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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Hood hosts virtual public workshop on expressive writing

The Hood Museum teams up with author Joni Cole to fuse art and creative writing in termly writing workshops open to adults of the Upper Valley.

expressive writing.jpeg

Roxanne Swentzell, “Sitting on My Mother’s Back,” 2014, ceramic. Lent by the artist. © Roxanne Swentzell.

On July 15, the Hood Museum of Art sponsored a workshop on expressive writing, the sixth installment of the virtual series. The event was co-facilitated by the founder of the Writer’s Center of White River Junction Joni Cole and Hood teaching specialist Vivian Ladd. The event, which took place Thursday evening over Zoom, was free and open to the public. 

Over 40 people registered for the workshop, exceeding the capacity for the event, according to Hood Center for Object Study attendant and scheduling assistant Randall Kuhlman. Running over capacity, he added, is a normal occurrence for the workshop, which has been held termly since the summer of 2020. 

“Every time we’ve offered it, there’s usually been full capacity with a sizable waitlist,” Kuhlman said. 

Organizers of the workshop wanted to limit the size of the group to allow for sufficient participation by all members. Since the session required no previous writing experience, attendees included local writers and adults residing in the Upper Valley, as well as interested writers joining from across the country.

“The idea behind the [virtual workshop series] is to focus on one work of art and allow it to provide a focal point and an inspiration for creative writing. Every workshop is different,” said Ladd, whose role is to provide writers with a contextual and historical guide to the art. 

Cole has been teaching creative writing for more than twenty years to adults of all levels — from newbies to seasoned professionals. She has taught in the Masters of Arts and Liberal Studies graduate program at Dartmouth and has hosted creative writing exercise events at nonprofits around the Upper Valley, according to her website. 

“I meet them wherever they’re at. It's really all about helping people write more, write better and be happier,” Cole said, quoting the subtitle of her 2017 writing guide “Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better and Be Happier.” “Those three really are the goals of what I teach. Of course, you want to write more and be more prolific, but you also want to write better, so you need to acquire those narrative techniques, or practice them and get feedback along the way.”  

With the help of Cole, Ladd selected the featured piece of artwork, which was a sculpture created by artist Roxanne Swentzell called “Sitting on my Mother’s Back.” Ladd said that the piece asks viewers to consider their relationship to Mother Earth. 

“We like to choose an object that has a lot of possibility within it — a work of art that leads to lots of different associations and has broader possibilities for interpretations so that there is room for people to respond to it personally in a number of ways,” Ladd said. 

The participants were then offered a writing prompt related to the sculpture. Cole said that the art is meant to serve not as a subject for the writing itself, but as a catalyst for creativity and reflection. 

“It's not really to write about the artwork, but it’s more to evoke a story, or a memory, or thoughts or words that the artwork brings to mind,” Cole said. “It’s just such an organic collaboration between art and creative expression.” 

After the participants spent several minutes writing, they shared what they wrote and participated in a workshop-style read-through. 

“We see how we interact with a piece of art or what it evokes, we share our own stories and we learn an awful lot about the art,” Cole said. 

The workshop focused on an exercise Cole calls expressive writing, which is a specific type of writing important to the creative process. 

“Expressive writing is that first flush of writing where you’re just expressing yourself, so there should be no censorship, no second-guessing, no worry about form or genre or structure,” said Cole. 

She said that it can almost be compared to journal-writing, but with a different connotation and purpose; journaling and expressive writing both share a lack of editing and freedom that allows magic to land on the page. 

“The more welcoming you are, the better,” said Cole. “In creative writing, you worry about drafts and narrative structure, genre and getting across to the reader, but it all starts with expressive writing. It’s the first stage of the creative process.”

Cole said the hardest part about teaching adults creative writing is the self-doubt and mythology adult writers often bring with them — a lack of confidence due to the misconceptions that they are not real writers, that no one is going to care about their stories or that they are not creative. 

“I would argue those are all myths that have to be overcome,” Cole said. “Writing is a craft, a skillset, a practice and a discipline — all those are very acquirable. The only thing that can really stand in your way is if, in the end, you don't really want to do it, which is very understandable.” 

The workshop series, which was originally planned to take place in person in the Hood Museum, has been held virtually for the past year due to pandemic restrictions. In Cole’s opinion, not much is lost in the online format of the writing workshop portion, but she acknowledges that looking at a piece of art on a screen is different from experiencing a piece in person. 

“The workshops are really appropriate for everyone — for people who are experienced writers as well as those who just love to express themselves through writing,” Ladd said. “The amazing part about these workshops is how much we get to know and appreciate these works of art by hearing each other’s stories and by experiencing each other’s points of view and the incredible artistry people bring to their creative writing.”