Writing for Your Life: Why I Workshop

The John Schule chapel was moved from Rev. John Schule's home in Edgartown to Featherstone.

I grew up in Ireland, where storytelling is second to breathing. It was the way the women told their stories on aisle 4 of the village supermarket that could draw all around to stop and listen. How, what, where, and why revealed the necessary gossip, gasps, raised eyebrows, or one-eyed squints to condemn or celebrate all that was important in a little village. Stories kept the characters of our village connected and concerned. As a kid I sometimes stood, looking at the Heinz Beans, not moving, just listening until Molly Murphy got revved up about the horse shite on the road outside her house. I shut my eyes in case she recognized me by my red coat and whiff of horse sweat.

I sometimes miss the banter, even after 22 years living in the States. And often go to catch a good story outside Cumbies. I try not to loiter.

In 2006, after attending Nancy Aronie’s Chilmark Writing Workshop, I began mapping my life in story. During the week of writing to prompts, the stories that emerged brought me back to Ireland, to my childhood, and what was important at the time. Stories unfurled of growing up by the cliffs and riding horses on the moors in Ireland to living in America with my three small children, huge dog, and engineer husband. I found that writing these stories brought great clarity to my memories, and by the time I left the workshop, I began to see a painting, a picture of my life in important events, relationships, and emotions. Mostly, after a week of self-realization, I wanted to continue writing, and I did; I developed a daily practice that has given me great sustenance over the years.

After the first Chilmark Writing Workshop, I sought a long-term group to attend, and found one with author and editor John Hough Jr. Every week for 10 years I attended John’s Indian Hill Workshop. John Hough and the members of this workshop meet religiously. In the quiet of his cottage, John would read the students’ five pages, their work in progress, a novel in the making, and together we guided and shaped each other’s writing. The practice taught me patience, structure, and persistence.

I also attended David Freeman’s Beyond Structure screenwriting conference in New York. I traveled to Ireland, and took a challenging walking (challenging because it was silent, very hard for an Irish woman) and writing retreat with a writing friend. Over the years I took summer workshops in Noepe Literary Center in Edgartown for editing, children’s book writing, and travel writing. The more involved I got in the different types of workshops, the more each class helped with my writing. The different approaches allowed me to study different workshop structures.

I wrote four novels over five years, and edited them to death. And still I returned to the workshops to keep the writing going — they served as a social outlet, and I loved what I found there, revelations and confessions and people’s intimate portrayals of their life. I wanted the group form of short story telling to continue, and took to studying what happens when we write about our lives.

I’ve watched writers reluctant to share, holding their breath and their stories so deeply buried, but slowly over the course of each day, they transformed, leaned in, encouraged each other, and found their memories, events, and emotions, and became lighter in step, in voice, and in spirit.

I believe our journey is mapped out; our story is sealed in a narrative we have already created. The challenge is to blow it apart and see it from a thousand shards of perspective. I call it a map of life, to wander on the curiosity trail, to revisit the past, knock on the doors of what is uncomfortable, to throw down the ugly truth of self-denial or sabotage, kindle the younger spirit of energy when the fire of life spirals or diminishes.
When I went to Featherstone Center for the Arts to seek a writing venue for workshops, I fell in love with a little chapel, the Schule Chapel, which has been newly donated and is an ideal creative space. I chose five weeks, starting July 9 for four days a week, 1 to 4:30 pm, to host three women’s workshops and two teen workshops. And then my dear friend, Jess B. Hall, worked day and night to construct a great website to get me going.

The workshops I’ve designed are based on what I found to be constructive in developing a writing habit and inspirational by checking in with yourself, and listening to the stories of others. Our writing allows us to view what’s important in our lives, and conscious writing is the mirror we need to reflect and ask, Is this the truth? It gives us time and space to understand our life and how we connect to others. Moreover, it gives us the moment to find humor in our own shortcomings. God knows we need the laughter as well as the tears.

It’s very self-indulgent, but if you’re not interested in your own world, you are at risk of losing yourself to the world of others.


Lara O’Brien has designed workshops to explore, shatter, and reconstruct your life’s story until the writing that emerges is honest, raw, and esteemed. In addition to her Featherstone Workshops, Lara will be facilitating a morning workshop to start off “Islanders Write” at 8 am on Monday, August 6.

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