Fiction writer Susannah Risley blogs about her experience conducting workshops with diverse populations at Schenectady County Public Library in upstate New York.
I've taught in minimum security prisons, homeless shelters, rural libraries, and senior centers across New York State. Each group requires a slightly different approach to teaching. People in homeless shelters don't often write about their pasts, but respond positively to learning to observe the present. Prisoners need to feel great respect for their stories. They are hungry for knowledge and drink up the examples from literature that I bring to inspire their writing. Seniors need to be urged past their internal critics that say their lives have been unimportant. They feel a renewed sense of purpose in life as their stories pour forth. It is a joy to see people from all walks of life get excited about writing. It changes lives. It changed mine.
Recently, I wanted to try my hand at a different kind of writing workshop. I'd reread Jack Kerouac's On The Road to see if it held up for me. It did. I began to read some of the vast history of travel writing, and was delighted to envision solo travelers in distant times making their way across China, Afghanistan, Greece, or Persia. They recorded vital, specific details, just as a modern traveler must, to bring the world to life on paper. Wanting to share what I learned, I approached the Schenectady County Public Library about facilitating a travel writing workshop.
Twenty participants signed up for the five-session Travel Writing Workshop: Writing Your Own Road. People had traveled to, or were leaving for, Tanzania, Guatemala, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, India, and Paris. They had much to say, and, like many new writers, needed direction about how to begin and keep going.
An Indian scientist was overjoyed to break out of the strictures of science writing to describe her experience in Italy as colorfully as she wished. A college student did a performance poem about Times Square. A shy woman wrote about her first journey away from Guatemala as she watched houses and volcanoes appear toy-sized from her plane window. A German immigrant described her sister's spacious home in Albany from the perspective of someone who escaped great difficulties. A teen described going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Adirondacks with her family. An East Indian man, visiting his daughter, took us on a tour of Walden Pond and we learn of Gandhi's connection to Thoreau through civil disobedience. We see the old copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in Thoreau's reconstructed cabin and are astonished. The group was charged with new energy and decided to keep meeting. I was thrilled to have taught this class. Everybody won!
Photo: Susannah Risley and workshop participants. Credit: Karen Bradley.