A workshop has six to ten hearts. It has the bent legs of many uncomfortable chairs. It has windows you can’t lever open to breathe through. It has shoes to be stared at – munted tread, shredded laces – the skin around thumbnails to pick. It has polygon tables in wipe- clean brown that will never make a circle no matter how you rig them. It has belly laughs, and bad memories. It has a relentless background track of kids wielding hammers in a corner of a crèche, or a crane dismantling a chainlinked classroom block, or the churn of the aircon set to nuclear winter. Or silence. It has plenty of silence. It has metal drink bottles drained to the bottom (if only it had something stronger – sometimes a workshop could sure use its own bar). It has pages tweaked with doubts, clamped with sweat – but, most important, scattershot with words. It has a communal voicebox. Its voice gets traded round the room. Some places it’s used with bass, with spit, with aggro. Other places it’s quiet in the solar-plexus, the trace of a whisper, twisted. Sometimes a word weighs it down, a word that sits on the page with a whole life at stake in it. It has to wait, for the throat to clear, the pulse to drop, the memory to blur. It doesn’t matter. In those spaces, there’s the sound of six to ten hearts, listening. Creative writing, says Natalie Goldberg, is up to 90% listening – workshop, where you have to tune in, strain, receive, is the best training there could be.
I know I’ve said before how the genesis of Mayhem was in the workshop space – but I feel compelled to say it again because so much of the writing which fills fresh volumes still pours out of that crucial zone, that grubby classroom or hungover lounge or glassbowl booked at the library – wherever writers group together to switch pages and hook up a life-support system of words. You can’t overestimate the sustenance, the empathy, the fix, the drive, the fellowship that writers get from stumbling into one of these units. It’s intravenous. It’s catalytic. Sure there’ll be the odd clash, there will be finicky spats and syntactical nit-picking – there have to be. You’re not here for sweet-talk afterall – you need critique. You need it targeted, constructive and deep. Workshopping is acupuncture, says Conor Maxwell – ‘it's trusting other people to poke and stab at your writing in ways that improve it, in ways that make it read better. Sometimes the critique hits a nerve and you have a spasm or some shit, but you come out of the experience wiser.’ A good writer’s workshop is ‘a group of people who will hold your writing at arm’s length when you are too close to it to do so. Who you trust to murder your darlings and save your first drafts from the fire,’ says Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor. Sometimes it takes other eyes to pinpoint that elusive fragment you need to lock your image into frame, your story into focus: ‘Workshopping,’ says Loren Thomas, can be ‘like finding the final piece of your puzzle a week after you were so sure it had gone up the vacuum.’ Sometimes it takes other voices, battering you with hallelujahs and hellyeahs, to convince you that the scribble you’ve dared to bring to group is worth the breath. Nothing can replace the workshop mix of deadlines and tenderness, pressure and infinite faith. It takes time to build the trust that allows you to foster and push each other, to hassle and brace: ‘Workshopping is like stripping completely naked in a room with others, except you’re expected to stare, and expected to see through the skin, and expected to help everyone get the heart out’ says essa ranapiri. Mayhem 4 is full of the brave bare work that comes from sharing pages six to ten hearts at a time.