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2015 Festival of Writing on July 11!

psrAWA West presents
our second annual
Festival of Writing!

Saturday, July 11
9:30am – 6:00pm
Pacific School of Religion
1798 Scenic Avenue, Berkeley
$65 for PSR/GTU students and $90 for the general public. (A limited number of seats are available at a discounted rate for low income writers. If you would like to request a discount, contact summer@psr.edu.)

Join us for the second annual Festival of Writing, hosted by Pacific School of Religion and AWA West! Don’t miss this day of powerful writing and supportive, kind community in an absolutely beautiful setting. There’s no better way to celebrate both your writing and the gifts of the Amherst Writers & Artists workshop method. Register now!

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She held out the song of the long view

Good morning! How is the sun peeling through the night’s succor where you are? Did you celebrate the Summer Solstice this weekend? Have you noticed that the days are shorter now?

This weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in A Festival of Writing, sponsored by AWA West and the Pacific School of Religion (Pat and Peter Schneider’s alma mater). I facilitated two writing sessions (one focused on writing about sex, and the other a general topic writing session, like Writing the Flood). What a gift it was to spend a day connecting with new writers and my AWA community here in the greater Bay Area. At the end of the day, we got to gather with Pat (via the wonders of technology), who shared with us about the seasons of a writer’s life and read from her new book How the Light Gets In: Writing As A Spiritual Practice.

In the second writing session, I started us off with a collection of images that I scattered over the table; we each chose an image or two, and wrote from those. The image that spoke to me was one that showed a bird flying over barbed wire, and this was the writing that came from the prompt:

She was the bird who called to us. She was the hoarse angel, she was the chemical peel,she was the undeviled thing, the pickling spice, the debonair lounge of legs. She wrote us around the corner and asked us to find names for all our calipers and rusted bolts, the parts jostling and broken. For the places where we had come undone, she strung twine through the body of a needle and knitted our wounds while we ached into the absence of memory. She untaped our memory from its hiding places. She tapped around our bodies, listening for the hollow places, and it was there that she began to puncture and crease, pushing her nails into the thin membrane of our security, waiting for the sorrow in us to be revealed. She strung us over, called to us from beyond the points of the barbed wire that kept us hemmed in, that we had strung around ourselves, that we tightened and reknotted every year, weeping and weeping about our confinement. She hovered above us, she called in sharp songs and pierced anguish, she fed us back what we had practiced ignoring.

We thought our lives were complete, that recovery had an end date, that locked jaws and noses to the grindstone were the same as serenity, that slivers of joy were all we could hope to have shiver our bodies awake, and those only to surprise us every so often. She held out the song of the long view — she whisked her wings before us and revealed plains of cavernous pleasure, faces pumaced with laughter, days, weeks, even, in which our spirits would not be pockmarked by history, stretches of time in which we would not only live within the carapace of loss. And when we reached for those possibilities, she trapped our wrists in sharp taloned grasp, she favored us with her ashen gaze, she said: There is no easy way to this place I have shown you — my beautiful, you have to go through.

And in her broad brown wings, we saw the years of rage and sorrow, we saw the tears crease down our cheeks, we saw ourselves remembering what we had trained ourselves to forget. Our bodies went limp with terror, or our bodies stiffened, every tendon taught: we did not want to walk this way. We had survived; wasn’t that enough? But her body clothed itself in the finery of joy before us, and though we didn’t know enough to say, We want what you have, still we felt something enter our bones: the only way through the history is to remember and move forward anyway.

So we went through, and little by little, one tender and broken and strong step at a time, we felt the pinfeathers pierce our shoulders, we felt our own wings begin to reemerge.

Open letter to a newly-trained Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) Affiliate

Hello, my friend! Welcome to the first day back in the real world. Maybe you won’t read this until this afternoon, or tomorrow. I hope that’s the case. I hope today you are sleeping late, taking care of your body, spending time with friends. I hope you haven’t had to push right back into the world of work, smartphones, data points, or commuting schedules.

