18 October 2009


The wild onion writes its poetry on the summer breeze--
hair a howl of purple and blue star
heart a blaze of garlic history
prisoner only to the salt
that is fiction and sea

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) But you could also have people select a place to write about and have them draw so many words from a jar, with the understanding they used them to describe the place.

Writing Alone and With Others

by Pat Schneider 
Pat Schneider is the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists, an organization that trains leaders in a particular method of leading writing groups. I found my way to her book through someone I met by chance at another workshop, and reading her book encouraged me to sign up for the training. This book details the methods I use in my workshops, and the week of training I shared with 14 other leaders-to-be and three staff members in an old farmhouse in Connecticut changed my life.

Lots of people have written writing books about a lone journey, and much of what's in the first half of this book--the writing alone part--is on par with it. Schneider's particular genius comes through in the chapter on voice: finding all the parts of your own voice, learning to use them, then learning to try out other voices. She says, "Writers often ask me, 'How do I find my voice?' It is a sad question--as sad as if the question were, 'How do I find my face?' The answer is so clear, so transparent, we can easily miss it altogether. Listen. Listen to yourself. Listen to your own voice telling your own stories to the listener you most trust...You have a voice, just as surely as you have a face, and it is already full of character, passionate and nuanced and beautiful."

This is an interesting passage to me because while it is in the "writing alone" part of the book, the discovery of how the voice sounds needs the help of someone else--a person we trust. The "writing together" part of the book attempts to describe how to create a writing group or workshop where the members, who may not know each other well or at all--can become people we trust. I don't know of any other book that deals at all with the "writing together" portion.

Schneider's plan for a supportive writing community is a democratic one where teacher and pupil are equal and interchangeable. The leader writes along with the group members, reads, and listens as others in the group discuss her work. And the leader learns from that process just as surely as the group members learn from the leader. This I can tell you as someone who has led Amherst-style groups for going on five years.

The other democratic aspect to Schneider's method is she brushes aside all ideas of rank or class. There is no insider/outsider dynamic going on. Writers write; it's as simple as that. If you come to a writing workshop, it must be to write; so go ahead and call yourself a writer. What happens in Amherst groups is that the leader gives the group a creative prompt to write to, sets a time limit, lets everyone know when time is up, then asks for volunteers to read. No one is forced or goaded into reading if they don't want to.

The other principle, which is inviolate in an Amherst group and discussed in great detail in the "writing together" section, is that there can be absolutely no criticism of someone's work during the response portion of the meeting, after the writer has read. People are trying to be brave in what they write, trying to learn to trust, but they won't manage either if they fear they'll be criticized. They will never write in their own voice, or hear it loud and clear when they read, or learn how it affects other people if they're afraid someone's going to tell them what's wrong with it.

And that's just one person's opinion anyway. Pat says so, and I agree.

The book is absolutely full of creative writing prompts. If you've ever been to one (or more) of my workshops, you'll recognize some. But there are plenty more here I've yet to try that you may find fun for your "writing alone" practice. And once you get going on the writing-prompt thing, you start making up many on your own. So I may never get back to ones in this book!

There is a companion DVD to this book which is also excellent. Its central feature is a 20-minute documentary-style film that shows Schneider in action leading the group she is most famous for: the one for low-income women in western Massachusetts' ailing mill towns in the 1980s. Many of these women hadn't finished high school, some were in abusive relationships, one was living in her car with her three children. Writing helped them all change their lives because it gave them a voice. That much is clear. All of them--yes, all--went on to get educations. The one who was living in her car was named Social Worker of the Year in Massachusetts in 2005. Many of these women lead writing groups of their own now.

Also in the DVD--if you can get your hands on it--are interviews with other long-time Amherst leaders discussing the various shapes a writing group can take and what these many people have done with Pat's original model. There's also a terrific one-on-one with Pat that works as a video workshop. She delivers the prompt, then you hit the pause button, and the group (or individual) writes. I've yet to use it with a group, but I think it would work well, particularly, in a class to teach others how to be Amherst leaders.

My Pockets are Full of All Good Things

The adoration of cats and the respect of birds.
Gourmet meals, complex wines and good conversation.
The image of myself in the eyes of one who loves me.
The tag team of wind and sunshine.
Rain on the roof at night.
Snow muffling traffic sounds at dusk.
Missed cabs and voices on a dark train 
and you beside me, sleeping.

PROMPT: What's in your pockets? Literally, this could be a simple list poem that would tell us something about the speaker. Women could substitute "purse" for "pocket," or you could change it to a desk drawer or something similar. Or, do as I did and tell them to choose figurative, imaginative things.