Humanities at Large

Public Writing: An Introduction

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on March 24 2021.

Transformative. A gift. Phenomenal. Life-changing. These are just a few of the descriptions we received after the four day Public Writing: An Introduction workshop led by Irina Dumitrescu. Irina provided us with a summary of the workshop.

by Irina Dumitrescu

In March 2021, the Institute offered an intensive workshop entitled, “Public Writing: An Introduction,” online for the first time. The course was designed for scholars with a PhD who were interested in taking first steps into public writing, or had already begun writing for a broader audience and wanted to learn more.

Led by Irina Dumitrescu (University of Bonn) and featuring guest appearances by Robyn Autry (Wesleyan University) and David Perry (University of Minnesota), the course took place via Zoom over four days. While most of the twenty-one participants were based in Toronto, the fact that the course was offered online enabled scholar-writers to join from other locations in Canada, the UK, Russia, and across the USA.

Each day began with a writing prompt that allowed everyone to practice a different element of storytelling or voice in a playful way. The rest of the morning was devoted to an element of craft, with interactive lessons dedicated to beginnings, style, structure (especially for longer essays), and endings. The purpose of each craft session was to give participants a sense of the options available to them when writing an essay for the public, and to consider together which choices might be better suited to, say, a book review or a feature article. Sample readings from journals such as the Paris Review and the London Review of Books allowed the group to discuss the strategies authors use to make their writing clear and powerful, strategies that do not always follow any given rules.

After the morning sessions, participants had a span of time they could use to grab lunch and continue writing. Lunchtime prompts allowed them to try out different approaches to their project, and to reflect on their own relationship to writing. The Zoom meeting stayed open over lunch, however, and as the workshop progressed, participants began meeting in the online space to write together. The afternoons were dedicated to sharing the work that came out of the prompts (always on a voluntary basis), and focusing on practical elements of publication such as finding an appropriate outlet, pitching, and dealing with audience responses.

Although this was a workshop dedicated to a particular genre of writing, and to making it possible for PhDs to begin publishing in new ways, ultimately the real lessons had to do with writing itself. There were honest conversations about the roles that emotions play in artistic creation and on the ethical aspects of addressing a larger public. The playful, experimental, and low-stakes prompts helped participants put aside their scholarly personas for a while and get in touch with their authentic voices. A beautiful community began to take shape during the lunches and in informal conversations that extended long beyond the afternoon session. Some of the participants are already planning ways to continue writing together online, and a few essays and pitches are taking shape. It will be exciting to see how the energy of the workshop continues in the coming months!

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At the end of the workshop, participants were asked about their experience. Here are just a few of the comments we received:

"I have attended many writing workshops and this was one of the best in terms of balance of elements, easing us into community, helping us develop trust a gentle pace."

"...I can honestly say this has been the best four days of the year so far for me. What a gift!"

"This was the best program/support/faculty-development program I have ever done through UofT, and I've done a lot. It was personally and professionally transformative."

"Irina was a wonderful, generous, knowledgeable instructor. So down to earth! She was really a perfect choice for this type of workshop. I loved every minute of the four days."

"Every academic should take this workshop, even if they don't feel motivated to do public writing!"

"This workshop has been amazing. It has inspired me to return to writing with ideas and excitement I haven't felt in a long time."

"A lot of the writing has been intense, hard work, both intellectually and emotionally, but it has been incredibly productive, and has helped me get some clarity about aspects of my life and work. I can hardly thank and praise Irina Dumitrescu enough for fostering this vibrant intellectual community."