This post tells what I learned from a blind teacher of senior writers.
I enjoyed several years of writing and reading in the Brandywine Writers’ Circle, founded by Joan Leof, a Wilmingtonian, but I have never led writers groups. That’s changing. I’m endeavoring now to organize the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup Writers and a brand new group among the members of New Beginnings-Next Step, a peer support group of returning citizens from Delaware prisons. I’ve also been asked by IVW members in Milford to help them start a writers’ group there. So I figured I should learn something on the subject!
Googling, the following book called out to me: Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors. IVW has two blind members, and I and several other IVW members are getting long in the tooth, so it seemed appropriate. The book is an easy and entertaining read, and I learned a lot by noting what the author, Beth Finke, an NPR radio commentator, discovered through trials and a few errors. Here are my ten takeaways:
1) The writers in her groups almost all disliked critique as a teaching method. Some wanted to improve their writing, but her writers’ chief reason for joining a group was to share their personal stories. Above all they wanted to be heard.
2) Prompted by their leader her writers learned things about themselves they hadn’t thought much about before; and sharing their stories helped them connect with others more deeply. Memoir is first and foremost a tool for self-discovery; and the sharing of personal stories in a group serves to root one in community.
3) Often, seniors experience a decline in writing agility. Words come less easily, and it gets harder to recall proper nouns, especially. But in the sharing of stories there is an advantage to many years of experience. There is good reason why seniors’ tales regale, not just because they recount times that have grown quaint, but because they speak wisdom that can only be acquired by enduring and surviving.
4) Short writing prompts are often better than longer ones. Even one-word prompts can be excellent. Describing the writing task too finely binds writers’ imaginations. A smidgeon of a springboard suffices.
5) When starting a writers’ group decide on ground rules and stick by them. If you stray too far from what has been agreed upon you may lose writers’ trust and damage morale.
6) Schedule readings so that authors come well prepared and are not rushed. The group may decide to distribute written copies of the upcoming readings ahead of time. It’s good to hear the written word of course, but some people are visual learners and prefer to see what has been written. For them this makes a more profound impression.
7) If many writers want to read on a given day the group may decide to limit the number of words for each reader. Beth Finke’s limit of 500 words seemed to work well. It did not crimp expression, but rather, challenged writers to boil down their broth to the very essence.
8) Make sure that group members have all the resources they need to participate fully in what the group has decided to do. Resources may include access to writing supplies, a personal computer, connection to the internet, transportation to meetings, and free time to meet.
9) As for the group’s agenda, this could be set well ahead by the leader, with planning input and approval from the group of course; or it could be guided by themes which emerge from hearing shared stories.
10) Veteran writers advise: “Write about what you know best.” Perhaps this is why memoir is the most popular genre for beginning writers. But memoir can be mixed with other genres in the same group, like poetry and fictional short stories, to make a pleasing salad. Encourage whatever genres help your writers express themselves artfully and poignantly, according to their own reckoning.