Tacit Knowledge and Creative Writing Workshops

Not-a-workshop in Grantown-on-Spey
 

I have regular Zoom chats with three friends, started before the pandemic as real life meetings, but continued online. All of them are professional artists. I'm the single writer, and it's always interesting and enlightening to compare the way I work with the way they work - although obviously they don't all work in the same way either. 

A few weeks ago we started talking about tacit knowledge and they asked me how that applied to my work. My first impulse was to say 'it doesn't.' But I've been thinking about it ever since, and of course it does. It's just that most writers either don't realise it, or feel uncomfortable acknowledging it. 

Most creative professionals don't retire but as time goes by, we tend to acknowledge what we do and don't want to do. We learn how to say a polite 'no'. Here's an awful admission. I've always disliked doing workshops. Worse, in all my years of actually delivering workshops, I've had an uneasy feeling that I don't know what a workshop is or should be. 

Nor do most of the people who ask you to do them. I've seen all kinds of events described as workshops from writers speaking about their books, how they researched and wrote them, to full on, participatory 'how to' sessions for a few people, which is more or less what I think of when I see the word. I still love doing the former, but the latter? Not so much. 

If you write non-fiction or historical fiction, you can give an entertaining and informative talk about your work and how you set about researching it. For example, I've enjoyed every talk I've given about The Jewel, my novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, and I hope other people have too. This is partly because I'm comfortable with describing my research, but also because the audience for this kind of talk is usually knowledgeable, so they will ask interesting questions, and offer their own contributions. 

I've taught intermittently throughout my working life, three happy years teaching English as a foreign language to adults in Finland and Poland, numerous drama and script-writing workshops, radio workshops, and some hugely rewarding years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at our local university, helping students with their academic writing. 

I enjoyed the RLF fellowship most of all. In those one-to-one sessions I was using my tacit knowledge as an experienced writer (although I didn't call it that) to help students see their own way through. 

'How can you read my essay and immediately point out the main thread, when I'm floundering about?' one of my students asked me. It was down to years of practice. We never did the work for them. We just showed them a way of working things out for themselves. Mostly by asking the right questions. It's what good editors and producers do for writers too. They ask the right questions and in finding the answers, you make the work better yourself. 

That same tacit knowledge is what I use when I'm writing - for example - dialogue. I've had years of writing plays for radio and the stage, and now in fiction. But if I'm asked to do a workshop on writing dialogue I feel a sense of panic. I can do it. I know what works and what doesn't. But I don't know how to explain how I do it to people who don't have an ear for it. 

It's like when my woodcarver husband takes a block of lime and cuts off all the pieces that don't look like whatever he wants to make. He can teach people the basics. Teach them about wood and tools and techniques, but if they can't see the wonderful thing inside the wood, can't feel the shape of it, it will take more than a couple of workshops to acquire the feel for it that is the result of years of practice. It's the same with writing. I can give people rules for writing dialogue. I can frame exercises to help them. But there is no shortcut.

None of which is to denigrate the role of really good mentoring, done with a light touch. Somebody with lots of tacit knowledge helps us to find a way through our problems, often by questioning what we're not doing, rather than telling us what we ought to be doing. 

Intuition is a whole other can of worms. On the whole, I think the more you work at  your craft, whatever that is, the more intuition you will acquire. That way, your tacit knowledge becomes intuitive, so that you can look at a piece of work, get the feeling that something is wrong with it and often, but not always, fix it for yourself. 

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