark, she said, “One minute,” and we concluded our feedback and handed the papers with comments to the writer. At this juncture, I would announce the next participant.

Over the months, we tried out different ways to distribute work, but we finally settled on asking writers to send their stories to one another via email a week before the upcoming workshop meeting. Each of us would print out one another’s work, read it carefully, and make written comments. The length of work to be shared continued to be a difficult detail to address. Currently, the understanding is that the writer may send a longer piece, but not expect others to read more than 1000-1500 words.  At the workshop, the writer would usually read several paragraphs to remind others of his or her piece and then the members of the workshop would share their feedback.

As time has gone by, the members of the workshop have become more like a writing family; each fall, one or two members join the family and the process of integrating new members seems to take about six months. Currently, some participants are focused on developing their skills as short story writers; others are working on books. One of our members recently published a delightful book about her experiences as a game warden when she was the only female. Another is writing her second mystery and still another is writing a novel based on his own family but weaving in several important socio-political issues.

As the facilitator who usually manages the interaction during workshop meetings, I sometimes feel as though I am herding cats, but the increasingly informal exchange reflects the maturity of our group. We are growing individually and as a group. And I am pleased that the model we have created together meets our needs. It is the end of another academic year, and one of our members has invited us to his home for a potluck meal. For the first time, some of us may meet over the summer, another member’s initiative. Our model appears to allow for growth and change, the very definition of a healthy family.

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