An Interview with Friend, Mentor, and Colleague,
Pat Schneider, Founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists Method
May 9, 2010
Suzanne S. Rancourt
I’m thinking of how my own story as an artist is a weft of thread in the tapestry of Pat Schneider. In 1999 I received my MFA from Vermont College, United States. While there, I participated in my first Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) style writing workshop. This set in motion my participating in several AWA writing retreats and training as a trainer with Pat in Amherst, MA, U.S. There was something to this AWA method that I connected with in a way that no other writing workshop, or writing program, had ever done. I wanted to know how this method allowed me to implement the same practices with every population of people imaginable regardless of their learning disabilities, limited education, brain injury, age, race, gender, sexual orientation, social experiences, and economic strata, incarcerated or not, you name it, the AWA method worked with all people. I wanted answers.
A Masters in Educational Psychology and love for the theories of Cognitive and Developmental Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, provided a foundation congruent not only with my style as expressive writing educator, but with my cultural and racial upbringing. The AWA method made sense, now, I had to educate myself on what it was and how I was doing something naturally.
I did what all my Elders, Grandmothers, Grandfathers, and Mentors have always told me to do. Be yourself, ask lots of questions, “then shut your damn mouth and listen.” I returned to the home of Pat and Peter Schneider and gleefully participated in an AWA writing retreat. On Sunday, May 9th I sat one to one with Pat Schneider, AWA founder, and author of numerous books and plays, for an hour and a half asking questions and listening.
Silence is all we dread,
There’s Ransom in a Voice – –
But Silence in Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
—- Emily Dickinson
SR Please recap how you got started conducting writing workshops, and with what populations?
PS The origin of the AWA method predates my starting workshops. Its deepest history lies in my origins in childhood poverty and being rescued from tenements and orphanage by a local church that paid my way through college. It begins with having to cross class and always wanting from childhood to be a writer. I was ambitious. I wanted to be T. S Elliot!
There is a moment when for me the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) Method began, long before I led my first workshop. I was in my thirties, mostly writing plays for performance in churches; I developed something of a reputation nationally as a writer of what was then called “religious drama” with a dozen plays performed and half that many published by Baker’s Plays. I was a young mother with three preschool children – later there was one more. My husband was a doctoral student, serving a local church as a clergyman.
One day my brother, Sam, came to visit. He never let me know when he was coming. He always just arrived. And this time when he arrived, he had a suitcase which meant that he was better than he had been other times, because it meant that he had not just walked away and left everything behind him.
He was what they called in those days a “drifter” now we would call him homeless. He was an alcoholic from the time he was kicked out the orphanage at age 17 and was encouraged to go into the Army under age. He had his first drink immediately after he got out of the orphanage and never looked back. He became an alcoholic and a drifter. And I adored him because he and I were sent to the orphanage together and for what it was, we were family. We took care of each other.
He arrived with a little suitcase and as we visited he took out of his wallet a folded up, gnarled piece of paper with penciled handwriting on it and he said, “I want you to read something I wrote.” It was probably four sentences in handwriting that I believe only I in all the earth could read, and it was about a character named Rebel who was being chased by motorcyclists from hell. I thought, he’s writing about alcoholism and this is a brilliant metaphor. He is as much an artist as I am, but nobody will ever know it because nobody will ever be able to read his handwriting. He can’t type. He’s a drifter.
That’s the moment that AWA was born – when I first “got it” that being an artist with words is not about how you can spell or how you can use established forms. It’s about a vision of motorcycles from hell chasing somebody. It’s about telling the truth.
A couple of years after that, a woman from my husband’s congregation was sitting at our table and she said “You, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m mothering three children and being a wife to a clergyman.” The church was next door – I could see it from the kitchen table where we sat. She said, “You should have a Danforth Foundation grant, and you should be in graduate school. I’m going over to the University and I’m going to get you a form to fill out for the grant. I’ll help you fill it out and then I’ll send it to my friend who received a Danforth grant herself to see if we’ve done a good job,” and by golly she did that and I received a 10,000 dollar grant.
For the next four years I worked on my MFA in Creative Writing. I did it in fiction and poetry. In the grant application I told the story of my brother’s scrap of writing and said that I wanted to teach creative writing in a way that welcomes and values every voice. That day with Sam is when Amherst Writers and Artists was really born. I got my MFA which had its terrors for me because the professors didn’t want the stories I wanted to write. I wrote about roaches, and light bulbs hanging from a chord without a shade. I told about the kids fighting the roaches thinking that they were the Pharaohs killing all the Egyptians. A professor wrote only two comments on one of my attempts: “a bare light bulb hanging from a cord is a cliché” and “the poor don’t talk about the Sphinx.” [Pat’s laughter.]
