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Writing again about a writing workshop

Before I went to the City of Stories writing workshops, I was quite keen to blog about the experience. They were to be the second time I would attend a writing workshop, after all.

But now that I’ve been to three workshops from the series, I’m not so sure.

Not because they weren’t any good, but because I can now see the the challenge of condensing a day’s worth of great workshop into a blog post, or two, that would be of any use to a reader who wasn’t there. I’ll try my best to write about the first of the three.

Life into Fiction: Our Hidden Selves with Jeremy Sheldon, was all about exploring painful events from personal past, and as such, very immediate and involving.

Here are the prompts Sheldon used to make the participants explore hidden aspects of themselves:

1. I remember when….

2. A sanctuary, a place you feel safe in…

3. What I never said to you…..

4. What my name means to me…..

5. Any scene with the “you” in the 2nd prompt, but written from the point of view of the “you”.

Intense experiences, one and all.

Participants variously described their experience of the writing exercises as surprising, cathartic, emotional, re-assuring. I suppose how the exercise will affect you will depend on your state of mind the day you are doing it, your readiness to dig deep into yourself, and what point of time in your life the incident had happened–how recent or how deep in your past.

While discussing the exercises, three statements came up, about suffering, human emotion, and climactic change:

1. The context of suffering in art, based on this painting and poem: that suffering is an integral part of life, that the world goes on around human suffering, and that suffering is integral to all art, and indeed most writing.

2. Each participant was asked to name an emotion. This was plotted on a graph of intensity (x-axis), and positive to negative quality (y-axis), which led us to an interesting conclusion:

All human emotions bring forth different judgments in different people. An emotion like desire, or regret, or anger, could be positive or negative. And it could be low or high intensity. The qualification of an emotion depends on two things: the story you’re writing, and where you stand as a writer.

3. It is interesting how every story deals with characters and their emotions, and how the characters are often given not what they want, but what they really need. Every story goes through this moment of truth, this resolution of conflict if you will, and it is important for us as writers, to “mine” into our own conflicted selves to render an authentic story.

Pre-requisites to make this exercise a success:

1. Absolute, unflinching honesty

2. Going with the first hit: the first image, event, person that comes to mind.

3. Writing uncritically, without judgment, without pause.

Benefit from this exercise:

Drawing an authentic portrait of an intense, painful emotion, so as to be able to do it in a piece of writing later. An exercise like this gives a writer the ability to recall buried experiences of emotion and put them on paper, which can be used in an unchanged or transformed version in a story/novel.

A little bit about the workshop facilitator from the BCL website:

Jeremy Sheldon is the author of two works of fiction, The Comfort Zone and The Smiling Affair, as well as a number of anthologised short stories. He is a tutor on the MA in Creative Writing Programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. He has led fiction workshops for the Arvon Foundation and Spread the Word in the UK and has taught internationally for organisations such as the Geneva Writers Conference and the British Council. In addition to this, Jeremy continues to work as a script editor and development consultant for script writers and film production companies. He graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at UEA in 1996.

I thought the workshop was a success, because it brought out some beautiful pieces of writing, and created discussions on why these pieces worked. This is the part that made being there, at the workshop, really important.

It made me realize all the more what I was missing when I missed some of the other workshops in the series.

I’m grateful to all the participants, who came out with intense, private episodes.

It was great to work with Jeremy Sheldon, who brought his own energy, his uncanny powers of perception, and his obvious expertise into the workshop.

And I feel blessed that MPH and BCL thought of doing such workshops for established and wannabe Malaysian writers, for whom events of this nature are rare and much-needed.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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