Monday, March 24, 2014

Ode to the Community Workshop

For the past three months, there have been eighteen creative nonfiction books scattered on the floor around my desk (oh, don’t worry, I don’t vacuum). There are craft texts and essay collections and memoirs and anthologies, and I want to assign my community workshop students everything. Initially, as I began planning for the class, part of the reason was because I felt I had something to prove. I’m youngish, not widely published outside of the news realm, and I haven’t been teaching long (not to brag or anything). I was terrified the people who signed up for my class would take one look at this face, which has never been on a book jacket, and demand a refund. I figured I needed every last text in my library if I was going to earn their trust and respect.

But I also wanted to assign them everything because creative nonfiction is awesome. I’d read a craft chapter on writing about family and think, They’re going to love this! and then a captivating personal essay and think, Their lives have not begun and will not begin until they read this! And this too! I came to our first session with five readings for the week, and my seven adult students were like, Whoa, slow your roll, we have jobs you know. But they were also like, I love to read and write and learn and I’m really happy to be here! Maybe just give us three of those for now. We talked about all the possibilities of creative nonfiction – the opportunity to tell stories that are both imaginative and true – and I was jazzed and they were jazzed and everybody was jazzed. They had questions, and I had answers, and these answers not only satisfied them, but satisfied me, and I felt relieved and I felt good. We did an in-class writing exercise, and watching them scribble seemed sufficiently exciting until one man looked up and said I thought I knew what I was going to submit for my first workshop, but this is going to be even better!, and then I died of happiness and came back to life so I could talk creative nonfiction with these people again the next week.

We’re six sessions in, and it’s been this way every class – electric with lively discussion about the genre and about the assigned readings and about each other’s work. Each week we all marvel how fast the two hours go by, and each week I do some extracurricular marveling at how astute these fellow writers are, how eager and how talented. During workshop, they offer respectful and constructive feedback that reflects how earnestly they’ve absorbed our craft discussions, and they submit writing that does the same, and beyond that, that moves and inspires their peers, myself very much included. I don’t know that I’d necessarily forgotten, but having the opportunity to facilitate this workshop has reminded me how much I love creative nonfiction and how energizing it is to be a part of a community of writers who feel the same way. I’m not saying it’s not a lot of work. (It is.) I’m not saying it’s not intimidating to stand in front of a room of adults who are depending on you to teach them something they care about. (It is.) I’m just saying that it’s worth it.

Risa Polansky Shiman is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. She is a blog hog and she knows it.


  1. No, I'm a blog hog. :)
    Loved this.

  2. As one of the eager students in Risa's creative nonfiction class, let me say that the feeling is mutual! I haven't been this excited about learning since second grade with Mrs. Leff.

  3. Aw...thanks, Debbie! Means a lot to me. Proud to share the title with someone who made as favorable and long-standing an impression as Mrs. L. It's been delightful having you in class!

  4. Go, Risa, go! Your energy is inspiring.