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4 Unexpected Lessons From A Fiction Workshop

Written by: Alice Sullivan, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Alice Sullivan

Last October, I huddled in an overstuffed armchair with my laptop in front of me, a blanket drawn around me like an invisibility cloak, eavesdropping on the conversations in the room. Oh crap, I thought, as I began to put the pieces together, many of these women all know each other already. I gazed outside at the drizzly Scottish sky and longed for my cozy living room and my cat. 

Man smiling in design studio planning presentation with coworkers.

Several months before, I’d been in a “season of yes,” in which I accepted any opportunity that arose. That included a writing workshop in Scotland. The problem was I signed up without properly reading the description. This was a workshop for novelists. As in fiction. As in the genre I don’t write. 

When we were assigned the first writing prompt, my knee-jerk reaction was no thank you. Still, I forced myself to listen with an open mind. The instructors told us to either write about a ghost in the basement or about finding an old graveyard on the property. I chose the second. I fumbled with different story ideas before settling into verse. 

Twenty minutes later, when the instructor asked for volunteers to read their pieces during the fiction workshop, I bided my time, waiting to hear the other women read their work first. I was amazed by their word choice, the tension they were able to build, and their pure creativity. Finally, it came time for me to read my piece. Clearing my throat, I read my creation: a poem about imagining the various lives each of the headstones represented as they were uncovered one by one. To my surprise, everyone loved it.

Next, I wrote a comic poem about the drafty bathroom in the old chateau where we were staying, which was received with similar peels of delighted laughter–and recognition. I realized that even though we worked in different mediums, these women were my peers, not my competition. Slowly, my introverted walls came down and I started conversations with several women. By the end of the first day, I realized I needed this creative kick in the pants, and I was exactly where I was meant to be.

There are always a thousand reasons not to do something. Budgets, deadlines, and other responsibilities can all make you more likely to say no to a given opportunity than to say yes. But this isn’t a story about that. It’s a story about what happened when I said yes.

Here’s what I learned from a fiction workshop

  1. Community is refreshing. Spending time around other creatives gets my writing juices flowing in a way I didn’t know I needed. It also challenged me to try writing in another form than I’m used to and comfortable with. Hearing these women share their own stories catalyzed my creativity–and made me realize I was capable of more than I thought I was. 

  2. Transparency and vulnerability are beautiful and create moments for bonding. It’s easier to walk through life with a shield on. I considered staying silent in that chair with my cozy blanket to protect me, but sharing my work created an opportunity for the women to affirm my writing–and laugh with me–creating a bond that continues to this day. I also had the opportunity to affirm and compliment others.

  3. Play and creativity expand your boundaries. Believe it or not, none of my clients have requested rhyming poems about drafty bathrooms in their manuscripts. Go figure. But working within the parameters of a different genre and an unexpected prompt allowed me to play in my writing in a way that I don’t get to do every day. It helped me rediscover the joy of the creative process. 

  4. Having an appreciation for other types of art is inspiring. I’ve enjoyed a few events with fellow ghostwriters. They truly understand the unique joys and trials of the niche! But having other types of writers to learn from opens a new world of creativity for me. It’s like using a completely different muscle set. It may feel awkward at first, but it challenges you in new ways–and gives your go-to writing muscles a chance to rest. 

So, if you feel stuck creatively, try stepping out of your creative comfort zone. Perhaps step into the imaginative space of a haunted basement, a chilly Scottish bathroom, or a hidden graveyard. 

Gardening one day I uncovered a stone

Three feet later my eyes saw bone

The morning was spent on my knees with a spade

realizing I’d come upon ancient graves

Unwilling to disturb the homes of the dead 

I set upon cleaning each stone’s head

Thirty-three squares in several lines

Long forgotten to the annals of time

I wondered then about each life

Husband, son, beloved wife

How did they live and how did they leave?

Did they leave behind large families to grieve? 

I decided to spend the rest of the day 

In thoughtful contemplation

Thinking about those who’ve gone before

And imagining conversation

What would they share of the wisdom they knew?

What did they want to say?

I wanted to honor their spectral views 

So their lore could continue today

I imagined Jenny, who died age 4 would remind me to play in the sun

Hamish who lived to 55, would take care to greet everyone

Laura and William, buried together, know love’s most important vows

And dear Andrew, age 22, loved his favorite highland cows

As each stone spoke, I took care to listen 

Imagining rich lives before me

Hello, old friend. Where shall we begin?

I’d love to hear your story. 

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Alice Sullivan Brainz Magazine

Alice Sullivan, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Alice Sullivan is an award-winning ghostwriter, collaborator, and 11-time New York Times bestselling editor. A natural-born storyteller, she’s written 60 books and edited over 1,300 titles. She specializes in nonfiction—specifically memoir, self-help, and personal growth. She helps clients identify their goals and messages while creating engaging content to connect with their target markets. Her favorite projects are those that challenge her point of view and expand her knowledge.



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