How about reading workshops as well as writing workshops?

People keep telling me how much they enjoy coming to the Library Memory Groups I facilitate for The Reader Organisation in libraries in Wiltshire. They sound surprised, as if they didn’t know or had forgotten that reading could give them pleasure. These groups are weekly, read aloud, shared reading groups for people with dementia or any illness causing memory loss. We read aloud short stories, extracts from novels and poems and chat about how the literature makes us feel or what memories it unearths. But the appreciative comments are also coming from carers, library staff who sometimes join our groups, and volunteers. Their reactions make me wish that there were more reading courses and workshops available for everyone. There are so many writing workshops and courses around but it’s not so easy to find ones centred on reading.

It’s true that, in writing workshops, poems and prose are read and discussed but often the focus will be on how a writer has achieved an effect or an analysis of their writing style – and, of course, if you’ve enrolled on a writing course, you might expect some pointers to help you with your own writing. Similarly, if you sign up for a literature course, you will probably want your tutor to give you at least a little background information about a writer or the period of time they lived so as to understand some context of the writing you’re studying. So, knowing that there’s an agenda to your reading, it’s difficult to remain completely open and responsive to what’s being read but in the kind of “live” reading that takes place in my reading groups, the approach is a more spontaneous engagement with the language and ideas that we read and sometimes surprising and exciting things happen – which might also benefit people interested in writing and literature.

For one thing, it’s incredibly satisfying and enjoyable to create and own meaning rather than to accept meaning which has been given to us by someone with prior knowledge of the text. This comes about by reading the text aloud, several times, and then talking around the table, not just about what the writer might mean, but also about how the writing makes us feel. Sometimes, it’s really possible to delve extremely deeply inside a text if we have no prior knowledge – and it’s necessary, sometimes, to try to forget what we already know about a writer or their work so that we can bring fresh eyes to a story or poem.

I suppose this is the approach that’s usually taken in a writing workshop so there’s nothing unusual about this method – it’s just applying it back to front, as it were. In a writing workshop, the writer usually stays quiet while their piece of work is read and discussed by the group. It is often fascinating, and sometimes alarming, to realise that an entirely different meaning to the one you’d intended has arisen from your work. You are either persuaded to indulge the new meaning further by developing your writing in a way you hadn’t originally intended or you take the axe to the section/word/phrase which has sprouted the confusion and you concentrate on working your original intentions into your writing.

I seem to be drifting away from my point which isn’t a difficult one, it’s just the idea, if you are someone already offering writing courses and workshops, to consider offering reading as well…

marilyn monroe reading

… and if you’re someone who takes writing classes and workshops, why not ask your tutor for a reading workshop, to ring the changes and to see what happens.  If you’ve already tried it, I’d love to know.

 

 

11 thoughts on “How about reading workshops as well as writing workshops?

  1. Maria Taylor says:

    Hi Josephine! The Poetry Business in Sheffield run ‘reading days’ now where poetry is discussed and attendees have to bring in a poem (not their own) that they’re willing to share and talk about. It means that most people are fresh to the poem and often know little about its author. Went once and enjoyed it, gave me a different perspective.

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    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Hi Maria! I thought that I’d seen ‘Reading Days’ from The Poetry Business advertised as well as ‘Writing Days’ but I couldn’t find any links when I searched. This sounds brilliant and I really hope that other people and organisations start offering more reading ‘events’. I’m thinking of devising some myself, once my contract at The Reader ends.

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  2. Valerie Morton says:

    Lots of good ideas in here Josephine – we have a number of reading groups where I live and I have just been asked if I could run something in a nursing home. I need to work out the level at which to pitch it. I have met many of the residents and taken in a lot of poetry magazines which they have all enjoyed. I think I might start with a well known poem and ask them to discuss what it means to each of them. But just dipping a toe in the water at the moment. Thanks for your thoughts.

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    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Hi Valerie, Lovely to hear that you’re reading with older people in a nursing home and sounds like you already have many good ideas. I read with people of all ages experiencing memory loss, mostly aged in their 60s through to 90s and of all educational backgrounds and experiences. We’ve read work by Shakespeare, Dickens, Donne and Wordsworth as well as writing by Tobias Wolff and Carol Anne Duffy and many more. However complicated the language seems, we’re always able to talk at depth about what we’re reading. By reading slowly with lots of pauses and using open-ended questioning/phrasing (What do you make of it? What stands out for you?) people often want to share their response. Very best wishes with your readings, Valerie. xx

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  3. sarahparkinsonpoet says:

    I love this idea – I think we breathe life into a poem or text by reading out loud, and experimenting with how to read can bring out different nuances as well. The act of reading out loud, the technicalities involved, doesn’t get much attention in education at the moment, but I think it could transform how we engage with literature from a young age. I’ve been looking for a local writing group since a recent move but will now be keeping an eye out for a reading group too…

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  4. thehaywriters says:

    Hi Josephine,

    I always read your blog for the fascinating insights it gives when ideas are sorely a-lacking in my brain!

    I’ve been asked to run a free, one day poetry workshop in a local library with the view to attracting more members of the public through the door. Your Reading Workshops idea would obviously appeal to a wider range of people and so I am going to attempt to run one of these instead – with the aid of the book A Little, Aloud by Angela MacMillan. What I am looking for is your advice being as you have been successfully running similar workshops at Wiltshire Libraries – What is your optimum group size? How long does each workshop run and how many pieces do you read and discuss within that time frame. Also, do you give a ‘final thought’ at the end of each session for people to go away and think about??

    If this session goes well, I would be happy to do more. I know the library in question has one of the largest ‘Large Print’ readerships in North Somerset, but there is a total lack of modern poetry in a large printed format available – this is something I would like to address through these Reading Workshops too.

    Your thoughts and responses would be most gratefully received by me.

    Best wishes and thank you again for writing such an interesting blog.

    Emma

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    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      Hi Emma and thanks for your kind words. I think 12 is a good, maximum number for a group like this. A Little, Aloud is an excellent book. We tend to read one ‘chapter’ each week although I usually choose some extra poems on a similar theme so that there is more reading material if needed. Our sessions last for 90 minutes but I also make and clear up refreshments within that time. I try to keep the questions open and facilitate the group in a way that each person has a chance to speak. We always end with reading aloud one of the poems (we’ve been discussing) for a final time, so that the literature itself has the final word. You might be interested in looking out for the course run by The Reader Organisation, ‘Read to Lead’ which gives fantastic training in facilitating shared reading groups. Details on their website http://www.thereader.org.uk. Best wishes with your group! 🙂

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      • thehaywriters says:

        Hi Josephine,

        Many thanks for your reply and your useful advice – I am really grateful and will action my workshop accordingly. Thanks also for the Read to Lead course which I will definitely look into.

        I’ll let you know how it all goes.

        Best wishes and thanks once again,

        Emma

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