New literary energy in an old Dickensian space

The Hidden Rivers Writers circle hunkers down for fall in Society Hill.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 9, 2013

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Please, ma’am, can we have some more? Writers will spend six weeks in Debra Leigh Scott’s lit-crit domain.

“Workshops and classes don’t teach someone to be a writer,” says Debra Leigh Scott. She should know; she teaches writing workshops.

Even though that sounds contradictory, it’s really not. Being a writer, see, means one thing and one thing only: writing. The simple act of putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard on a regular basis is what distinguishes a writer from your Aunt Joanie who wants to tell you one more time about the bestselling book she’s thinking of banging out in just a few weeks. But while being a writer is a self-determined practice, there’s still the whole other question of perfecting your writing—of learning to think consciously about the craft. That’s where Scott sees her students benefiting from her workshops: “They deepen their understanding of the process,” she says. “There is a kind of blossoming.”

It’s been nearly 15 years since Scott, a short-story writer, playwright, novelist and documentary filmmaker originally from Bala Cynwyd founded Hidden River Arts, the small multidisciplinary arts organization, that at various times, has produced literary, dramatic and visual-arts programming around Center City and South Philly. Now she’s in Society Hill’s Headhouse Square for the next six weeks, bringing a group of like-minded writers to the Pickwick Room of Cavanaugh’s Headhouse—formerly the Dark Horse Pub—to workshop their stories under the banner of “Discovering Your Hidden Voice.” PW caught up with Scott to talk about the Hidden River Writers program.

Writers all seem to have strong opinions as to whether taking part in a literary community—participating in workshops, etc.—actually leads to better writing. Why do you feel workshops work? I’ve had the personal experience of what a good writing workshop can do. I was one of those people writing privately, collecting short stories in a drawer, unable to even think of myself as a writer, let alone say, “I am a writer.” By the time I mustered the courage to go to my first workshop, I had a dozen stories stuffed in the bottom right-hand drawer of my desk.

Through the years, I’ve found that the kind of close reading and feedback I’ve received on my own work made me a stronger, more successful writer. Workshops and classes … provide the nurturance and guidance. People in all fields of endeavor benefit from mentoring; whether you are a young attorney, a medical intern or a young filmmaker, having people who are a little further along the road you are traveling guiding you is a good thing.

I began Hidden River with a portion of a grant I received for my own writing, because I understood how important it was for writers—at all stages, but especially at the earliest, emergent stage of their writing practice—to receive support. I named the organization “Hidden River” because it locates us geographically (Schuylkill is Dutch for “hidden river”) but also because it is symbolic of what we aim to do. Our mission is to serve the under-served artist—that hidden artist working in obscurity.

What sort of workshopping practices do you find bring out the most creative side of a writer? Depending on a specific workshop’s focus … sometimes reading and discussing published work, sometimes using writing prompts or exercises. But most especially, I think it is the gathering of sincere writers who share their time and their focus on behalf of each other. It’s an act of real bravery on the part of any writer to offer up their work-in-progress to others’ review. That has to be met with compassion and devotion on the part of the workshop members. The workshop atmosphere, which I believe should always be a safe and nurturing space, teaches writers at all stages to read more deeply, to discuss various aspects of each others’ work, and then to take those skills back to their own writing.

I know it isn’t part of this month’s workshop, but you also run a program called Writing from the Chakras. What’s that about? In addition to my many years’ experience as an arts educator, I have a background in the study and practices of world religions. Writing from the Chakras is a program I have designed that uses ancient teachings and practices about the body’s energy systems to access the wellspring of creativity found in the body’s deep intelligence. It’s a totally unique program that combines breathwork, yoga and other practices—you can be a total beginner with these things—to unlock creative energy.

Did you make a special point of locating the current workshop in a space named for a Dickens novel? Well, this is a personal thing for me. I love the work of Charles Dickens. The pub we’ve partnered with, Cavanaugh’s Headhouse, used to be the Dickens Inn. This connection feels special to me, as if the spirit of Dickens is with us, guiding us.

Tuesdays from Oct. 15–Nov. 19, 6:45-9pm. Cavanaugh’s Headhouse, 421 S. Second St. 610.764.0813. hiddenriverwriters.wordpress.com

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