PS I came out of the MFA program feeling, thinking, that this is not the way to teach creative writing, but I didn’t know how to yet, either. The first experience I had of teaching creative writing was as a graduate student, and all I could do was what had been done to me in the MFA program. I was pretty much following: “you write, you bring your paper in, we sit around the table and we all talk about what’s wrong with it.” I was terribly uncomfortable with that. As soon as I had my MFA degree, a friend and I started our own workshop, an independent workshop. It was such a big deal here in a five college area: We have Mount Holyoke, Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College, and Smith College. Why would anybody start an independent writing workshop in a place like this? It was such a big deal that the local free arts newspaper had a cover picture of us with the headline: “Two Women Start Writing Workshop.” [More laughing.]
SR Did that surprise you?
PS It didn’t take off instantly. We had a small group of people meeting and we were doing the same thing as the MFA program – Bring in your paper and we’ll all sit around and talk about what’s wrong with it. After the third meeting one of the writers brought in a piece of poetry in beautiful calligraphy and my co-leader said to me, privately, “What tha fuck! I can’t critique this, it’s in calligraphy! What are we gonna do? This is so bad, what are we gonna do?” She said, “Next week I’ll bring in a bowl of shells and just tell people to write.” The next week she put a bowl of shells in the middle of the floor and we could not believe the difference in the quality, the life, originality, the freshness – it was all there – when people simply took a shell and just wrote and read what they had written instead of bringing us canned, calligraphied stuff that had already had all the life burned out of it. That was a huge learning about what was wrong with the MFA and my experiences with professors not wanting the truth from me.
They [the professors] wanted something that met their expectations, and in my case, they expected something that had to do with class. I was angry and frustrated, but I needed the MFA degree – I couldn’t “blow it” when I had this great grant. I started writing stuff that didn’t matter to me – a short story about an old lady, and a novel about an ancient woman. The professor liked it so much it became my major project, but it was basically a research project. It didn’t matter to me. But there were no more bare light bulbs. Maybe a table lamp isn’t a cliché? Then I got this idiosyncratic professor, Andrew Fetler, who hated the stuff I had been writing for the other professors. He said “This is cardboard! It isn’t real.” By that time, I didn’t know what to do. They didn’t want the burning truth stuff and they didn’t want the cardboard stuff. I was totally stopped and finally Mr. Fetler said, “How are you doing?” I said, “I’m not writing. I don’t know what to do.” He said, “Come in and talk to me.” I went in and talked to him. He said, “The problem is not in the way you write, it’s the way you think.” I started walking home and I got angrier and angrier because by that time I had had libretti performed at Tanglewood and in Carnegie Hall. I was forty-five and I thought “What has he done? I’ve been in Carnegie Hall!” I was so mad when I came home I sat down at the typewriter, typed out five pages and it was burning up stuff, you know, and I walked that same afternoon back to school, met him in the hall and said, “I want to have you read this.” He said, “What have you done?” I responded, “Well, I put that ancient narrator into a contemporary narrator’s head.” He said, “I’m sure that didn’t work.” I snapped back with, “It probably doesn’t work but it will give you an example of how my mind works.” I turned my back and walked out. When I got home the phone was ringing and he said, all excited, “Come back up here! I want to talk to you right now for two hours! Everything is possible!”
He was important to me – had I written about the light bulb and roaches for him in the first place, I think he would have liked it. I’m not wanting to say a pox on all their houses, but most of them [the professors] didn’t want the light bulbs, didn’t want the roaches. But you know what? The poor do talk about the Sphinx!
SR I’m hearing that your brother was your inspiration and he is what made you want to make sure that writing was kept honest, authentic –that writing told the truth and welcomed everyone as an artist.
PS Every person IS an artist. Every person has a story that can probably be best told in that person’s own voice. If you can get that voice to be natural and get that person feeling safe enough to be able to tell their story the way they would tell it to their best friends and lovers, then you get all the color of the piece. Everyone’s own language is beautiful, the way we use it naturally when we are safe and not feeling judged.
PS The problem is with our definition of art. Art is defined directly, or indirectly, as the voice of the privileged. That’s where the cross-cultural / cross-class crux is. We have made real inroads in terms of cross-cultural but we haven’t even begun to imagine cross-class art. And often, cross-cultural includes cross-class but I personally suggest that class is really the deepest issue. It has been understood and documented in the visual arts as we have become aware of what we call “art” and what we call “craft.” “Craft” has traditionally not been understood as being “art.” What women did with wonderful quilts was a “craft” and that sort of thing. And people of color, women, gay people, have begun to be accepted into the canon but people with limited formal education, their language, and more devastating, their images, their lives, not so much.
SR Were you surprised that the shells had the effect that they did?
PS Very surprised in the difference in the quality of writing.
SR How did you build upon that?
