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How The Writing Workshop Turned Out

I was so proud of myself. I went a million miles out of my comfort zone to set up the writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I wrote a heartfelt proposal and sent it out for people to read. I presented the proposal in person in front of 20 or 30 people, and got an extraordinarily positive reaction, and six people signed up for my theoretical workshop on the spot. I sent emails and coordinated, and negotiated, and scheduled, and got furiously to work planning my first workshop session, and five people showed up – only two from the original list. But five people was good, and people talked and wrote and stayed for an hour longer than I expected. The next time there were four people, and the time after that only two, plus me.

After three sessions, I took February off from the writing workshop – because so many people were snow birds escaping the winter in New York, and because I wanted to be a snow hermit and hide in my apartment. The anxiety I felt before each class was debilitating, even though the classes themselves were a lot of fun. I could barely move on a Wednesday after a Tuesday workshop. Three naps instead of one, and a long list of self-recriminations about things I should have said, and shouldn’t have said. I spent the extra time reading for, and planning, new lessons for the rest of the sessions. I drafted and revised and cut and pasted until the writing prompts and the writing samples came together in perfect symmetry to get to the heart of a subject within an hour and a half. I talked up the workshop at the next Engaging with Aging meeting, and to whoever asked at other events.

Me, napping.

Me, napping.

Me, trying to reach out.

Me, trying to reach out.

And when we came back from break, there were three students, then two, then just one, my mom, my loyal mom. People asked for my forgiveness for missing classes, for forgetting, and overscheduling, and having bridge at exactly that time and day. Intellectually, I knew they weren’t rejecting me, or saying anything about the quality of my work or what I had to offer. I knew that I’d done a good job, planning lessons and prompts and being supportive and gentle and only pushing a tiny bit when I knew someone was ready to go a step further. But how can you be a teacher without students?

Butterfly wants to help.

Butterfly wanted to help.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

These are good, solid, interesting people, with stories to tell and a lot of strength and survival skills and knowledge to share. And yet, the idea of waking up in the morning and choosing to go to a class where you will have to write about yourself, as if you matter, as if someone else should care what you think, no, that they can’t do.

One woman told me that what her sixteen-year-old grandson wanted for his birthday was for her to write down something about how she and grandpa got together and stayed together all those years. And I thought, wow, what a lovely and loving thing for a sixteen-year-old boy to ask for, and she thought, Oy, can’t I just give him money?

I ended the writing workshop in April, a month earlier than expected, and people kept asking me if I would start it again in the fall, maybe on a different day, at a different time, for a wider audience. I was tempted to try again, but also gun shy. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience of sitting in a big empty room, staring at the clock, hoping someone, anyone, would show up. Maybe if I could have brought Butterfly with me, to sit on my lap and calm me down while I stared up at the clock, but she sheds, which means she’s not hypoallergenic and therefore I’d be treifing up the library at the synagogue for people with dog allergies. And Cricket, the non-shedding dog, would be barking and growling, and scaring the nursery school kids into cowering under their tiny tables in the classroom next door.

A bark to scare small children

Cricket has a bark to scare small children

All hair all the time

Butterfly is all hair all the time

I went to the next Engaging with Aging meeting, after the end of the workshop, because I’d gone to all of the previous meetings. I sat and listened as the discussion wandered and flailed. They needed some way to disseminate information, to share the advice they’d gathered from each other, and from the social worker at the Jewish Community Center. But how?

I didn’t mean to speak up. Words just started coming out of my mouth. Why not write up personal stories, about how you’ve dealt with a particular aspect of aging, what you learned, what you struggled with, where you went for help, and put it in the newsletter, or on the website. Maybe telling stories in order to help someone else is going to make it easier for people to open up. Within minutes, I had volunteered to interview, edit, and encourage people to get their stories down on paper. I’ve never been a journalist. I’ve done very few interviews. How did this happen?

So, this is what I’m doing next. I am not at all comfortable out here on this cliff, but it’s an opportunity to do something new, and something satisfying, that might actually help people. Wouldn’t that be great?

Cricket thinks so.

Cricket thinks so.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

141 responses »

  1. Brilliant! What an excellent thing to do. Good luck with your endeavours, can’t wait to read about it. Max sends woofs to his favourite blog canines!

    Reply
    • Woofs to you too, Max! Thank you!

      Reply
    • If you decide to continue your project, check out Story Corp on PBS to freshen your skills for this type of interviewing. Sometimes it is easier to just share with someone verbaly. Most smart phones have recording capability and the recordings could be posted.

      As encouragement, I was a public and private school teacher for thirty plus years. Often times, in fact, most of the time; i wasn’t sure I was doing any good because it appeared that noone was listening, cooperating, sharing, etc. But over the years my students return to remind me of something I said or something that we discussed in class that they have always remembered. For example, a couple of months ago I was walking down the street and someone shouted: “If it’s not yours, don’t touch it.” by a student from a decade ago. He said he always remembered that there were only two rules in my class. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. And, If it’s not yours….

