The Accidental Therapy of Writing Workshops

By Rebecca McCray

Rebecca McCray leads a writing workshop for formerly incarcerated women seeking higher education at College and Community Fellowship, and works as a paralegal with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. An Iowa transplant, she lives and writes in Brooklyn.

Last week, the Times published an article exploring the increasing popularity of writing workshops and MFA programs, and the shift away from talk therapy. Author Steve Almond posits that although creative writing workshops don’t necessarily aim to serve as informal group therapy sessions, it is the therapeutic nature of writing and story-telling that ultimately drives us to write. Though we might not consciously sit down to write in a workshop the same way we anxiously lay back on the therapist’s couch, the end goal is surprisingly similar: to tell our stories, to mindfully reflect, and to make sense of the world. This, in effect, is the happy accident of a writing workshop. When students sit together to discuss craft, technique, and narrative in their work, they are also engaging in a deeply cathartic act. As Almond writes:

“The official job of a workshop is to help a writer improve her prose, not her psyche. But this task almost always involves a direct engagement with her inner life, as well as a demand for greater empathy and disclosure. These goals arefundamentally therapeutic.”

We couldn’t agree more. To write, one has to quiet the world’s constant clamor and dig deep. And this is an inherently liberating act. Though at times all writers are driven mad by the task at hand, there is nothing more rewarding than bursting through the fog of self-defeat and writer’s block, revealing a story or even a sentence that is a piece of yourself, of your voice.

For the last ten years, the New York Writers Coalition has watched the beauty of this process unfold in countless workshops across the city. By creating a writing atmosphere that is supportive and based in respect, we encourage our workshop participants to identify and harness the power of their own voices. At times, New York can feel like a lonely machine composed of millions of discrete parts. But when we come together to write and share our stories, however disparate our backgrounds may seem, the isolation fades. What shines through in these workshops is the unmistakable humanness in each of our voices, the funny and sad and beautiful things that bind our stories together.

Almond describes the experience of leading a new workshop for students in their 50s and 60s, initially wondering why his students would choose to start their writing careers at this later stage in their lives. But ultimately he realizes that the drive is the same, for the angst-ridden 20 year old or the settled 60 year old:

“What they’re seeking is exactly what I wanted [as a young writer]: the refuge of stories, which remain the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species.”

This is what we hope and believe writing workshops can be, and what we aim to provide for our workshop participants – a retreat in which the task at hand is simply to examine the world through their own words. Talk therapy may be on the decline, but the rise of the writing community is something we’re happy to celebrate.

Come try your hand at the world of writing workshops – join us on Wednesdays at 12:30 for a free workshop at our headquarters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, open to writers of all levels and genres. Click here for more information on the free drop-in Wednesday writing workshop.