It’s late morning and I, as one of your trainers, am still outside my usual routine. I am drained, overly full of human interaction, and missing you. After five days sequestered together, today we begin to drop back into our real worlds — we begin the process of integrating what and who we found and became during the training into our other life. I use “we” deliberately here — this is true for the trainers, too; we are changed through our interactions with you, the conversations and questions, the opportunities and invitations to examine our certainties, our points of view, and open just a little bit more deeply into this AWA method that threads itself through our hearts.

We spent five days — four of them nearly morning til after dark — discussing this writing group method that Pat Schneider developed, the one that each of us had already fallen in love with, that had already held most of us as writers, and opened a space for our own new and risky writing. You wanted to learn about holding that sort of space as a facilitator. This weekend we talked history and philosophy, craft and oppression, trauma and voice, poetry and creation. We experienced what is still a revolutionary idea: that it’s possible to invite and even teach writing outside of that traditional MFA/Iowa Workshop model, that good and powerful writing can emerge outside the mindset of competition and ruthless criticism. We talked about and then practice this method that has such a simple structure:

  • We offer prompts as suggestions for writing;
  • everyone free writes together (including the facilitator);
  • everyone is invited to read (including the facilitator) and it’s always ok not to read;
  • in response to those who read, we say what we like and what’s strong for us about this new writing;
  • we respond to all new writing as though it’s fiction (talking about the narrator, voice, or characters in the piece);
  • we hold confidential all writing shared in the group.

We discovered, had reconfirmed repeatedly, that even in a twenty-three minute practice writing group, with a seven-minute write and not enough time for everyone to read, that within the scaffolding of this method, powerful, fresh, strong, innovative writing will emerge. Every single time.

As you consider what sorts of groups you might want to facilitate, I invite you to stay spacious with yourself. You might spend some time writing into the possibilities — notice where you have the most energy around a particular idea. You might feel that you should write with some particular group of folks — maybe veterans or 9/11 survivors or new moms, say — but what really brings up the most excitement in you is the idea of a general-topic writing group with all different people, a group where everyone’s writing something different and you could play with and explore a wide variety of prompt ideas. Pay attention to that energy! Vice versa, you might feel some economic shoulds around starting a general entrepreneurial writing workshop, but as you explore possibilities for yourself, you find this little voice that really wants you to call your local hospital to see if they’d be interested in a writing group for caregivers. Pay attention to those voices, those instincts and intuitive encouragements. And notice what groups you feel strongly interested in but afraid to facilitate; there’s a lot of information in that fear! Dorothy Allison tells us to write to our fear — even if we never run the group that scares us the most, we can still learn a great deal if we let ourselves investigate, write into, that possibility. And we might end up deciding to do it after all. Just as you’ll invite your writers to follow their creative intuition into whatever wants to be written, I’ll invite you to pay attention to that creative intuition now: what sorts of groups, when you imagine being with them on a regular basis, might bring you more fully alive? It’s ok to follow that pull, to follow that genius. We need every different writing group possible. Try, at this time of wondering and discernment, not to be constrained by anyone’s shoulds, not even your own.

Consider your self-care practices even before you begin to offer groups. Don’t wait until you’re exhausted or burnt-out (like I did) before you think about what you body needs, what your psyche needs, how to have room for friends, playtime, family, exercise, and, especially, unscheduled daydreaming time. Please remember to make time for your own writing and other creative practices. Get yourself a copy of Trauma Stewardship (no matter what sorts of groups you offer) and World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, and spend time with them. As excited as you are about your groups, don’t let them take over your life. Give yourself space to be someone other than a writing group facilitator, too.

Remember that this is holy work you’re undertaking, not to put too fine a point on it (the word holy arising from words meaning “whole; that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated”). You are inviting folks to sit with you and share the truth of their creative expression, to reconnect with a part of themselves that they may have learned to be afraid of, that they have had good reason to shut themselves away from after being hurt there. Our relationship with our writing, with our creativity, is a wounded love relationship, a place of adoration terrified.

