Attending a writing workshop with Pulitzer winners

The day was filled with a collection of literary powerhouse. Out of the seven writers, four are winners of the Pulitzer. One of them, Gene Weingarten, has two. While they eke out their living by writing, it was not true for that one day. This time they had to talk the walk.

I booked my seat for the writing workshop at the last minute. The day before the event, I was still exchanging emails with the organizing team at Poynter Institute; I won’t be surprised if I’ve been the last to register. The lady behind the registration table looked up my name, and found it at the bottom of a separate, hand-written list. While she distributed most participants’ name tags that were computer-printed, I had to write mine on a white sticker.

I read the advertisement from my friend’s copy of the Washington Post two weeks before the workshop. Together with Poynter Institute and Georgetown University, the Washington Post co-organized the event. It was, after all, a gathering of their plum writers. My first reaction was to sign-up right away. To anyone who loves the written word, who would pass the chance to meet and greet America’s best writers? When I read the ad further and saw the $200 registration fee, my heart sunk. That’s a lot of money to fork in in a single day. With that money, I could dine in a fine restaurant or travel to New York and back by bus- for four times. Or maybe buy something I could keep like a book about writing.

This must be the nudge that I’ve been waiting for to kick me into writing gear, expensive as it may seem. Still I was begging a tough question: will attending a writing workshop full of Pulitzer Prize winners make me one?

To improve one’s writing, one must write. By write I mean to do the act of writing. And I can come up with a hundred and one excuses not to do so. There is the tried and tested “I have no time.” I also need to watch ‘The Office’ in the evenings (that’s one off the list- I just cancelled my Netflix subscription). Otherwise, I am busy working after work.

A writing workshop is just that, a workshop. Typically it involves subjecting fledgling writers and their work to accomplished writers’ ruthless scrutiny. But no work was shredded into pieces, no tear was shed. Inside the Georgetown University auditorium, the Post writers were the speakers and we, the wannabe writers, the audience. It was part-lecture, part-talk show, mostly entertainment. Anne Hull used a powerpoint presentation as she talked behind the podium. It could have been a concert, too. Roy Peter Clark entertained the crowd with his keyboard and songs to introduce the next speaker. Later, he interviewed the humorist Gene Weingarten as if in a comedy talk show. Two seats away from me, a mature lady giggled like a little girl. Maybe that was what we were looking for, some fun in the company of writers.

The auditorium was full, and I was one of the many who want to improve their writing. Maybe there was a smattering of journalists here and there, but mostly they were writing enthusiasts, like me.  Over lunch, I shared a table with two elderly men, both lawyers.  One guy from New York wanted to write a family biography of some sort. What brought us together in that gloomy and cold Saturday? I shared that I’ve realized that every time I work, my real job saps my creativity. The other guy agree. You see, I write for myself and not professionally (ok, in a way, yes, if writing email updates IS writing). For some of us, the workshop functioned like a support group for people suffering a terrible case of writer’s block, or those needing a dosage of creativity.

Maybe, just maybe, attending a workshop can make a difference. As if watching and listening to the writers’ advice and antics would allow us to absorb their talent by simple osmosis. No amount of workshop can make a good writer for these gatherings only provide tools. At most, it offered instruction as much as inspiration.

The workshop’s title is encouraging, even admonishing. It speaks well to us participants: “Write your heart out, Washington!” And write our hearts out, we will.


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