Monday, March 12, 2012

AWP Panel Presentation: Alison Hicks of Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio

Thank you to Alison Hicks for organizing an AWP panel that attracted so many attendees. Since the room was filled to capacity, some folks said that they were unable to hear our panel. As a result, we're archiving each speaker's presentation here. I'll be posting one presentation every day this week from Will Write for Food: Writers Working Outside Academia
 (blog label 'AWP Panel Will Write for Food'). Today’s post is from Alison Hicks.

Alison Hicks is the author of a full-length collection of poetry, Kiss, a chapbook, Falling Dreams, a novella, Love: A Story of Images, and the co-editor of an anthology, Prompted. She has twice received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; her work has appeared in Eclipse, Forge, Gargoyle, Grey Sparrow, Gulf Stream, GW Review, The Hollins Review, and Pearl, and is forthcoming in Whiskey Island, Quiddity, The Alembic, and RiverSedge. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, and is founder of Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, which offers community-based
writing workshops and personal consultation.

Alison Hicks

Leading Independent Community-Based Workshops
By Alison Hicks

I have led independent, community-based writing workshops for 15 years.  I work outside academia by choice.  I love my work. I find it personally and artistically fulfilling.   I’m going to start with my story, then talk a little about the benefits and challenges of this type of work, and some logistical and financial realities.  The main take-away I hope you bring from this, though, is there is a need, a market, for this work, these services. Many people are interested and passionate about writing, but don’t necessarily want to enroll in a degree program, nor do they find an academic setting and structure most comfortable or conducive to their artistic growth.

My Story:

•          If you told me in graduate school that I would end up having my own (micro) business, I would have said you were nuts

•          Did not write for 6 years after receiving my MFA.  My block broke in the middle of a job search, after leaving the “job from hell.”  I wrote a novella in a great creative high.  Afterwards, I decided that whatever I did for living, writing needed to be part of my life.

•          Between college and graduate school, I had taken workshops with Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA), which I had found nurturing to my artistic growth, and I ended up taking her training to lead workshops using the AWA method.

•          At the time, I doubted anyone would take a workshop with me. I wasn’t famous, and at that time had only published one story.

•          Pat convinced me of something that I’ve since found to be true:  there are a lot of places you can go to hear someone behind a lectern say “Do it the way I do,” and fewer where one can have one’s work engaged with on its own terms, where the goal is to uncover one’s own unique material.

•          I started my first workshop in fall 1996 with 5 people in a church in Center City, Philadelphia.  I thought of it as an experiment.

•          This then grew to two ongoing workshops, then three. After my son was born, and I scaled back to two.  I now have waiting lists for both workshops.

•          I also work privately with clients who are working on book-length projects.

•          I have found this is a very satisfying way to support myself and my writing.  My income is a second income and I get my health insurance through my husband’s employer.  Yet my income is significant to my family’s resources.  Recently we met with a financial planner and my husband had her crunch numbers without my income for a period of time. We discovered that this drastically changed our retirement picture.


•          For me, has offered opportunities for personal and creative growth

•          It’s your business; you’re in charge. Empowering.

•          Joy of mentoring people, seeing other’s writing take off

•          Supporting and developing your own writing.  My writing would not be what it is were it not for my workshops. I see myself as modeling a writer’s life. I feel the need to “walk the walk”: to actively be creating new work and putting it out there. (I tell my workshops about both my acceptances and rejections and encourage them to share theirs as well. At the end of each session I hand out a sample of my writing in progress.  We don’t take workshop time to discuss, but I welcome any comments they wish to make.)

•          Some advantages to working outside academic structure: grading, department politics, etc.
Logistical and Financial Realities:

•          Need to know your strengths and what you offer and market yourself and your product.  Potential clients need to see your name or logo something like 7 times before it registers.

•          Need to know the area where you plan to offer your services, its particular needs and characteristics. 

•          Know your competitors—both academic and non-academic—and what they offer.  For example, one of my competitors is a well-established and prestigious fiction workshop in Philadelphia.  I did not let myself be cowed by this because we offer different things. His is fiction only, and offers standard manuscript critique. My workshops are different from the standard academic model.  We do offer manuscript critique (typically I write 2-4 page of comments as well as line-editing manuscripts), but we are multi-genre (because I write poetry, fiction and non-fiction), and include a generative component, writing in the workshop in response to prompts or the writer’s own inspiration. This is attractive to those newly exploring writing and discovering their material, and also to seasoned writers looking to make progress on defined project.

•          Need to price yourself reasonably.  You don’t want to price yourself too low; people do equate price with value.  Yet I also want to make my workshops affordable to a range of participants. (I have also offered “scholarships” and reduced fees for those of talent who are also good group members, but I’ve found that most people like to “pay their own way.”)

•          Need to be creative about finding affordable, accessible, and welcoming locations (can be one’s home, if appropriate; others prefer to use another facility).

•          Need to be organized, keep track of earnings and expenses.

•          If you don’t also have a job from which wages are withheld, you may need to pay taxes quarterly.  Also may have to pay your own Social Security taxes (so-called “self-employment tax”).

•          Need to be able to “roll with the punches,” expect some uncertainty, be comfortable with some element of risk.  Your business may be affected by broad economic or area trends not under your control.

•          Need to be willing and able to give your business some time to grow. Nurture the seedling. Helpful to offer services on a regular schedule rather than intermittently (if you offer it, they will come).
Challenges/Opportunities that arise:

•          Group dynamics. Having an MFA is useful, but not necessary. Having publication experience is helpful. What really matters is that you can provide an atmosphere in which people can grow and learn and that you have some guidance and insights to offer from your own writing experience.  I’ve found the structure of the AWA method helpful in maintaining healthy workshops.  It also helps to have someone wise and level-leaded with whom you can talk over difficult or delicate situations. (At same time, joy of having your own business is making your own decisions)

•          Viewing imperfect work in a positive light.  This doesn’t mean ignoring problems or issues in the writing, but keeping in mind the writer’s greater purpose when you point to those problems, what she or he was reaching for, even if it exceeds her or his grasp.  Being honest and helpful at the same time. Meeting the person where she or he is.

•          Working alone/home office can take adjustment. Internet can lessen sense of isolation, but can often be a distraction.

•          Finding colleagues.  Go to readings in your area; participate in literary life.  Make friends with writers in and out of academia. Attending and participating in AWP conferences is another angle. I’ve been pleased to see AWP increasingly defining itself as an organization of writers, not just of creative writers in academia.

Communities Reached:

•          My workshops have included those who are sending out their work and publishing, those who have written for a long time but are just beginning to show their work to others, those who took creative writing courses in college but haven’t engaged in creative work since, and those who have wanted to write but are now giving themselves permission to explore writing in a more focused and serious way.

•          Workshop participants have ranged in age from teenagers to the 80’s, educational levels from high school grads to Ph.D’s, include men and women (skew toward women), and diversity in race and sexual orientation.

•          I don’t select by manuscript. I offer places in a new session first to those currently enrolled who wish to continue, second to alumni who wish to return, and then to newcomers on a first-come, first-serve basis.  This means that there is more likely to be a range of experience that benefits us all.  After all, we are all beginners when it comes to the blank page.

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