The first time I ever went to a writer's workshop, it was to teach one. I'd had been invited by Hannelore Hahn, the visionary who created the International Women's Writing Guild. IWWG's headquarters were in New York City but they had events all over the U.S., the largest and most prestigious being the one at Skidmore College at Saratoga Springs, New York in August.
So, I drove from Indiana to New York, wondering the entire way what one did in a writer's workshop and wondering if I had enough money to get home. (They didn't pay you as the honor of being there was your reward. I could never have afforded to attend as a paying guest).
You have to understand that at that time, I'd never attended a writing class, never even took a journalism class in high school. I never wrote for the yearbook. I never went to college.
I wrote my first short piece for the Harley Davidson Enthusiast in 1973 for $70 (though I'd never owned or ridden a Harley Davidson motorcycle). I continued to write for magazines and newspapers, eventually including higher-paying publications, such as Newsweek, McCalls, Sports Illustrated, USA Today.
An essay I wrote for Newsweek got a lot of attention and as a consequence, I was invited onto several television programs and went to Washington as a guest of Senator Kennedy to attend a public policy forum on unemployment.
That is what brought me to Hannelore's attention. The IWWG describes itself as "a community that provides women a nurturing environment in which to experience rebirth, creativity and personal growth through writing." That was Hannelore's dream and she succeeded in bringing it to life for herself and many others, me included.
When I first arrived at Skidmore, I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Most of the attendees were way more upscale and educated than I was but one of Hannelore's rules was that every type of writer was welcome and all their writing would be respected. At night, people gathered in the auditorium to read their work. You were allowed to offer kindly constructive criticism but never anything harsh enough to wound. We had the editor of a porn magazine once and when she read her work, there were red faces all around as well a compliments for her colorful use of language.
My workshop went fine and in fact, was voted one of the most popular ones but I think I learned more than I taught anyone. I learned about collegiality in that environment and how encouraging your peers could be, especially if you didn't have any back at home.
I learned about different types of writing. I was labeled a "nuts and bolts' writer, practical and down to earth, but we had our other groups as well - the feminists (voluntary lesbians rebelling at the world of misogyny) - the poetesses (I assumed everyone wanted to make money on their writing but the poetesses scorned money, they worked for the love of art) - the earth mothers (at home, they raised goats and made quilts and canned vegetables) - the spiritualists (who read our palms and taught us to make mandalas and showed us where our chakra centers were).
It was a very heady time for me - sleeping in a dorm room, eating at a cafeteria (I'd never eaten baked squash before). We had our other entertainments as well. The thoroughbred track's season was during our conference and we usually went to the races once or twice. Saratoga Springs is a beautiful and appealing city to shop and eat. When the jockeys appears in the tree lawns in front of the magnificent mansions on the main street appeared, you knew the owners were in residence and receiving guests.
Mostly though Skidmore was about being at a place where ideas and creativity flourished and where everyone felt free to turn their thoughts loose, knowing they'd receive a supportive hearing.
I ended up going to Skidmore to teach three times and to the Chicago conference twice. I remember a woman who had come long before me. The other instructors told me the first year, she read her work, she was awful...but she wanted so badly to write, she kept coming, getting better every year. After seven years, she sold her book to a publisher. I think she was one of Hannelore's proudest accomplishments.
Hannelore told me once that the world was "too cruel to the dreamers". Instead of being told why they could realize their dreams, they were told why they couldn't. Hannelore wanted to empower the dreamers....and she did. I was lucky I got to be a part of it.
Incidentally, the IWWG still exists. You can find it on the internet. It is well worth belonging even if you never attend any conferences.