      The answer is yes. If a tree falls in the forest…?

      Reply
  2. Yes, wouldn’t it? In my time I’ve fronted various ‘discussion groups’, classes and regular meetings, but the same malady of failing endeavor creeps into most. I spoke recently to someone who runs a local gym and he described his biggest enemy as perseverance, or the lack of it. Of a hundred who join on the back of their New Year’s resolutions, only ten or twelve will still be working out at Easter. You describe those feelings so well, though, and even though we know we shouldn’t take other people’s disinterest personally, somehow we still do. Best of luck with your new ‘role’. I do hope it goes well!

    Reply
  3. Rachel, I commend your strength to challenge yourself. I am also working on challenging myself with public speaking. I hired a public speaker trainer to polish my speaking and encourage me to go beyond my comfort zone. I am hoping to conduct book discussions with my book I wrote. I want to mentor and support parents of special needs children. Wish me luck. Do not give up. We need to quiet our inner voice😞

    Reply
  4. I loved this post, I agree with you and applaud your efforts. I would like to thank you for checking out my blog, this is my first attempt at writing and I am trying to give an honest, balanced account of my struggle. Every time I get a like from another writer it gives me a little more confidence that I am on the right road for what I wanted to convey.

    Reply
  5. Very brave of you!

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  6. What a great idea. Rachel! Many people, especially older ones, seem to find writing to be a daunting task, yet it sometimes happen that the younger generation is keen to know their stories. Well done you for volunteering!

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  7. Congratulations on not only having a great idea but acting on it. As for the grandmother who was asked by her 16 year old grandson to write an essay on how the grandparents met, her answer sums up a lot of people’s attitude,

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  8. I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing. And I am so envious that you’re able to overcome your fears and do these things in spite of it! You’re an inspiration! 🙂

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  9. Well done Rachel. Don’t be discouraged, winter wont last forever and once the warmer weather comes back in again, people will come back to your workshops. We find the same here – it is the start of winter here in South Australia and older people are not coming out as much as they did a few weeks ago. I would suggest a Newsletter rather than a website. I think the newsletter would be a great way to go and keep the idea of the Workshop in people’s minds.

    Reply
  10. Hi Rachel, Thank you for reading my blog. I found your piece on writing workshops delightful! I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Reply
  11. Whenever I speak at a literary conference or book signing, I invariably have someone come up to me afterwards and ask “I’d like to write a book, too. Do you have any advice?”
    My advice is always the same: Get started.
    Most people find that advice irritating, I’ve found, but that was the only problem in your writing class.The lack of interest had nothing to do with you. People much prefer the idea of writing to actually writing and when they are introduced to the concept that writing is an acquired skill, they totally freak. So please don’t be discouraged. Seek new markets for your writing classes if you have a desire to teach. If you didn’t enjoy teaching, then your next idea is a great one, too. Write for them!
    Everyone has a voice – some people struggle to find theirs.You’ll be a great help.
    P.S. Butterfly and Cricket would be a welcome addition to any group!!

    Reply
    • I’ve been going up to people asking them if they’d be willing to tell their stories and they say, oh, no, I don’t have a story, and then they go on to tell me their story before I can get my hands on a pen. As soon as they finish talking I say, so, what do you think? And they say, oh, no, I don’t have a story.

      Reply
  12. Yeah Rachel, that view on the cliff is gonna lead to some great writing. Go with it. Maybe some of them can record their stories and then use transcription software to get them over that hump of sitting down and writing? Maybe? Just a thought. I’ll be tuned in. Peace….

    Reply
  13. Kudos! I’ve been cleaning out some blog drafts and came across this saying that I had intended to use after New Years. I think it kind of says it all. “The new year means nothing if you’re still in love with your comfort zone.” Stay brave and go for it! ❤

    Reply
  14. I admire your courage and self realisation Rachel, just keep doing what comes naturally to you 🙂

    Reply
  15. What a terrifically wonderful idea!

    I know from experience how difficult it is to talk about one’s own life or experiences as if they should matter to someone else. But put it in a format that offers help to soeone else and it refocus’ the attention from ‘Me! Me! M1’ to ‘Others, Others, Others’ and somehow that is so much easier to write about.

    And it’s a simple step to go from ‘I have this neighbor who is having trouble getting up the stairs’ to ‘The railing in the center of the steps helped so much because now she can hold with both hands at the same time…and just imagine! The grandson who was always on his computer and never talked to her is the one who looked up the information online and ended up putting up the railing!’

    Now he visits every week and they spend an afternoon talking about her past and his future. They communicate.

    A simple problem with a simple solution sometimes results in so much more than expected.

    Reply
  16. I have been in your shoes teach a class. The fact that you accomplished what you did, is fantastic. Remember, never give up, never surrender. You can do it.

    Reply

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