I didn’t know if it would work. I only had 45 minutes. That’s not much time to take a diverse group of people on a guided journey into their creative imaginations, have them produce some original writing, get them to share what they wrote and then let them know about the open call for submissions of true stories and photos of the Edisto River. Whew! I just typed all of that without taking a breath. Nearly ran out of air. . . .
While I’ve run many workshops on creativity and writing over the years, I have always allowed ample time to let the process work. Creating a safe place to take risks doesn’t happen instantaneously. I usually lay down ground rules, give participants time to get to know each other, build trust so they get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Whenever possible, I try to have these journeys occur in a physical space that looks anything but like a classroom on the notion that few of us associate classrooms with creativity. By conducting workshops in spaces that look and feel more like living rooms, I remove that barrier.
Add to that, I did not know who my audience would be, how many would show up, what the mix of ages or backgrounds would be. And then add to all of that the curve ball thrown at me by the organizers two days before the event. They changed the title of my workshop from “Tapping into Your Creative Mind” to “Young Writers Get Published.” Never mind that I drew a blank when I saw the title. Never mind that when I pointed out the problem I was told the materials had already been printed and could not be changed. But about this I’ll give a shout-out to Joe Baroody and the subtitle of his new book “What Goes Wrong Can Make You Better.” It really can. And it did in this case and you’ll see why in a moment.
As I prepared the classroom on Saturday morning, placing two sheets of white paper on each desk, the colleague who had agreed to videotape the workshop, asked me why I was bothering. “What if no one shows up,” he said, “you’ll just have to pick them all back up.”
“Then I’ll just pick them back up,” I said. (We were shooting the video so there would be footage available to enhance my application to speak at the inaugural TEDx Talk at Marion Square on May 15.)
Ten minutes before the start of the workshop, it was just my friend and me. Five minutes before two girls walked in. They were high school freshmen. Shortly after, a father and his 11-year-old son walked in. Soon a few more people trickled in. I waited a couple more minutes then decided to get under way.
I opened the workshop with a tactic I’ve used before — I won’t say what it is other than that it’s designed to elicit an emotional response. From there, I guided them in a brief fill-in-the-blank exercise to show how predictably our well-traveled neuro-pathways work. Reliably, the exercise worked and we were on our way. Except suddenly, the door opened and in streamed a dozen more people. So I did an abbreviated version of the exercise to catch them up. And away we went again.
There were folks of all ages in the audience. Several teachers, parents, lots of African American kids, a couple men — about 30 in all by the time the workshop concluded. In less than 45 minutes, they heard the message, responded to the exercise, generated a piece of writing and read it out loud. Two high school freshmen girls were afraid to read their work and they taunted each other to do so, poking at each others’ arms, daring each other. Finally, one of them said, “I’m going to read hers.” And she did. It was beautiful, rhythmic. And then the other one read her friend’s and it was equally good.
What I am discovering is how reliable these exercises are. People go to places they didn’t anticipate and are surprised and pleased. And, while there is always hesitation to share at first, you can see that most all want to share, want their words to be heard. And pretty soon, after a couple brave ones go first, the sluice gates open and most everyone shares. One young teen was there with her mother. They came up to me afterwards and the mother said that her daughter, who had declined to read during the workshop, wanted to read to me what she wrote. Though the words themselves were not particularly memorable, what was compelling was her urge to share. All of this from five minutes of free writing.
The other rather cool thing is the renamed workshop inspired me to put out the first call for true stories and photos of the Edisto River for a book Joggling Board Press is doing with MWV (formerly MeadWestvaco). I said that if they didn’t have a connection to the river to go and experience it and then write the story of their experience. One of the teachers asked if I was available to do workshops in the schools. Of course I said of course. What happened there in that extemporaneous moment was a realization that we could inspire students to know and appreciate the Edisto River by engaging in these workshops and inviting them to partake of the river. And give them an opportunity for their words to be published in an heirloom-quality coffee table book.
So check out the video. My friend used a tiny handheld camera. It’s a bit wobbly here and there and shot in patches, but he did capture enough to show some of the magic.
Saturday’s summit — called “Building on Our Strengths: Health, Wealth and Happiness” was the first of what I hope will be many more Parent and Community Summits to come. Charleston Southern University hosted and the Dorchester County Communities in Schools was the lead organization. Communities In Schools is the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization.
The summit attracted nearly 1000 people for a day of enrichment of interactive workshops and activities. Keynote speaker Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, offered this pearl — research shows that gratitude is a mark of happiness. So I conclude with this — I am grateful to the organizers for this day of enrichment and for those who chose to enter room 102 of Wingo Hall and tap in to their creative minds.