The hunger for creative expression and engagement with life is inherent to our human being-ness: each of us has this creative genius within us. No one sees the world or our experiences exactly the way that we do; no one imagines exactly what we imagine, and, like Martha Graham told Agnes DeMille, if we don’t share it, that vision will be lost forever. Think of all the brilliant, creative expression lost because so many of us were told by teachers or friends or parents or “real” writers that our writing was no good. When we invite someone into their writing, when we invite folks into our groups to write, we must remember that we are inviting in those wounds as well. We hold the method fiercely because the method is mindful and reverent of those wounds. We treat all new writing gently and respectfully, period — no matter how long someone has been writing, or with what determination they invite us to “tear into” their work. We don’t know the places our writers’ wounds live, just as we don’t know all the places all of our own wounds love. By trusting the method (as Peggy Simmons reminds us), and holding true to these practices and affirmations, we open up space where the wounds are welcome and yet don’t stop the words from coming.

We treat every piece of writing like it matters, because it does. As a culture, we need every story, every single person’s stories — fiction and nonfiction, poetic, lyrical, assonant, ranty, dissonant, fragmentary, surprising and vivid and vast. Your stories will be held this way, too. You are also holding the space in which your own words can blossom and flow.

Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to have all your questions answered before you start your group. Know, in fact, that you won’t. Start sooner than you thought you would. Put your body in the room, trust that you are ready to begin now. You are ready to begin now. You are scared — that is just right; you ought to be scared. You are scared because you understand the power of the undertaking. And you know that courage, that bravery, is acting while holding hands with fear. Know that your writers will be scared when they walk into the room — your awareness of your own fear helps you to remember and be mindful of their courage. You honor that courage: you show up consistently; you hold the method; you and your writers co-create a space in which beauty and power emerges through your bodies and words into the page and into the world.

Stay connected with your trainee cohort and with any other AWA facilitators in your area. This is a community of loving rebels, instigators, poets, fiction writers, essayists, artists and revolutionaries. We support each other. we get what you mean when you say “narrator.” We want to hold you as you step full-bodied into this work; and we need your support, too! Find a group where you yourself can write. Find other facilitators you feel comfortable talking openly with — we all need confidential space in which to share our fears, frustrations, joys and discoveries. Share resources, trade prompt ideas — revolutionaries never work alone, remember, and are always (as Che Guevara told us) guided by great love.

There’s so much more I have to talk about with you — this is just the beginning — but it’s time to rest now. I’m so grateful to be in this work with you and to be co-collaborating in this revolutionary space with your good and fierce heart. Trust Pat when she says you can’t fail if you love them (as Jan Haag reminded us). Bring your real, loving, reverent (and irreverent!), complex self into the room, and trust the meted, be willing to rail, and know that you and your writers will be shown how to fly.

With much love and in solidarity,



When the light gets in (celebrating Pat Scheider with AWA West)

The list of "first times" we generated for our writing prompt during my writing group this weekend

The list of “first times” we generated for our writing prompt during my writing group this weekend — maybe use an item from this list as your prompt for this morning’s write!

Good Monday morning to you! The birds were a raucousness back there in the live oak tree about a  half hour or so ago, but they’ve all slipped off now to some other breakfasting place, and so my morning song is the distant rise in commuter traffic and a garbage truck doing its work a few blocks away. What music is finding you already this morning?

On Saturday this weekend I got to spend the afternoon and evening celebrating the release of Pat Schneider‘s new book, How the Light Gets In: Writing as Spiritual Practice. Pat is the founder and foremother of the Amherst Writers and Artists writing workshop method. She wrote, in another of her books (Writing Alone and With Others): “Everyone is a writer. You are a writer. All over the world, in every culture, human beings have carved into stone, written on parchment, birch bark, or scraps of paper, and sealed into letters–their words. Those who do not write stories and poems on solid surfaces tell them, sing them, and in so doing, write them on the air. Creating with words is our continuing passion.” She reminds us that William Stafford said, “A writer is someone who writes!” Pat envisioned writing workshops as a place where people could support one another’s new writing efforts, rather than tearing at each other’s writing out of some misguided competitive spirit (the sort that was often nurtured and encouraged in the sorts of writing workshops she encountered during her MFA program). And the model she developed is now in use all over the US, Canada, Ireland, and in Africa (in Malawai).

