How Creating a Writing Workshop Brought Me Back to My (Neglected) Memoir
May 3, 2022 § 7 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
If you are anything like me, you have a partial or completed manuscript that you’re dreading getting back to. You have spent a lot of time writing, thinking about, workshopping, editing, developing, and fine-tuning this yet-to-be published project, but there are limits to your perseverance, so your darling has been stuck in the proverbial drawer for longer than you care to admit, even to yourself.
A memoir I am working on, My Body Remembers, started as writing assignments during my MFA in creative nonfiction. I’d woken up one night during my first semester with a terrible ache in my hip. Having just lost a friend to cancer I immediately felt gloomy about my pain, but also grateful for a body that had, after all, been my reliable companion for more than fifty years. Four semesters later, my thesis consisted of a “full-bodied” 270-page manuscript with chapters titled “breasts,” “hips,” “nose,” “hands,” etc. I felt stoked about the concept and my completed degree, but now what?
After a good while writing shorter pieces and publishing personal and craft essays about other topics (walking away from the body-project felt really good), I decided it was time to find a developmental editor who was willing to work with me and my manuscript. Her extensive notes and edits were what I expected: a frank and generous validation of my writerly abilities and a detailed outline on what needed to be improved and how to do it. Ah, the revisions. What a pain. Back in the drawer my manuscript went for another long while. Months. Seasons.
Then my friend Jennifer Lang, who runs a writers’ studio in Tel Aviv where I live, invited me to teach a workshop. There is nothing like having to prepare a presentation or workshop to whip me into shape around the topic I care about and have been working on. Give me a deadline and an (even small) audience, and I perk right up. Add some (even paltry) financial compensation to the mix, and now I also feel more professional about the topic.
I had a few weeks this winter to build “Writing the Body” into a 3-hour meaningful writing experience for the participants; now I was excited to unearth all that body material I had worked so hard on for several years. I re-discovered my carefully crafted introduction that could serve as a jumping-off point for the workshop, and all the body writing prompts I had created in my manuscript for the reader. Now the words, sentences, scenes and chapters in my manuscript served a new purpose, and this energized me about the work still to do.
Running a workshop will not only revitalize your own work, but your students/participants’ work can spark new insights and deepen understanding of your subject and yourself. One “Writing the Body” participant picked “vagina/labia/uterus” from the wild-card writing-prompt basket I had prepared, and what she shared with the group blew me away. I had never thought of (my) uterus in a cross-generational way, but she not only wrote with gratitude about her own, having carried three children, but connected this to the uterus of her mother who had given her life, and to that of her daughter, about to give the author her first grandchild. Suddenly, the idea of our bodies telling stories grew in scope as the writer evoked a whole new and meaningful perspective of bodily connections through time. How can this idea enhance my own work? I thought.
Thanks to the workshop I was able to prepare and teach, body parts—including what I call their muscle and emotional memories—moved to front and center in my consciousness again. This is where they belong if I want to finish revisions and take my project to the next level: publication.
If you need a kick in the butt (or a gentle nudge in the hip) to get moving on a project you’ve been writing for a while but grown tired or discouraged about, creating a workshop, conference presentation or session is one way to get re-invested and re-energized.
Participating in the literary community—being a good literary citizen—through teaching keeps me in the loop about our profession/field and helps me build relationships with other writers, which in turn bring ideas and opportunities. Often, and especially since Covid, this typically takes place online, but that is how I got to know Jennifer Lang, who runs the Israel Writers Studio and invited me to run a class. Go ahead, dive in and find your opportunity: you won’t regret it.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv. She has a PhD in French literature and an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Tablet, the Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Lilith, and AARP’s The Ethel, among other places.