PS It was the late 1970’s. Peter Elbow had just written his first book, Writing Without Teachers, but none of us knew Elbow’s work. It was like a groundswell that was happening. There was “dissatisfaction” with the way writing was taught not only in the academy but in elementary schools, high schools. We educate people to be unable to write. The inability to write is a learned disability. And that disability is taught by us as teachers. I realized that people were stimulated by what we now have come to call “prompts;” they were surprised into images of their own, and in a safe atmosphere could write fresh, interesting work – much stronger than their own over-revised, over-manipulated work. Only after coming to understand and believe in the basic strength of their own voices could they make use of critical response and instruction in craft. Critique and instruction are important, but we have been getting the cart before the horse.
All of this history is important in terms of the history of where AWA belongs. We are a part of the writing process movement and interestingly enough the writing process movement began in the 1930’s. There were two women who wrote in the 1930’s, Brenda Ueland and Dorothea Brand. Brand, in fact, invented the phraseology that became used in the popular writing process movement – “Free Writing” and “Morning Pages”. “Free writing” was picked up by Peter Elbow in his first book Writing Without Teachers. Elbow is like the Dean of the writing process movement, its theoretician. Helping to popularize the movement was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones which came out in the 1970’s. My first book, The Writer as an Artist also came out in the 1970’s. Quite a bit later came Julia Cameron’s The Writer’s Way, using Brand’s “morning pages,” and my 2003 Oxford University Press book, Writing Alone and With Others.
Ueland and Brand are the foremothers of the whole writing process movement. They were saying that to be creative, we need to let go, we need to access our natural voices, do more free writing. The whole thing was there.
The writing process movement didn’t come into popular use until the 1970’s. It was in the air, with all the freedom movements going on that began in the civil rights sit-ins and the unhappiness with structure – a new way to write was just being born. Elbow was talking to the academy. Oxford University Press had published his book, Writing Without Teachers and they thought it would be a brilliant thing to send a copy to every writing program in the United States. They did that. And guess what? It didn’t sell books! Why not? Because it was called “writing without teachers!” But it made a huge impact because the teachers read it and began to do some things differently in their classes.
The particular gift of AWA is that it presented a method of practices with which a workshop leader can provide persons who want to write, a group that is healthy, safe from hierarchy, and in which craft can be taught without damage to original voice. There are two practices that I believe originated with AWA: treating all material as fiction unless the writer needs it to be treated as autobiography, and (probably the hardest one for some teachers to embrace), the leader takes the same risk as everyone else by writing along side and sharing just-written work with the group. Those practices are crucial, no matter what the group. The first protects the privacy of the writer. The second is what keeps us non-hierarchical. In every single meeting the teacher/workshop leader writes and reads aloud at least once. That levels the playing field. There’s nobody there who keeps themselves safe while other people are perhaps bleeding all over the place. I was surprised by how powerful the free writing was and we never turned back from that or moved away from that as long as I was co-leading. After the first three semesters my co-leader moved on to other things. Very soon I had two workshops and then there were three, four, when I began to lead a weekly workshop in housing projects – and then someone wanted to establish a journal. I just learned each new practice by taking note as I went. We did not/do not “critique” any brand new writing. We offer critique only when the writer has typed it and presented it for critique. We do not read work aloud to each other for critique, because if we read it aloud and respond to just what the ears hear, we don’t know what’s going on on the page. I like to say that new writing is like a newborn baby that has just come out. It may be mucky but it’s not the time to say that it’s got a wart on its nose! There is a time for critique, and a time to refrain from critiquing. All of this is built on respect for the individual who is writing, respect for that person’s voice, respect for that person’s genius, respect for that person’s need to get a little distance from what she or he has just written, respect for the need of the writer to go home and look at it and change it before anybody mucks around with it. Until you receive writing in manuscript, you give only praise. And you praise honestly. You don’t praise something that you know you are lying about. There is something in every piece of writing that is worthy of praise.
Each part of the method was developed by experience over a period of time. I would never have had the chutzpa to call it “a method” but for something that happened. There was a woman in my workshop who had been a professor, she had a PhD, and she wrote with me for about a year. There was another woman in that same workshop that wept every time she read. She had been going through terrible hardships with her children. And every time she read, she cried. This professor said to me, “You are being irresponsible. You’ve got to refer her to a therapist.” I said, “She is a therapist.” The professor stated, “I don’t care. She doesn’t belong in this workshop she belongs in therapy.” I called two other people in the workshop whose judgment I trusted in this all women’s workshop, and I asked “How do you feel about this?” The first woman said “Well I don’t care if she cries when she reads. She doesn’t cry when I read.” And the other woman said something similar. I went back to the professor and said, “I understand that this isn’t working for you and I’m really sorry, but I can’t tell somebody what their affect is going to be when they read. I’ve thought about it and I think it means you need to find a different workshop because I can’t tell her not to cry when she’s reading what she’s reading. And I don’t feel it’s my job is to send her to a therapist. My job is to lead a workshop.” She left, and within a month an article came out in the in local paper with a half-page spread about “her” (the professor’s) workshop method! And it described some of my exercises. I called up the same two wise women from my workshop and asked “What am I going to do?” They both said that if I didn’t make this into a published method it’s going to become somebody else’s method. I sat down and wrote a book about my method! I owe the method to that professor – I might never have had the gall to do that.
