Inside MAI Blog: Thoughts on global publishing

High wire without a net, by guest blogger Larry Brook in Cambodia

I’m frustrated right now because I was given a cell phone to use in Cambodia, but when it rang a few minutes ago, I couldn’t figure out how to answer it, and the person hung up. Actually, I could tell from the caller ID that it was my Phnom Penh taxi driver calling about picking me up tomorrow for the first session of our writer-editor workshop at Fount of Wisdom Publishing. Was he calling to cancel?
Ok, it’s the night before the workshop, and I’m still getting ready! You’d think I’d relax, right. I mean, good grief, I finished the workshop program and all the handouts six weeks ago because I had to email them to the workshop coordinator to get them all translated into Khmer.
So it goes. But here’s what’s happening in between the lines of the daily schedule, so to speak.
Workshop 1 of the Cambodian series (which took place three months ago) was carefully scripted; the three Cambodian editor-counselors – Seila, Nara, and Savy –were given active roles with bulleted points to cover. Plus they added their own thoughts from their years of experience. It went well. These same three are on a parallel track in these workshops to write book manuscripts on (a) struggles of young people, (b) women in Cambodia, and (c) marriage.
Workshop 2 starting tomorrow – I hope my taxi shows up – is much higher risk. I feel like a trapeze artist, ready to go out on the high wire without a net. This time I’ve designed a carefully balanced program weaving in short presentations, writing exercises that focus on specific writing problems or skills, plenty of time to write, and “just in time” training offered within the flow of feedback and evaluation. The program is carefully balanced, but it is not tight. Built in is the flexibility to improvise, customize.
But why take such a risk? I was awake last night, asking myself this question. It’s always much easier to tame the training, that is, “to control the minutes,” but in my experience of observing highly programmed (and wooden) workshops, that approach is more for the benefit of the trainer than the learners.  
An explanation: I can take more risks now because – hold it, I’m writing this in a barebones guest house, and I have to open a can of chili for dinner. It’s actually quite delicious (which I say modestly).
Back to risk-taking. First of all, true, I am taking a risk, but it’s a calculated risk, because I already know the writers. I saw them progress quickly during the first session. (I’m just having a little trouble with their names – Is Sarith writing about his pregnant wife on a motor skooter, or is it Sokhat? Is it Sokal who went to a Buddhist healer, or wait, that’s Sokha…)
Not only did I see progress in the first workshop, but during the months in between workshops, we tried something new (for me). I held long-distance Skype audio or video tutorials with all but one of the writers. (Live Khmer-English-Khmer interpretation took place at the same time in some cases.)
There I was, sitting in Chicago, while the writer in Cambodia was taking notes on my comments about his or her article and asking questions as we went along. Ha! This is no office job. One of the writers, Sokal – yeah, it was Sokal – actually had his Skype tutorial while he was riding on a public bus heading up to the provinces.
Reading each writer’s work, in translation from the Khmer, and talking to them live on Skype, has given me a wealth of background to anticipate quite precisely what each of the writers needs to work on. So (one might say), away with standardization, up with customized, open-space, high risk training.

Hold everything! My cell phone’s ringing. Got to run.

This is the second in a series of blog posts by MAI board member Larry Brook. He is leading a writer workshop in Cambodia with Fount of Wisdom publishing house.


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