Pat Schneider at the Podium (042713)I am telling you about her now because she has been my inspiration and teacher, and I want you to know about her. When I first discovered Pat’s work, I was about ten years into my own healing/recovery, was living in southern Maine, and was deeply depressed, wondering what I was going to do with my life. I found AWA at about the same time I found the Transformative Language Arts program at Goddard, and AWA provided me with the ethics and structure for both my Master’s study and my work in the world. Pat herself taught me what a fierce advocate for writers looks like, and I have spent the last twelve years working to embody her fiery, heart-centered spirit.

Pat Schneider studied at Pacific School of Religion, and that’s also where she met and married her husband, Peter. She returns regularly to PSR for lectures and a summer workshop series. So what a gift for us to be able to celebrate her new book at this place, with an afternoon of free, open-to-the-public writing workshops, a reception for her with information about local AWA workshops (in addition to Writing Ourselves Whole, there were tables for VoiceFlame Int’l, Marty Williams and the A Thousand Words workshop , Peggy Simmons of Green Windows, Jan Haag and John Crandall of AWA Sacramento, Chris DeLorenzo of Laguna Writers, Joan Marie Wood of Temescal Writers, Teresa Burns Gunther of Lakeshore Writers, and Cary Tennis’ workshops) and followed by Pat reading from How the Light Gets In and chatting with Cary Tennis and the audience.

In my small, afternoon writing group, we wrote about the things that we save (by way of introducing our writing voices to one another), and then we, together, generated a list of “first times” (see above!) and wrote together about those. In just two hours, folks dropped into some deeply powerful writing. I’m grateful to everyone who shared that time in Mudd 204 with me!

we had a gorgeous day to gather and write -- John Crandall made the rounds, taking photos and enjoying

we had a gorgeous day to gather and write

After the writing time, we had a short dinner break, and then we gathered at the reception in the Bade Museum on the PSR campus

After the writing time, we had a short dinner break, and then we gathered at the reception in the Bade Museum on the PSR campus

Luna Maia stopped by!

Luna Maia stopped by!

We had all sorts of writers join us...

We had all sorts of writers join us…


Marty Williams of A Thousand Words talking with Ellen LaPointe

Marty Williams of A Thousand Words talking with Ellen LaPointe

Teresa Burns Gunther of Lakeshore Writers

Teresa Burns Gunther of Lakeshore Writers

Chris DeLorenzo of Laguna Writers

Chris DeLorenzo of Laguna Writers

Joan Marie Wood of Temescal Writers (also the co-founder of the AWA Affiliate Program)

Joan Marie Wood of Temescal Writers (also the co-founder of the AWA Affiliate Program)

Jen with Peggy Simmons of Green Windows Writers

Jan Haag and John Crandall (Jan is talking with Marion, a facilitator from Amherst)

Jan Haag and John Crandall (Jan is talking with Marion, a facilitator from Amherst)

Pat Schneider in conversation with Cary Tennis
Pat Schneider in conversation with Cary Tennis
Pat and Peter Schneider, reading one of Peter's poems, just before the announcement of the creation of the Pat and Peter Schneider Fund, to be housed at Pacific School of Religion and to assist those wanting to be trained as certified AWA method facilitators!

Pat and Peter Schneider, reading one of Peter’s poems, just before the announcement of the creation of the Pat and Peter Schneider Fund, to be housed at Pacific School of Religion and to assist those wanting to be trained as certified AWA method facilitators!

So grateful to Marty Williams and all on the AWA West Event Steering Committee, who planned this fantastic day for and with Pat. Thanks to Laurie Eisenberg at PSR, as well!

Go on out and find a copy of Pat’s new book. Find her other books, too. Spend some time reading, and then notice how you feel invited back into your own words. That’s just one of the gifts she brings.

Here’s to teachers, this morning. Here’s to community. Here’s to your words. Here’s to all of our words.