SR But there is a business aspect too, how to protect the vulnerable.
PS Yes, there is a business aspect. Suddenly I had a method. It was just the way I had been doing it, but it was the first articulation of it and that’s the book, The Writer as an Artist.
SR The AWA method supports the cultivation of artistic expression that can take the participant to another level of developing their writing technique and the craft itself.
PS The method itself is the same for all populations. The differences come when you are working with people whose self esteem has been deeply broken by bad school experiences, people who have literally left formal education. They need a different way to handle their hand written pages. The leader must take great care: (1) not to write on their untyped pages (type them if the writer can’t type); (2) to correct spelling but not usage, discuss with them before changing any usage; (3) not to critique as a group; (4) to offer critique individually for those who are ready for it; (5) to give only as much correction as the individual can handle; and (6) to always offer more statements of praise than of suggestion for change. The method is spelled out in Writing Alone and With Others. In the first book the publisher didn’t allow me to do a chapter on Empowering the Silenced. Oxford University Press was happy to allow that.
SR Let’s talk about that, Empowering the Silenced.
PS There are real changes in development that had happened after that first book because Peter (my husband) had left the ministry and we had four children and were desperate to make money. I was leading workshops certainly for the love of the writing and the love of the work but I was also doing it for the love of my family and in a desperate need to make a living. I had three workshops weekly in Amherst when a social worker in a mill-town on the river in Chicopee called and said, “I’ve heard about your workshops and I want to know if you would come over to the projects. If we get a grant for you, would you come to the projects and lead a workshop for our women in the housing project?”
It was like one of those moments when you feel vertigo because your whole universe shifts – because I came out of incredible poverty and here I was being asked to go back. My book, How the Light Gets In has some stories that I’ve never told anywhere else about becoming middle class and having this raging child inside me screaming, “You’ve forgotten, you’ve forgotten.” Being two people inside hating each other, it was very unsettling to be asked, “Will you come into the projects”. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I wanted to too much and was too afraid of it. I said, more to stall for time more than anything else, “I would need you to come over here and sit in on one of my workshops and see if it’s what you want.”
She came and sat in on the first half of the workshop. When we took a break, she came into the kitchen and said to Peter, who was cutting the brownies, something about her father. Peter asked what her father did. She said, “He’s a minister.” Well, Peter said, “Oh really,” and asked where he went to seminary, to which the social worker replied, “Pacific School of Religion” which is Peter’s and my alma mater. Peter said, “Oh is that right? When?” and she said 1959, 7, 8 or thereabouts. Peter asked “What’s his name? She said, “Wes Burwell.” I had held her in my arms when she was an infant! Talk about signs!
At the end of that night she said the workshop was exactly what she wanted and “Let’s make a plan.” She got a grant for ten weeks for me to be paid a hundred dollars a night. She said that she’d have a dozen women there. We got there that first night and there were only two women. We wrote anyway. She said the next week there will be more than this because another agency had a van and they were going to go around and pick people up. In that first week a woman wrote, “I don’t speak English good. My children don’t speak English good. I try never to talk to my children” and that’s all she wrote – those three sentences. It was horrifying. “I try never to talk to my children.” At the end I said I really hoped she would come back the next time. The next week the other agency decided that they weren’t going to pick people up so the woman never came back. The social worker said to me “I’ll go around in my car and pick them up.”
The third time there were about 8 or 10 women there and most of them were sitting in the attitude of having their arms crossed and looking mad at being there. That was really the first night of the workshop. I knew the one thing that I had to do was to not play games with these women. They were smart women, and they were there because of their loyalty to the social worker. It wasn’t about me; it was about being coerced into being there.
Later, that group of women became trainers with me, training workshop leaders and they would tell the story of how this woman came in looking like a hippie wearing a skirt, stockings and these little sandals. The ones who got the most fun out of this were there in their jeans and sweat shirts. I was determined I was going to honor them by dressing up – later I learned to wear my jeans, too.
That first real night of the workshop I told them, “I’m a writer. I live in Amherst and I’m over here because I believe passionately that everyone is a writer and I believe that writing is not about spelling, it’s not about being published, it’s not about anything but telling the truth of what you have lived or of what you imagine, and I gave them an impassioned speech about how they had wonderful stories to tell and that I wanted to help them to write them.
As time went on I would get more and more honest with them like the first time I asked if they would like me to take their writing home with me and type it up for them. The woman who was the most language disabled person in the group held her paper up against her chest and said “I gave a teacher something of mine to read one time and she wrote on my paper.” I responded by saying that I will never write on your paper. I will take it home and I will type it but I will never write on your paper. She gave me hers and some of the others gave me theirs and I took them home.
