agency · Reflective Practice · writing workshop

Tumbling Toward Open Space in a Workshop

I remember the first time I ever saw a tumbleweed years ago, cartwheeling its way across the dirt road leading to my brother’s new home out in the country. At the time, I had no idea that tumbleweeds were real things outside of cartoons. Slowing the car, I marveled at its structure—like someone had lopped the top off a tiny, leafless tree—rigid and strong, not weed-like at all. 

This weekend I’m horse-sitting for my brother, and tumbleweeds are everywhere. They range in size from about a foot in diameter to about a yard—although I’ve definitely seen larger. Looking out at the pasture on a windy, spring day like today, it’s a constant stream of these spherical stick creatures toppling end over end.

Yesterday they moved from right to left, and today it’s left to right. If I were truly a country dweller rather than a visitor, I’m sure I would describe their movement with more specific geographic language: north to south or southwest to northeast. 

Something I’m noticing this year is the way the parade of tumbleweeds gets caught along the way: piling up along fence lines, tangled in the branches of low trees, and crowded against the sides of outbuildings. Their sharp little arms link together, forming impenetrable tumbleweed mountains with nowhere to go until the wind changes direction again. 

I’m tempted to share a photo from here on the ranch-ette, but I fear my sister-in-law might have my head for that. I say this with all the love in my heart for someone who likes to keep things super neat but who is no match (and who is??) for the overwhelming force that is tumbleweeds in Colorado in spring. 

Photo by GaPeppy1 on

These tumbleweeds feel like a metaphor for the writers in our workshops: the times they dance freely across the landscape and the times they get stuck. As a teacher of writers, it’s prompting me to step back and reflect on those stuck places. I hope to offer you a similar moment of reflection on the tumbleweed-jams that might be forming in your own workshop(s):

  • Are writers stuck because they need something from me? Is there something that writers need to learn in order to move forward?
  • Are writers stuck because I have (inadvertently) created an obstacle to their next steps? Have I metaphorically fenced off the workshop into artificially small plots of land that limit how far writers can travel without being “freed” by me as the teacher? And if that is the case, how might I turn more agency over to writers and get out of their way? 
  • Or, are writers stuck because we need to change the direction of the wind? Would a shift in focus or possibilities suddenly open up new territory (and generate new energy)? 

In the spring of any school year it can be easy to get caught up in a variety of forces that create that stuck feeling in a workshop. It’s natural—just like those tumbleweeds.

As a teacher of writers, I strive to create the kind of workshop where writers have the space and self-direction to move unencumbered, building momentum for thrilling journeys (that translate into new learning). I try to notice the inevitable moments of stuck-ness so that I can be responsive to them with whole group, small group, and one on one instruction.

And I recognize that as a visitor to the country, I can marvel at the beauty and joyfulness of the tumbleweeds’ movement across the landscape without the dread that it will at some point be my responsibility to clean them up. Today, I’m just making a metaphor. 

2 thoughts on “Tumbling Toward Open Space in a Workshop

  1. I just wanted to drop a note and let you know that your post helped me today. The idea of Tumbleweed jams and how we, as teachers, can actually fence in our writers helped me as I sat beside one today. I realized I built a fence (inadvertently) and needed to pull it down and get out of the way in order for my grade 6 writer to run. Thank you!!!

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