This past Sunday, the Baltimore Writing Hour held its first all day writing workshop, and I wanted to reflect a bit on that. The basic idea was to write for a bunch of hours, then finish with a peer review/share/critique session + food. Overall, it went really well, and the main goal – to write for the greater chunk of your waking day – was accomplished.
Quite a few of the things we did worked very well, and a few could have been tweaked, but the experience led to a few observations. The fist successful measure was the “quiet time” rule. We designated four hours of no talking with an hour long “open floor” break in the middle should people want to chat, ask questions, take a break… or should they want to keep going in their work. Clearly, four or five hours of no talking is, for the average person, insane and, for an itinerary, impractical. What’s equally impractical is expecting people to follow this strictly. After all, writing and the creative process is all about letting your inner impulses go unbridled. What ended up happening was that the break wasn’t really used. After two hours, everyone was deep into what they were doing and kept working through.
Which leads me to wonder about what could be done better. Maybe we could have four hours of silent work time. But that would conflict with the next observation, which is that after four hours sitting in place people start going stir crazy. Four hours sitting at a table (much like eight hours sitting at a computer, employer), is not shouldered easily. The table gets crowded, everyone is too close, you hate yourself (yes). You need to get up and walk around.
One solution I thought of to this, and to the silence/talking issue, was to build in a few short breaks. Perhaps three 20 minute breaks. Alternately, since everyone is on their own timeline, there could be a separate space set aside for talking. At the table it’s always silent, and off to the side in another room, people can go in to take breaks and exchange their ideas. The dangers in this are that you lose much of the externally placed willpower, and the circle breaks up, so that the last person writing at the table becomes isolated and loses motivation.
Another factor that worked out well was that we had a good person to space ratio. Everyone had their own space at the table and nobody knocked elbows. This is supremely important. I think you (obviously) don’t want a place that’s too small, but you don’t want a place that’s too big or it will become isolating. Factions will form. Loneliness will breed. It’s important for people to be in each other’s presence… otherwise the motivation all but dies. In all of humanity’s millenia, nothing has trumped the circle for this.
It is an equally optimal setup for the peer review session. We set aside three hours for peer review. With only a few people, it lasted two hours, but you want to be generous with this time. This is the dessert at the end of the meal.
Finally, food: it should run in abundance, with snacks, drinks, and coffee. Coffee is a must. Here, everything must be as comfortable as possible stopping short of beanbag chairs.
So, with all this in mind, here is what I have for an ideal setup: a large, circular table where everyone has enough space, with a bunch of food in the middle on a lazy susan so people can share without getting it everywhere. A table of drinks. A place where people can get up to walk around and change their surroundings. Either this space is where people go to take a break and chat at their leisure (and it can have books, snacks, instruments, anything distracting other than a TV or computer), or there are short breaks built into the hours-long writing span that everyone takes at the same time.
I liken this to gardening: you provide a framework and let nature grow up around it. It will not color in the lines, but without a framework it will go wild and uncultivated and fold in on itself.
Overall, feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Even if we were to repeat exactly what we did it would be great. So without a doubt we’ll do this again sometime soon. The one thing I want is for people to come to some of the regular weekend sessions to see how they fit into the group dynamic, because really at the bottom of it, this is the meat within the pastry dough of our surroundings, the greenery thriving between the garden posts and latticework archways.