On Sundays, all I was doing was typing up these papers. I would type the first page as is with all the misspellings, grammatical errors everything in tact as it had been written. That was hard to do because you can’t type errors automatically, but I typed it exactly as they had written it. (There is an example in “Writing Alone and With Others.”) Then I printed it again with a few things corrected, not everything, just a few things that I felt they might be ready to learn from. I corrected all the spelling, but none of the usage. Then, on a third page, I printed their work out as though I were giving it to the New York Times magazine or whatever, with their name and address in the upper right hand with margins, everything, and I would return the pages with the copy of their work exactly as they had written it, with my comments attached elsewhere, and then the copy with my suggestions written and then the third clean, copy. They couldn’t believe it. It was the first time they had ever seen their work in print. Never before! And it was the first time to see their work with no spelling errors and no marks from the teacher on them. I gave them back 5 copies of the final one. And they would give it to family members. They loved that.
That collapsed the absolute canyon that lay between “I write bad”, bad spelling, bad hand writing – and a book with beautiful type in it. There’s nothing in between for them. How can they get from here to there when they’re saying “I’m not a writer? I can’t write.” When they believe the C minuses and the F’s that have met their words? Once they saw their own words typed in the finished form that I gave them, with their words lined out like a poem sometimes, and I would say this is a beautiful poem, they began to believe. I would say, “If you don’t like it this way I’ll take it back and change it to however you want it, but this is what I suggest.”
PS After the Chicopee women had been with me for quite a long time, I began to say to some of them, individually, “I want to talk to you about this word, here’s the word ain’t, now the voice talking here is a character who would say ain’t. But here, the ain’t is being said by the story-teller, the narrator . . .” I would bring the conversation back to the narrator and what would the narrator or character say. Now if you took the paper to an English teacher in class she would tell you it has to be something else. “Which do you want?” I would ask. Sometimes a woman would choose the ain’t and sometimes she would choose “am not” or “are not”. That’s teaching them within the realm of their own choice that there are two ways of writing and both of them are correct but used for different purposes. One is not bad but the real voice of your character or the character of yourself talking on the page but subtly you’re [the workshop leader] saying I’m inching you toward being able to use both your original language and another language so you can get a job at Penny’s – or in some cases to continue their education.
SR Exactly, and understanding that this goes back to the first and foremost principle of the AWA method that you mentioned which is respecting their words, their story, and their experience. To use my own words, the AWA is a strengths based model.
PS When I began this, other teaching models were almost all, unilaterally: we teach according to what the person did wrong.
SR Yes, that’s deficit model.
PS In my workshops for low-income women, the only teaching was based on what they did right; therefore, I would say “Oh my god! Listen to that metaphor!” They may not have any idea what that meant. “Listen to that gorgeous metaphor” I would spell the word –M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R- and I would see a few people writing it down. Never looking at the person I knew needed to write it down. “Listen to this metaphor, see what it does.” You’re lifting up the person who wrote the metaphor and also the person jotting down the word, and all the others too. The participants represented a very wide range of skills. I taught always to the level of the person who is least able. It didn’t hurt the others to hear it again. The person who is the least able I will not leave behind. She must understand everything I say. The method there, in working with a manuscript, is absolutely to teach them what they do right.
With college educated people, whether in school settings or special populations such as bereavement workshops where most if not all participants have college educations, when they give you a manuscript, the responsibility is the same in terms of praise – on every page, to be able to praise something. It is also the leader’s responsibility to identify weaknesses and to work with the writer in developing his or her craft. In both settings, a leader has to measure each individual’s vulnerability and skill. Sometimes a person isn’t ready to take suggestions. When a writer has been with me longer, I get to the place where I let them have the whole barrel. I say, think about this; I say it with a question mark, or in my opinion. Never use words like “awkward” or “cliché.” Rather, use phrases like “I don’t understand this sentence” or “I get a little confused” or if it is a cliché, ask if there is a fresher word or phrase.
SR You are still meeting the learner where they’re at.
PS Absolutely. One of the issues in the Chicopee workshop where there were women of second, third, fourth generation poverty, was that among them was one woman whose mother had a Smith College education. Her father had died suddenly when she was eight or ten years old. She had gotten into teenage rebellion and landed in the projects as a single mother. But she had excellent usage, privileged language, and so I wanted to serve her too. She had already started back at Elms College but she was still living in the projects. I had to figure out how to serve her at the same time serve a woman who had not gone to school beyond sixth grade. These women knew that she had education and that she had more language. We would comment, “Isn’t her vocabulary great? What does that mean? That’s a beautiful word, could you spell it?” This was dealing with the reality of the situation but in a way that allowed people to feel good about learning.
Another big moment of truth-telling in that group came when the social worker got a grant for publishing a book of their writing, In Our Own Voices. I went to the workshop and told them we had a grant to do a book of our writing. “I want to ask you do you want to do this book as a book of writings by women or as a book of writings by women in low income housing?”
