Getting Together to Shut Up and Write

Sunday February 23, 2014

I mentioned in my not-related-to-the-Olympics hockey post that Steve and I went on several mini-adventures last weekend. Another one of those was attending the inaugural session of Shut Up and Write, Toronto which was held in the Balzac's Cafe at the Toronto Reference Library on Saturday the 15th.

The idea of the event was for a smorgasbord of writer-types to gather at the large communal table in the coffee shop, each bringing whatever they most wanted to work on. The group would write together silently for 25 minutes, then take a short break to say hello, socialize, and get a drink before going back in for another 25 minutes of focused work.

Or, that was roughly the idea. In practice, it was pretty loose in terms of when you wanted to chat and when you wanted to work. Apparently the first "Shut Up and Write" events started in San Francisco and the idea has spread from there, so I'm sure the atmosphere and the game-plan are different any where you go. The Toronto group was organized by Australian-born writer Tom Cho, who had attended Shut Up and Write meetings in Melbourne before travelling to Canada. He told local writer Dorianne Emmerton about the idea, and the two decided to try to get a group going here.

Since they weren't sure what kind of turn-out they'd get and what time of day would interest people, there were two start times to choose from for that first get-together. Being people who enjoy lazy mornings, Steve and I opted for the afternoon session.

(Sidebar: Going later also gave us the opportunity to drop by the book sale that was happening at one of our local Toronto Public Library branches. I was actually taking a stack of old books with me to the Toronto Reference Library to put into the book sale donation bin. But things were bought, and my decluttering efforts were negated thusly:

The recipe book was Steve; the rest was me. Now back to Shutting Up and Writing....)

We arrived a few minutes before the scheduled 3 p.m. start time to see a number of people already sitting at the big central table. Some people were earlier than us, of course, but we later learned that at least one writer was still there from the 11 a.m. start time!

We grabbed our coffees, cookie, and brownie and stationed ourselves at a corner. It was awkward for the first few minutes, when we weren't even sure who was there to write and who was simply using the table between reservations. But then Tom introduced himself to us, and we started passing intros back and forth across the table. By the end of the afternoon, we'd gotten to know a good amount about what the writers sitting near us were working on, and absolutely nothing about what was happening at the far end of the table.

Lesson the First: If one of your goals is to meet new writers, get up during the breaks.

Mid-session, Steve's at the counter for refills and I'm tucked
away in the far corner, still sitting. Photo courtesy Tom Cho.
I was surprised by what some people were working on. For some reason I had assumed everyone would be working on the actual meat of a fiction or non-fiction project, but among the writing taking place that day was at least one grant proposal, one grant report, and some academic research. Although that was not what I expected, it made for even more interesting chats.

Lesson the Second: As long as it's writing, anything goes.

But the real reason I went was to see how much writing I would get done, and I can see how at these events it could easily go either way. During the first twenty-five minute block I made definite progress on the short story I'd brought along, but after the first break I found it hard to get back into the zone. (Back when I was prepping for the 3 Day Novel Contest I had myself up to 90 solid minutes of focused writing at a time, but unfortunately I've let that slide since then - and that was never in a public place with new people around).

Steve however tucked his head back down immediately, and I was keenly aware of his hand moving furiously across his notebook. Call it inspiration, call it peer pressure - either way, seeing him working made me want to work. Had I only been sitting next to people who were as distracted as I was, I suspect I would have easily focused more on the chatting than the writing.

Lesson the Third: Come in a ready-to-work mindset, rather than relying on other people to get you there.

Overall, it was a good experience for us. The second installment of Shut Up and Write, Toronto was held yesterday at 2 p.m., but we already had plans to see the National Theatre Live encore broadcast of Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston (which was fantastic, by the way). Still, I expect we'll be back.

If you want to join in on a Toronto session, visit the Shut Up and Write, Toronto website or check the Shut Up and Write, Toronto page on Facebook to find out about upcoming events. Of course if you're not in the city, you can do what Tom and Dorianne did and try starting your own local group. Read more about some of the Australian events, the San Francisco sessions, or Shut Up and Write Vancouver to help get you started.

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