What I Learned Creating the South Shore Writing Initiative

I figured I’d take a break from talking about Star Wars (there’s still at least one post coming on Dual of the Fates) to talk about something much more personal. Four years ago, I was missing writing in a big way. I should clarify – I missed my writing community. In college, I had been surrounded by other writers (read: geeks, nerds, fellow deviants). We’d go out, talk character design, plot structure, world building – it was great. But this community existed in Montreal, and I – through a series of bizarre realities and tragic events – had to move back to Massachusetts.

While I still have friends up in Montreal, it’s hard to maintain a sense of community when you live 7 hours away by car. That was at the end of 2013. Fast forward to Fall 2016 and I knew I had to do something to reconnect with the writing community. I had gone into Boston several times to visit GrubStreet and – while they are incredible people – I didn’t really feel that sense of belonging that I was looking for. I won’t get into more now other than to say I believe GrubStreet’s organizers and I seemed to be on different wavelengths with the function/importance of writers.

So, with no place at GrubStreet and no sign of a writing community on the South Shore, I decided to do something crazy: Create a community around me.

Abington Public Library
The Abington Public Library became the home of the South Shore Writing Initiative – we could not have asked for a more beautiful building!

Why Teach Writing?

I have long thought that writers exist to serve their communities. We write stories to entertain and enlighten – but there’s no way I could hope to truly connect with the people of New Orleans, not without spending significant time there first. You see what I mean? Writers in their communities are uniquely positioned to tell stories about those areas. It goes back to that old writing saying “write what you know.”

As 2016 was developing, I was seeing that sense of community divided. Politics that year turned uglier than usual (unfortunately we have yet to recover from this downturn) with people spitting lies and promoting a sense of selfish self-righteous anger over community bond. We saw the rise of figures like President Donald Trump, who showcases (in my opinion) many of the very worst traits of American culture.

2016 Rise in partisanship
A bunch of fun trends happening in 2016.

But anyway, I’m getting off topic – no one wants to hear me ramble about politics. Point is: I wanted to do something positive for my community, and I wanted to test myself. Teaching isn’t an easy thing to do. It requires planning, patience, and the ability to effectively communicate ideas. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I knew I wanted to try.

I couldn’t teach math – that would be dangerous. I couldn’t tell people how to built birdhouses. But I did think I knew writing fairly well, so I wanted to help those around me give themselves and our community a voice – if only in our classroom. I had no idea how it was going to go.

Building Takes Time

Honestly, that first year went so much better than I was expecting. While some students came and went from class to class, a core group quickly emerged. These people came week after week, trusting me to make their journeys worth while. I can’t tell you how humbling that is. It pushed me to do better. Thankfully, I had already gone into this planning to take it seriously, but if I hadn’t – their determination would have quickly changed my mind. They came to learn and damn it I was going to have something hopefully worthwhile to say.

For those curious, my classes went like this: I would choose some topic within writing to focus the lesson around. That first year, it was many of the fundamentals of writing – so we’d have classes on plot, characters, setting – that kind of thing. I’d choose a topic and research.

The day of, I would try to have at least one (preferably two) exercises they could do around that topic. Ex: For setting, I had them describe the library we were in – once from memory, and then again after they walked around it, paying attention to little details. In every class, I’d try to ask questions. This was to keep everyone engaged – also to keep me from hearing my own voice nonstop for an hour and a half.

Abington Public Library Interior
The Abington Library looks like a great setting for a cozy fantasy – just saying.

The results worked! Soon, I found that my students (still feels weird to write that) wanted to bring in their own work to be workshopped in class – so I modified my planning to allow it to happen.

That first year, we covered the basics of writing and almost everyone presented a story. We had a wide range of topics from noire-ish detectives to camping adventures to odd couple roommates. Some of it was fiction, some of it wasn’t – it was all delightful.

But the second year there were some struggles. I didn’t have quite the same core and the workshops fell flat after a few weeks. That year we were focused on genre and it was a little disappointing to me to not have the same core of people. This is not to put down the people who did come – they were wonderful. I put the blame more on me. I was still figuring out the class structure and I think some people were intimidated by an onslaught of different genres.

The third year (a focus on critical editing) marked a rebound and the fourth year (novel building) was the strongest I ever had. All and all, a resounding success. But I caution you if this is something you want to pursue – be prepared for the weeks with three or four people. It doesn’t mean you’re failing – it takes time to build a community. At the very end of my workshop, I routinely had more than 12 a class, but that was after 4 years. It takes time.

Barrel House Z
We also started having events at more relaxed locations – like bars. Not sure if Barrel House Z is the unofficial second home of the South Shore Writing Initiative, but it’s up there.

Students Teach Teachers

Writing is a discipline. In many ways, it’s like exercise. The best writers do a bit every day. You know, that whole “marathon, not a sprint” mentality. Turns out, teaching helps keep you in the marathon. Since I was spending more time researching writing topics, I found myself wanting to apply them to my own writing. It helped keep me on track and I discovered many helpful lessons that I still use to this day.

Of course, nothing compares to the inspiration that comes from listening to your students read. To see the stories they craft in weeks or sometimes just days. It is a good reminder of what is possible with a deadline.

I also found it very helpful to keep things open-ended. I’m not the biggest memoir person and cozy mysteries are not for me (usually), but reading the submissions helped keep me sampling those genres and seeing what was done well. Writers can learn from each kind of writing – and being part of an open workshop exposes you to styles – from say a realistic memoir – that can help ground your high fantasy.

Everything works in tandem. Reading makes us better writers – especially once we’ve developed our critical voices.

Community Brings Happiness

I’m happy to report that, in the end, I have found a new writing community – one much closer to home. It would be arrogant to say I made the group – these people already existed. All I did was offer them a chance to come together and see just how many others like them lived nearby. They made it a family through their tireless effort and commitment. I am truly thankful to them all.

So – Neal, Christie, Stephen, Beverly, Lauren, Istari, Nicole, Jim, Heather, Chris, Mike, Krissy, Elaine (both of you), Laura, Dave, Sarah, Eric, Karen, Mary, Gayle, Jen, Sheryl, Peter – and all the others I’m horribly forgetting right now – I just want to say, thank you. Thank you for giving me a new home of writers. It has been an amazing journey so far and, now that I’m no longer at the helm, I can’t wait to join it fully as a member (which means I’ll workshop right alongside you).

Creating the South Shore Writing Initiative was entirely worth it because otherwise I never would have met any of you.

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