Dead silence in the room. What we were had never been mentioned but that was what we were: Women in low income housing, and a middle-class woman from Amherst. The same woman who said some teacher marked on her page, said, “Why you come here? Because of who we are? Or because we live in public housing?” I saw my life flash by before my eyes. The whole group wanted to know my answer. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Because you live in public housing.” Oh silence! I said, “I love every one of you but I have all the workshops I need over in Amherst. I don’t need a workshop over here in Chicopee. I come here because you live in public housing and I want you out of it!” Another woman wanted to know why I was asking them these questions. I told them that my feeling was that if we published a book of the writings of women in general, it would be lost in countless other books. But if we write a book of writings by women in low income housing it would be really unique and it might help some other low-income women. They really struggled with that. It was such a hard decision for them. They knew that I grew up in poverty; I said that my foreword would make that clear; I would be in there with them. They finally came to the decision that they wanted the book as women in low income housing so they could make a difference for other women.
That’s when we changed from being this little writing workshop for ourselves to a group focused on the world. Robin Terrian, who’s brilliant, said “This will change our workshop and we will lose a lot.” I agreed. We didn’t know how but we knew it would. This book propelled us out into national Public Television with the Florentine/Hott Productions film, Tell Me Something I Can’t Forget. I led the Chicopee writing workshop for fifteen years. Some of those women became like daughters to me. All the women acquired further education. Robin has her Master’s in Social Work; Teresa has her MFA in writing; others have undergraduate degrees or GED’s. Some do not have degrees but have worked with me as trainers in intensive AWA Method trainings. The first two years we had grants, but that was it. For thirteen years I went to Chicopee for the love of the work, the love for the people and for the profound difference that work made in my own life. All the rest follows on that.
SR I bring the book, In Our Own Voices, into my expressive writing workshops when I’m working with special populations such as back to work programs or incarcerated women. I read from the book and tell them stories of the women, their struggles and where they are now. It cultivates hope and possibilities. It changes the women I’m working with by just knowing and hearing the words of other women who have made it out of the projects.
PS Life changed for the women and it changed for me as a result of the book and the film.
SR What strategies do you use to maintain healthy boundaries when facilitating long- standing groups?
PS When the film was previewed at Smith College we had over three hundred people in the audience. I was to give a speech. All of us were to be on the stage and each of the women were to do a little something. Because we were funded by a grant for the first two years via a social worker, I had to maintain confidentiality. There were some stories that I simply couldn’t discuss.
The boundaries that I held all through the Chicopee workshops, I don’t know that I’d put them out as for everybody. I was learning as I went. I gave everything I could possibly give. I donated sheets, clothing to fit a four year old, if somebody couldn’t pay rent I found a way to help. I gave somebody a washing machine and dryer because her children were going to be taken away from her because her children smelled like urine. She had no transportation and two kids that wet the bed every night so what the hell was she going to do? I found her a good used washing machine and dryer. But then I was told that she had sold them. [Pat’s laughter.] I went to her and said “I want to take you out to lunch.” I picked her up, took her to lunch and I said, “If you ever sell something that I give you again that’ll be the last thing I ever give you.” It became a big joke that if Pat’s taking you out to lunch you better watch out. She wasn’t the only one that I took out to lunch. The truth is, I did not keep any boundary except the boundary of what it was possible for me to do. And that was a lot.
However, on the personal level, I set up some boundaries because some things I could not do. One was that I could not do that workshop all the time. I would do a ten week session and then not do it for a while, then set up another ten week session. This boundary was made after the first two years of receiving a grant from the social worker, whom we loved, but she moved away, and was followed by my being driven mad by social workers who were bigger problems than the people in the group. With people whose educations have been limited, most workshop leaders know to choose your subject matter when you write with them. You’re not there to practice your own writing or your highest level of academia or to brag about your recent expenditures of far more money than the women have ever seen. You use language that the most language-disabled writer in the group can understand, and you probably won’t write about your recent vacation in France. The social workers were driving me nuts. I was beginning to think that there was no hope when yet another social worker started describing a place setting with linen table clothes, silverware and such, and I thought oh no here we go again but then she described how no one at that table talked to each other, how cold it was at that table, and that made it perfectly alright. It wasn’t about the wealth. It was about the family dynamics in a way that everyone in the workshop knew was real.
A leader writing across differences doesn’t have to be poor like I was as a kid in order to be able to write with people who are struggling with poverty. What we have to be is a little bit empathetic and a WHOLE LOT HONEST. Empathy doesn’t mean that you can’t write about your privilege. We must write about it but honestly, in a context of what’s real and maybe raw, and not just celebrating blindly the privilege that we don’t even seem to know we have.
