For professional women, mothers and college students, putting down that BlackBerry, ditching the cellphone and distancing from a laptop for a few hours can be a challenge.
Dean Lofton, an Austin writer and publicist, encourages women of all ages to do just that in her workshop, “Writing Your Life as a Woman.” While Lofton, a University of South Carolina alumnus, has a jam-packed resume of work as a freelance writer, associate editor of a magazine and production manager of a television commercial production company, she has been encouraging women to let go of technology in her workshop for 15 years.
“I think it’s a really different experience to write by hand, because our lives are so tied to technology,” Lofton said. “Creativity does not thrive on efficiency, so it’s giving yourself time to ponder ideas.”
Lofton teaches both single classes and four-week sessions of the workshop to women of all ages, ranging from college students to women into their 80s. The women come from all shades of the professional spectrum, Lofton said, from stay-at-home moms to high power business executives. For two hours, cellphones are left in another room, and the women sit in a circle and are prompted to write and share their thoughts with others if they choose to.
Upon signing up for the class, women fill out a contract with guidelines such as “I absolutely, positively, swear I will not apologize before reading my writing out loud,” and “No matter what topic is suggested, I will always be true to my heart and mind and follow my pen where it leads me.”
“Writing serves everyone whether you’re trying to write a novel or not,” Lofton said. “This is more about the joy of the creative process of writing. It’s good for the soul and it enriches your life.”
Lofton said she recognizes the initial difficulty in detaching from technology, but said she sees positive results from each of her students, whether or not they considered themselves writers before enrolling in the class.
“Sometimes, people do get frustrated because they’re not saying anything meaningful,” Lofton said. “It’s like learning to run — the first time you go out, you don’t run a marathon. It’s really different than the way our day-to-day life works, which is based on efficiency and speed. This is about stepping outside of that, and that can be really discombobulating for people.”
For a working writer used to dealing with nagging deadlines and pressure to perform, taking time to slow down and journal by hand provides a nice contrast, Lofton said.
“I think that it does make me sort of ponder sometimes when I feel pressured about any kind of deadline,” Lofton said. “It’s such a contrast to that peaceful time with my journal. It really sort of opens your mind up to the fact that there are other ways to operate, to not just be on this track to meet deadlines.”
And while Lofton’s class is based on writing by hand, she said technology is still a large part of her life and professional work.
“I’m not at all anti-computer,” Lofton said. “I’m all over Facebook and I do PR work, but for this experience, it’s really about having that digital retreat. It’s an amazing shift that people get.”
Much of Lofton’s early work is focused on women’s rights, which she said she tries to encompass in her class.
“When women have a group together, it’s a different energy, and I feel like there’s a need for it,” she said. “We still have a lot of rights issues. I don’t think we’ve come nearly far enough.”
Lofton said she tries to instill a love of writing and an appreciation for oneself in the women in her class.
“I really want them to realize that they have fabulous stories and that they’re great writers,” Lofton said. “Everybody is a writer, and I want them to get the joy of writing as a process instead of the end result.”
Jen Mulhern, an Austin-based cellist, has taken Lofton’s class three times over the past two years, and said she used the class to help develop her songwriting skills and continue to journal.
“It’s a welcome release for me,” Mulhern said. “I’m looking for these opportunities to find benefit from writing things down by hand. I depend on technology, and it’s a welcome release just to turn it off and have my sloppy handwriting.”
Melissa D’Antoni, an Austin-based painter with Fire Tree Studios, said she likes that Lofton writes along with her students, creating a comfortable atmosphere that encourages everyone to write.
“It is just a wonderful way for women to come together and write and share stories and express those feelings,” D’Antoni said. “Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad, but it’s a really safe place for people to express things without judgment and to be heard.”