Friday, May 17, 2013

Writing the Amherst Way

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of writing in a workshop with Pat Schneider, the author of Writing Alone and with Others, and the recently released How the Light Gets In:  Writing as a Spiritual Practice.
Pat developed a workshop method of writing together in community, which came to be the Amherst Writers and Artists Method.  Pat says the method is “nothing but common sense and kindness.  But we’re so short of that today that we require a ‘method.’”

It’s really pretty simple.  We get together to write.  The leader gives a “prompt.”  It may be a word, a phrase, a quote, a photo or other form of visual art, an object or a guided visualization.  The prompt is not an assignment, but a jumping off point to get each writer started.  We can write about the prompt or write about something else.  Often the prompt will get us started, and then lead us down a path where the real story lies.

After we finish writing, we share.  No one is required to read, but most of us do—especially if we’ve been writing together for a while.  Since we’re sharing brand new baby writing, only positive feedback is given.  No one is allowed to be harsh to vulnerable new writing.  But the feedback is helpful.  It focuses on what is strong and what we remember, i.e. what stands out. 

One more rule:  we pretend that all writing is fictional.  If written in the first person, listeners will refer to the speaker as “the narrator,” rather than assuming that the author is writing a tell-all memoir. 

I love this rule!!  Decades ago, in the first writing group I joined after college, the narcissistic drama was thick.  Someone would read a poem or story and people would blurt, “Oh, my husband (or boyfriend or partner) does that too!—blah, blah, blah. . ..”  The writing would be forgotten as everyone began gabbing about her own problems.  Such a relief now to write with people who want to focus on writing!

But despite this seeming restriction, the Amherst method is often therapeutic.  The creation of a safe space and the promise of anonymity allow the writer to dig deep and share hard truths.

At our workshop last month, Pat described writing as a version of the hero’s journey.  She said when we dig deep to confront our fears, we will come to a cave and confront a metaphorical dragon.  Know that the dragon is guarding a treasure, but realize this:  the dragon is guarding the treasure not FROM us, but FOR us.

You may have guessed that Pat lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, but there is a very active chapter of Amherst Writers and Artists here in Sacramento and northern California.  For more info, check out this link:

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