You have to keep certain personal boundaries in order to keep yourself psychologically safe and whole. Those boundaries will be different for each leader. I had to make decisions that kept the group safe, the participants safe, and my family safe. I have two Lesbian daughters; many of the women’s men referred to our workshop as that “lezzy group” and absolutely forbade “their women” from participating. One of our women was threatened physically if she ever invited the man’s woman to attend our group again. Homophobia is a cross-class phenomenon – it is everywhere. Smart men knew that there was empowerment in that group and they risked losing total control over “their women.” I couldn’t personally write about that issue where one or more of the women in my group mocked with “nasty!” whenever it was mentioned. Other than that, I wrote about anything with them. In that group, of course, I learned things about my own origins in poverty because of what I wrote. I wrote for the first time in my life to my father on Father’s Day in that workshop, and it was the first time I ever did anything other than hate him. I remember it started with “You were only 21 when I was born.”
SR You are always starting where the learner is and build upon that (scaffolding) according to the needs of that individual. This is mentoring. When I heard you describe your boundaries, for example, they may not be the boundaries set forth by the School of Social Work, they are appropriate boundaries if you are mentoring, which has its own set of practices.
PS When we train people, I stress that you have the right to take care of yourself, because if you don’t you will burn out and you will be gone.
SR We talked about the craft and techniques of writing and how the AWA practices are experiential. Your methods of pulling the learner along (Zone of Proximal Development) and building on that person’s individual progress (Scaffolding) are two significant Vygotsky-isms.
PS I want to say a word about that. When the AWA method is not really understood and is criticized by its critics, it takes the form of what happened with a professor (who shall remain nameless) when she invited her friend to join her writing group and the friend said, “I’m in Pat Schneider’s workshop.” The professor said, “Oh, well, Pat Schneider just makes people feel good.” When the method is not understood, that’s the critique – that we sit around and give each other only praise, and it’s a feel-good, warm fuzzy experience. In the four years of my study for an MFA, I never got anything near the critique of what I give back. We do thorough critiques. We take the critical side of writing very seriously, but it is only when the participant chooses to bring something in. There’s never any pressure for anybody to bring anything in. There are people who have been coming for years and never have given out a manuscript. This is not “school” in the traditional sense even if it is happening in a schoolroom. It cannot be graded and be the AWA method. Writing in our method, in the moments of actually writing, is not goal-oriented accept when the writer has goals and that’s different from goals that come from an institution. We work together, but it is still the writer’s choice and where his or her place of readiness is. It’s moving with the person’s speed and respecting that because it is not a class. It is a workshop in which work is done alongside other workers.
SR As a writer, I know that the AWA addresses the learning of craft and technique and is done in a way that all participants can learn.
PS I do too. I do exercises for craft. Even back in Chicopee we worked with form, syntax, grammar. It’s how it is introduced that is unique to the AWA method. It’s making craft and technique plausible for someone in a way that they wouldn’t normally expect.
SR I like the fact that no one is forced to read out loud. I like giving the power of choice to each individual whether to read or not. Reading allows us to feel meter from the inside out. Everyone can feel their own rhythm.
PS And we’re hearing music we didn’t know we had and catching rhyme we didn’t even know we had done.
SR Reading aloud is an organic method that goes back to that writing process movement that I feel Denise Levertov and Tess Gallahger were rooted in. The movement of just letting something happen organically, just guiding people to discover what is going on naturally, is another interpretation of the writing process movement you discussed earlier. Craft is addressed in the AWA method. When people don’t understand the method, they don’t understand the practice.
SR At what point did you feel you needed to train trainers? What do you look for in trainers?
PS We knew we had to train trainers after the film came out on public television and we were interviewed on public radio. Elise Rymer in New Mexico called her friend in Albuquerque, who was head of a program for girls at risk of AIDs. Albuquerque had the highest population of girls at risk of HIV and AIDs in the country. They had a program that was trying to work with these young girls – twenty business women each mentoring two girls. They wanted a week of writing in which the girls and the women would write separately then they would put them together. The women would write with the girls every week thereafter. Two of my Chicopee Workshop members and I went to Albuquerque. Enid Santiago Welch took the young children, Robin the teenagers and I took the adults. We ran workshops with these three groups and at the end of the week we brought them together. Seven years later that program was still going. I don’t know its current status.
At about the same time, Kate Hymes in New York State called and wanted us to come there and train a group of teachers in her ESL program. People started asking us, “Would you train me to do this kind of work?” It was by demand that we started training trainers. We said “We don’t know how to train.” Again, Robin said, “This is going to change us. We’re not a workshop anymore.” We couldn’t say no to it because we had really gone over the line into commitment, into making a difference. I said if we’re going to try and do this we have to train ourselves first how to train. We set up a six week training and met one evening a week with people all of whom had AWA experience. We didn’t charge anything. We told them that we were training ourselves how to train and we would like to invite them to come and be trained by us. By the end of that first training we were just in love with the work. What was so unique about AWA, according to Social Work Today, and according to others familiar with our work, was that low income people were the trainers of middle-class teachers, social workers, clergy, writers. There wasn’t anything else like it in the country.
