The Lab :: Writing Classes with Matthew Clark Davison
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I started The Lab a few years ago in response to a frequent question: "When are you going to teach a private writing class?"
My former BA, MA, and MFA students from San Francisco State University who'd finished their formal study of creative writing still yearned for original prompts and exciting readings to keep their writing going over the long haul. They asked for a casual place where they could WRITE and commune with other writerly types without being bogged down with the traditional commitment of reading and critiquing dozens of pages before coming to a group.
Friends and word enthusiasts with 9-5 jobs as well as artists in other disciplines also expressed interest in a non-academic place they could go and write. Not for the goal of publishing a book, necessarily, but to explore creative writing as a personal form of artistic expression.
These people know me. They know that I'm not a traditionalist. Nor am I interested in the old-school workshop method whereby the loudest member of a group tells an individual how they should make something they've written better. I also didn't want to come and lecture to people about what "is" and "isn't" fiction and memoir. So I kept thinking about it what I could offer that would be completely unique and stimulating in a city with so many choices for writers.
It clicked once I started working as an Artist Mentor at Performing Arts Workshop. I paid attention to how electric the group dynamic is when creative people of multiple disciplines and backgrounds come together to talk about art. There, dancers learn from writers. Writers learn from actors. Actors learn from drummers. And vice versa.
Why it's called it The Lab:
The laboratory is not a place for fore-drawn conclusions. It doesn't exist for what's already known. Whether alchemy or chemistry, the laboratory is dedicated to mystery and the unknown.
In a science laboratory, "experimental" is not synonymous with sloppy. Nor does it suggest a lack of rigor, structure, or craft. In the laboratory, experiments are carefully planned based on extensive research.
What makes The Lab different from other writing classes?
First in theory:
Most writers report that their stories are not assembled according to a plan, but captured through the threefold process of experimentation, discovery, and development--and that each individual story is written according to a unique and mysterious set of inspiration and demands.
The writing practice, then, is less about learning a formula, and more about developing methods to find, synthesize, and fuel inspiration.
"How-to" writing classes often pay lip-service to experimentation and discovery--or elbow it out of the way entirely in favor of well-worn "rules" of "craft." Craft is important, but finely-crafted fiction and memoir, in the absence of substance and mystery, can read as both false and hollow.
At The Lab, I cull and combine process notes from a variety of creative disciplines: writers, sure; but also film-makers, dancers, visual artists, musicians, choreographers, cartoonists, architects--even brain scientists--to examine and then intentionally experiment with writerly interpretations of their processes.
The Lab is for people who want a writing class that is experimental, rigorous, and technically useful.
The intention of each session is two-fold: to help participants discover and record, during each session of The Lab, written material worthy of exploration--and to model a practice that is both sustainable and applicable to the specific inspirations and demands of future projects.
Now in practice:
The Lab focuses on generating new material and/or deepening existing projects. Each week participants write for up-to one hour of the 2.5-hour session. (In traditional writing classes, the work is done at home and brought in to be discussed.)
The Lab focuses is on producing pages. Sharing work is both optional and limited. The sharer is asked to select what feels most vital and surprising. Listeners feed back the specific written lines that surprise/delight/draw them in. In this model, the writer thinks critically before sharing, and then deduces her or his own direction.
Subjective negative feedback during the process of discovery and development can cause writers to abandon great impulses before they have a chance to transform into definitive ideas. Subjective positive feedback; e.g.: "what I like" too often illuminates the taste of the person giving feedback without providing the writer with actions aimed at deepening or developing. (In traditional workshops, people voice opinions about what "worked" and what didn't along with what they "liked" and didn't.)
Writing time is divided between a warm-up and two deepening exercises that are all based that week's experiment. During the week, participants can choose to post a section of their edited findings for feedback.
While The Lab focuses on Fiction and Memoir, it has also been populated by plenty of people experimenting in poetry, playwrighting, and genre-defying prose.
What about the vibe?
The Lab is for people who take their writing, but not themselves, seriously. There's plenty of laughing and camaraderie; and most of it stems, in some way, from hard work. Is it fun? Yes, but it's not a party. I understand that it's a big deal to carve out and dedicate money and one evening to your writing. It begins on time and ends on time. There isn't much off-subject chatting during the sessions, but the participants tend to be social before and after.
Who should take The Lab?
The Lab is perfect for all word lovers. People who had never taken a writing class see The Lab as an entryway. Extensively published writers use The Lab to expand a project. Those in-between have worked at The Lab to develop a portfolio for MFA applications or literary magazine submissions. Whether you're wanting to blow up/blow out/expand an existing project or start a new one, writers of all levels have found the six week sessions fruitful.
Is it good to take The Lab more than once?
I am always finding new ways into the creative process, I have over 70 (and growing) completely original "experiments." Sometimes I offer a "Greatest Hits" cycle. In either case, you'll be able to take The Lab as many times as you'd like. While the methodology is similar from week-to-week, the outcome of the experiments vary along with the people who sign up.
What if I have to miss a class or two? Should I still sign up?
That's up to you. The majority of the cost of The Lab is for the material I teach; for the time it takes to find and prepare the creative/generative prompts. Meeting in person and writing among peers is a wonderful way to encourage community and accountability, but each week's creative "experiment" is available to you whether you're able to attend in person or not. You'll also have a chance to get feedback from me on your work whether or not you're able to physically make it to class.
Thanks for considering taking The Lab. If it's a match for you and your goals, I hope you'll sign up!