For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been afraid of generative workshops—workshops where the point is to write new material rather than review existing work. And not just afraid: terrified. The workshop leader would give the prompt (simple or baroque, according to his or her preferences), tell us to write, and I would feel my entire soul clench. Fear produces lousy art, so I avoided these kinds of workshops—and the sense of failure they engendered—whenever possible.
But I’m in a new phase where I’m trying to produce a lot more poems, and I need all the help I can get. I’m tired of being afraid. So I signed up for not one, but five generative workshops at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Partly I’d gotten my fill of panels at AWP, but there were really a lot of workshops that sounded like, at the very least, they would provide plenty of ideas for future work. The Massachusetts Poetry Festival is a great event: big enough to attract exellent headliners and sesson leaders, small enough so you get to talk to and know the people in your sessions. If AWP is all business, the Mass Poetry Festival is more like family.
I arrived at my first workshop on Friday morning full of equal parts trepidation and determination. All was exactly as before: the leader gave the prompt, told us how much time we had, and said “Go!” All the fluid writers (everyone but me) put pen to paper instantly and started writing, writing, writing. Meanwhile, I spent the first half of the allotted time slack-jawed and staring into the middle distance, trying to think and not think at the same time. Occasionally I’d catch the workshop leader looking at me worriedly, and I’d stare down at my paper as if I were going to start writing any second now. But really I was waiting for the inchoate mess inside my head to coalesce, for something to form, to rise to the top or sink to the bottom. For what’s important to make itself known.
And if I am quiet enough, it usually does. I am home after a wonderful three days in Salem with four new poems that I can’t wait to revise.