Workshop Beginnings: The Smell of Summer

A small group convened last night as our ongoing Bixby Library writing workshop returned. About half of our regulars were out of town or couldn’t make it, so I’ll reconstruct the workshop here, so everyone can follow along. That will make for a longer than usual post, so bear with us. Writing exercises and prompts are scattered through the post.


Anytime we have new writers to the group, I return to Natalie Goldberg’s “First Thoughts” chapter from Writing Down the Bones. It cuts right to the daisy in the throat (wink, wink) of how we approach writing in our group. For Goldberg, first thoughts are fresh, alive, and often feel unexpected. They are brought about when we can write without interruption from our inner critic/editor/censor. She suggests six rules to follow when you sit down to write a timed exercise or freewrite. I will paraphrase them: don’t stop writing, don’t correct anything, don’t think or pause over spelling or grammar, eschew logic and sense, go for whatever is challenging and alive.

The intention accompanying these rules aspires to help breathe out writing that is alive, moving, raw, emotional. With that raw material, the later steps of the crafting process can concentrate on directing the reader exactly where they are meant to go.


Our workshop group will meet eleven times between now and September, and I’ve planned three sections to this period roughly corresponding with each month. June will be about banishing your editor, deciding on a “project” to guide your work and establishing a routine and writing space. July will be focused on implementing and following through on personalized goals, using the Camp Nanowrimo structure. August will be a time to implement revision techniques and practice the craft of writing, and at the end I will show you how to make a book or a zine with your writing in it.

Goals for the summer

  • to banish your editor/censor until the revision process when you need her
  • to solidify a routine that works for you
  • to set specific, personalized goals and follow through (July)
  • to practice the “craft” side of writing and polish a piece (or more) that will become a physical object that you can give to someone else.


The four-minute diary is an exercise I’ve pirated from Lynda Barry’s tumblr. It is particularly beneficial in training your brain to think more “like a writer.” Recording one diary entry daily can prompt your brain to remember more of the concrete details which make for excellent raw material for writing. It can improve your memory for voices and dialogue as well.

Begin by dividing your blank page into four equal areas, either by x-ing from corner to corner or by drawing a vertical line and a horizontal line each halving the page. In the top triangle or top left rectangle, write the word “SAW” and for 90 seconds lists as many things, images, scenes that you saw today as you can. Be as descriptive or plain as you wish. Then, write “DID” in the next division and write all the projects, actions, and tasks you did today that you can in 90 seconds. Third, write “HEARD” in the next space and take 30 seconds to write words, phrases, and voices you heard today. Finally, the last section of the page is for a quick sketch of a scene you saw today. Do it in 30 seconds without worrying about how “good” a drawing it is.

Done! Four minutes and you’ve written a whole diary entry.


Our first prompt last night was a short warm-up. Set your timer for five minutes and answer the following question however you’d like: What does summer smell like?


We looked briefly at an essay from Ursual K. Leguin’s recent collection Words Are My Matter called “How to Read a Poem: “Gray Goose and Gander.” It is a sweet, lovely expression of love for the act of reading and for the act of writing. It’s also a nice little example of a close reading, breaking down a work word by word and line by line to understand how the writing is working.


One of my favorite prompts is the X-Page (another Lynda Barry creation): listen to a song or a poem read aloud, relax and think back to your early days, draw a spiral on your page. When the song is over, write the first ten memories that come to you from the word “chair.” Pick one of these memories, your favorite or one with trouble in it, and write it at the top of a blank page. Draw a large X through the page from corner to corner to release yourself from the need to be perfect. Write the story of this memory in ten minutes. The time limit forces you to leave out some details and thereby helps you sidestep into focusing on the most important elements of the story.

We also had enough to time to do a second x-page from one of the other nine memories listed from the spark “chair.”

Over the next week, re-read your writing from these exercises, underline your favorite phrases, those that are strong or have power and put them into another piece. This piece could be a poem about this story, or a rewritten narrative that builds on those strong phrases, or even an entirely different story or poem or essay that uses the phrases you underline to other effect. Bring that piece to next week’s workshop and we will start by reading them.

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