SR Pat clarified that AWA has never been, and will never be, a “corporate” method or model. AWA method is a strengths based, non-hierarchical, experiential learning method. Anything other than this is not AWA. People have tried to steer AWA in directions other than previously defined and failed tremendously simply because without the principles and practices aforementioned, one is not employing the AWA method, is functioning outside of the organization’s professional integrity and ethics, and all that has become synonymous with the thirty plus years of Pat’s work as the Founder of the AWA Method.
SR Could you give five attributes of your ideal trainer?
PS The trainer must have:
- Method comprehension
- Method experience
- Ability to keep a group safe, familiar with group dynamics
- Natural teaching instincts
- Humility and a non-hierarchical spirit
SR Speak briefly about “How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice.”
PS It is, from beginning to end, an attempt to do the thing itself. It’s not a “how to” book. I am writing as a way of exploring the Mystery in which we all move – trying to figure out what life is about. I want to explore the mystery of who we are, why we are, who I am. Each chapter begins with a quote – for example, one chapter begins with a quote from Emily Dickinson: “Silence is all we dread. / There’s Ransom in a Voice.” My question was, what is “ransomed,” “saved” when we write? When I begin a chapter, I don’t know its answer but by the end I do. Writing that way – for me – is a spiritual practice.
We managed to stick to task that Sunday finishing our interview as the ninety minute cassette whistled to a halt. The power of words – The power of voice- A reverberation of thought and language: Pat Schneider continues to empower the silenced and to demonstrate that empowering the silenced is about education and people feeling they are worthy of education, that all learners are special and of value. The making of art through words is no longer just for the privileged. Experiential learning creates the opportunity for the participants to believe in themselves, through their own experience, self-worth, self-validation, and that they are worthy of social contribution while cultivating their dignity as human beings.
Lev Vygotsky’s theories and practices support the AWA method. Using strengths based practices, mentoring, and meeting the learners where they’re at. i.e., respect people, their knowledge, their experiences, their stories, voice is given back to people across classes, and culture, power is restored to people that the dominant culture wants to keep marginalized. When one’s language is taken away, words halted, and one’s stories criticized as crap or untrue, a situation is created where, as Pat Schneider described, “not being able to write is a learned disability taught by us as teachers.”
Pat met her learners where they were at, gave them corrections without causing frustration and shutting down their passion for learning, and then “…showed them where they are going.”
Write honest. Be authentic and your stories will come to life. Pat’s book Writing Alone and with Others Oxford University Press, 2003, doesn’t pussy foot around when clarifying, defining, offering clear and concise writing exercise after exercise. Throughout the entire text, Pat never loses herself but reaffirms her origins as the origins of her philosophy of education and the fodder for her AWA method.
A mentor is someone who recognizes the yet uncultivated potential within each human being. The mentor is someone who has the gift to see inside another person a part of themselves. They have the courage, the skill and compassion to bear forth (bare forth) this creative being. Pat Schneider has not forgotten her origins.
Pat Schneider is poet and author of ten books including five volumes of poems, How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice and Writing Alone & With Others, both from Oxford University Press, and Wake Up Laughing: A Spiritual Autobiography. Her libretti have been performed and recorded at Tanglewood and in Carnegie Hall by Robert Shaw & the Atlanta Symphony. Her work has been featured on NPR, on National Public Television, and sixteen times on Garrison Keillor’s “Writers Almanac.” Pat is founder and director emerita of Amherst Writers & Artists and AWA Press. She is an alumna and was for 30 years adjunct faculty member of Pacific School of Religion in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Her pioneering work in using creative writing as a means of empowering low-income populations is the subject of an international award-winning documentary by Florentine Films/Hott Productions: The film has been featured on national public television and is a DVD companion to Writing Alone and With Others. Forthcoming is a new book of poems titled The Weight of Love. www.patschneider.com
Suzanne Rancourt is Abenaki/Huron decent from West Central Maine, residing in the Adirondack Mountains, NY. Her work appears in The Gyroscope Review, theSame, Young Ravens Literary Review # 8, Tupelo Press Native Voices Anthology, Bright Hill Press 25th Anniversary Anthology, Dawnland Voices 2.0 #4, Northern New England Review, Bear Review, Three Drops Press, Snapdragon Journal, mgversion2>datura, Sirsee, Slipstream, Collections of Poetry and Prose, Muddy River Poetry Review, Ginosko, Journal of Military Experience, Cimarron Review, Callaloo. Billboard in the Clouds received the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas First Book Award. murmurs at the gate, forthcoming Unsolicited Press, May 2019. She is a USMC and Army veteran. Ms. Rancourt continues to serve as a Mentor for the Saratoga County Veterans’ Peer to Peer program.