Writing in Prison

This week I’ve been working in the prison on the project I mentioned here a couple of months ago – holding a series of creative writing workshops for an established writing group that meet in the prison library.

My aim is to get the group of men writing together to produce a small booklet, with images, that they can put forward as a group entry to the Koestler Awards. They enjoy writing autobiographically, but my brief was to move them onto trying fiction with more confidence and enjoyment so I devised a project that allowed them to do a bit of both, with the autobiographical pieces being natural jumping-off points for the made-up ones (although we know it’s never as black and white as that, don’t we?). I’m going to try to get them to write flash fiction because I like it, and because then they can also enter it for the Bridport’s new Flash Category. (Bridport entries are free for prisoners, you know.)

It’s an easier job than it sounds, firstly because I like it so much – I’m familiar and comfortable with the environment and the men, and it’s brilliant to work with a group of people who are genuinely, unpretentiously interested in reading and writing. I’ve found that when doing community based creative writing projects the experience of the participants is often given more emphasis than writing they produce – there’s nothing wrong with projects like that, but I’m really enjoying working with writers who are interested in improving their own work and helping each other along the way – as well as ‘improving themselves’ (what ever that means) by the act of writing.

They’re a good group with varied abilities and experiences and what helps is that they are used to working together, both by doing writing prompts and timed tasks, reading aloud to each other, using images and stimuli from films, music, books and magazines to create inpiration boards and jumping off points for new stories, and workshopping each other’s writing with a surprising (given the way they talk to each other the rest of the time) amount of sensitivity, tact and insight.

The workshopping element has gone so well that it inspired me when teaching my intermediate group about feedback, and thinking of ways to coach writers new to the workshop method of learning about writing in how to give and get good feedback. I worked it up into a hand-out, but seeing as I’m thinking about my teaching a bit more and reaching out to the teachers and workshop leaders who read this blog to pick up new tips for myself, I thought I’d share it here.

So, I think you can split up a piece of feedback into two parts – your response, and then a suggestion. The second part isn’t totally necessary and can be intrusive for some writers, in my experience, but there are ways of making your initial response as helpful to the writer as you can. Saying that something is boring isn’t as useful as pointing out the offending paragraph, and if you can go one step further and suggest what to do with that paragraph to make it a bit less boring (dialogue? a few jokes?) you might be onto a winner.

I’ve found that thinking about feedback in this way (response + example + suggestion) has helped me when teaching using the workshop method. When one of my participants gives a bit of feedback that seems vague or unhelpful, ‘I really liked that, I did!’ I’ve been asking him to go back to the text and point out the sentences he liked best, and see if he can tell the writer exactly why he liked them. Getting readers to articulate what they think works and doesn’t work about a piece of writing can be as helpful to their own writing and the development of their own taste and style as having their work put under the workshop-microscope themselves.

So, that’s what I’ve learned this week. How about you? My ears are open. 

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