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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,

Jen