By Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
Whenever I conduct a writer’s workshop, I always learn something from the experience. Whether it’s an attitude or a question or, perhaps, an unexpected answer from the audience – I always leave having realized some new truth that helps me in my own writer’s journey. This past week is a great example. It was a busy week for Piedmont Laureate workshops. I conducted a workshop for elementary school students, another for high school students, and still another for adults. When I was done, I was left with the realization of how very personal imagination is, how much it fuels a writer’s need to write, and how big a role it plays in making a book your own. The week left me with a healthy respect for the connection between a writer’s imagination and their voice.
Each workshop was different, bringing a new realization about how we view imagination. The youngest children were brimming over with creativity, their boundless energy sparking idea after idea after idea. But they had something else, too: fierce pride in their own imagination, pride that sometimes spilled over into outrage when their suggestions were not adopted. I began the workshop by explaining the different elements of mystery writing and asking the children, as a group, to give me ideas for settings, motivation, plot events, and characters, especially heroes and villains. They did not need much explanation, beyond a brief discussion of those same elements as played out in the Harry Potter book series. Soon they were coming up with places to set our group mystery (college was a popular choice), heroes (many nominated themselves), and villains (they preferred their villains to be as different from themselves as possible, ideally big, bad, and easily recognizable). With nearly 30 kids in attendance, it was impossible to use everyone’s ideas—and not all of the children could cope gracefully when their suggestions were not chosen. In fact, when it became obvious how important their own ideas were to their sense of self, I changed plans and had them complete the story on their own to give all of them the opportunity to write exactly what they wished.
Later, after I had talked to two much older groups, I realized that this sense of ownership over our imagination is what creates writers. The need to give voice to our imagination, and to organize and sort it out as we see fit, is why many writers choose the solitary life of sitting in front of the computer, living with fictional characters rather than real human beings, spending hours and days and lifetimes marshaling their imaginings into stories.
In a separate workshop that same week, I taught a group of attentive teenagers a range of techniques that writers can use to organize their books and inspire compelling plots. I was amazed when, having gone through the fairly complicated process of identifying a basic book structure that appeals to today’s readers, every attendee immediately set to work creating a book timeline of their own by overlaying their own ideas onto the generic structure. Even the teenagers who walked in that day without any work in progress immediately came up with an idea for a book and steadily fleshed out that idea for over an hour. But unlike the younger children, they were almost unanimously private about their ideas. Although I encouraged them to get feedback from their desk mates, most were content to work quietly, with one-on-one help from me on how to build out their narratives. By the time we were done, I was struck by how seriously they took their ideas and envious of how they still retained an intimate connection to their imaginations. Clearly, most of their ideas came from a very personal place inside them, they recognized that, and they were instinctually driven to protect them. I started to wonder if maybe maintaining that connection and exploring the more private places of our imaginations wasn’t the key to writing a book uniquely my own.
Finally, I ended the week by conducting a workshop for 10 adults, all of whom are part of an ongoing national writers’ movement. They were intensely focused on what I was saying as I led them through my process for creating the bones of a book and using a combination of brainstorming and different outline techniques as the foundation for a strong first draft. It was clear from their questions that they were relating what I was saying to their own work in progress. As they took notes and asked me more questions, I was struck by how much they respected their own work and, by extension, their imaginations. They understood the challenges of their books and seemed eager to learn any new techniques that might help them build a better book and make it their own. Many of their questions had to do with my own choices as a writer, inspiring me to look at my own influences in more detail. I walked away from that workshop with a much clearer understanding of what drives me as a writer: my distant past, my life’s experience, my successes and my failures, my disfunctions and my strengths, my disappointments and my joys, my ideas about fairness and justice, my hopes for a better world—they are all there in my imagination, feeding the books I write. I need to understand that, and to respect that, if I hope to write books that are uniquely my own.
I used to think that it would be fascinating to be a psychiatrist for writers, that by listening to them speak as honestly as possible in the confines of a safe, treatment room, and then poring over their work to discern the unspoken pain of their lives, that I could make the connection between my own subconscious and the books I write. But now I realize that there is an inherent judgment in that scenario, an assumption that there is something in me that needs fixing that will be revealed by my writing, an assumption that encourages a desire to hide behind words rather than use them to reveal truths (an impulse I think many other writers feel). I am going to reject that notion. I now see that attempting to scrub traces of ourselves from our imaginings is a mistake. Because our imaginations are a lot like our dreams: a stew of desires, impulses, fears, deeply rooted need, and an overwhelming drive to control our own destiny and connect to others. It’s just that, when you writing, you are given the opportunity to bring order to the chaos. Unlike dreams, you get to define how these very personal forces unfold as well the ending. But both our dreams and our imaginations are deeply, deeply personal and the only way to make what we write truly our own is to understand and respect that.
In the end, I came away from each workshop with valuable lessons that will make me a better writer. Going forward, I’m going to take fierce pride in my ideas, like those elementary school children so connected to their imaginations. Then I am going to acknowledge the connection between my ideas and the forces that drive me in this lifetime, shaping who I am. After that, rather than fearing that these inner drives might be divined by my readers, I am determined to respect the personal foundation of my imagination, honor myself, and write a more authentic book the next time I sit down to write.