These were my first attempts at teaching this craft in a small-group setting. I didn’t know in advance who would attend, or how many people would show up, or whether festival-goers would attend just one workshop or all three. I didn’t know how familiar they’d be with nature writing. This is a great argument for inviting participants to pre-register … the first of many lessons learned.
I prepared lots of materials in advance: handouts, a list of helpful resources, different writing prompts. I developed an outline for the workshop, then filled it in with way too many ideas, knowing I would never cover them all but feeling it was better to over-prepare than to show up empty-handed.
The day I arrived, I found out the conference organizers thought the workshops would happen outside, under a canvas awning. It was about 40 degrees. I had planned to invite attendees to do about 15 minutes of writing. Is it possible for frostbite to set in at 40 degrees? I didn’t want to find out. So I worked with the organizers—a very kind, cooperative group, tolerant of my prima donna writing-teacher ways—to move the workshop indoors.
My nerves on that first night were made manageable by the fact I hadn’t slept much the previous three nights: an interesting argument for the benefits of insomnia. I was simply too tired to sweat it. As the workshop began, I introduced myself to a small group of would-be nature writers, then asked them to tell me one thing they’d like to get from the workshop. Off we went.
First, we did 15 minutes of writing. Success! Nobody’s fingers went numb. Then we talked about preparing a first draft, finishing it, and revising. I read aloud from a lovely memoir called “Faith of Cranes,” by Alaska writer Hank Lentfer, whose descriptions of sandhill cranes we found inspiring. We talked some more about the writing process. And then it was over. The workshop had gone well! I was floating on air (and suddenly aware that I was very, very tired).
After a good night’s sleep, the challenge Saturday was to do it all again. I gave the group (most of whom were new) a different writing prompt. We read aloud again, this time listening to the words of Aldo Leopold, whose powerful essay “Marshland Elegy” was published in his classic work “A Sand County Almanac.” We tried, and mostly succeeded, to ignore interruptions from other festival-goers crashing in and out of the visitor center, unaware of our group and what we were doing. We talked about some of the same things, and some new topics. It went well enough, but afterward I didn’t feel the same “I survived!” euphoria as I had the night before.
Still, in the first two workshops I’d learned some useful things. People love to sit in a quiet room and write together, and they get excited about reading aloud. Silly me … I’d thought leading a writing workshop would be hard! All I really needed to do was show up, be encouraging, and create a space within which people could do a little reading and a little writing, without much distraction.
And wait until you hear what happened the third day …