Updated: Mar 23, 2021
It wasn’t Emily Dickinson who put Amherst, Massachusetts on the map for me: it was Pat Schneider. Pat was a gifted poet, author, and teacher who created the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method that I use in my writing workshops. She died on August 10 at the age of 86, and with her passing a bright light leaves this world.
Pat touched countless lives with her work, both personally and through the writing workshop method she created. I count mine among them. I first encountered the AWA method at a women’s writing retreat in Capon Springs, West Virginia in 2009. Maggie Butler, an AWA facilitator from Maine, was leading the retreat.
The basics of the AWA method are quite straightforward: the leader provides a variety of writing prompts—objects, images, sentence stems, poems, quotations, music, etc.—and invites participants to write whatever they wish during a period of time, say 10 minutes, or 25. Then all are invited to read their work and receive positive feedback from the other participants. The emphasis is on headlong, freewheeling creation, and the guideline of providing only positive feedback on first-draft work ensures that the writer’s spirit isn’t crushed by criticism. And in the midst of writing and sharing and listening, a subtle development of craft occurs.
I was completely hooked by the end of that retreat, and a few years later I traveled to Pat’s charming yellow farmhouse in Amherst to receive my training to be an AWA facilitator. It was one of the best weeks of my life.
Pat believed that every person has an authentic voice and creative genius, and this belief infuses every AWA workshop being led around the world today. In the 1992 film “Tell Me Something I Can’t Forget” (you can find the DVD here), we see Pat in her element, leading a group of women in public housing in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Many of these women struggled with issues of unfinished education, single parenthood, poverty, and difficult backgrounds. Yet they came to write, to take solace in the safety of this method and the community it offered, and it changed them. All were empowered. All went on to further schooling, including college and graduate school. Each one found her voice.
When I think back on my own AWA workshops that I’ve led since 2012, I smile at the memory of Barb Galvin coming to my adult education workshop at Loudoun County High School for the first time. On the first night of the workshop, called “Jump Start Your Writing,” we introduced ourselves. Many people in the group were writers actively working at their craft. When her turn came, Barb said, “I don’t think I belong here.” But she stayed, and has come to almost every workshop I’ve offered since. And last month she published her first novel, Kaleidoscope, which began with a writing prompt in one of my workshops! I have seen similar transformations in other workshop participants, and I can take no credit—it’s the power of the AWA method.
The Gift of Her Words
Pat’s books—in particular Writing Alone and With Others, which is the foundational text for the AWA method, and How the Light Gets In—offer a banquet of inspiration, instruction, writing exercises, personal stories, and wisdom. As someone with a lot of interests, I took to heart one insight she shares in How the Light Gets In. Pat describes how she carefully and “deliciously” chose fabric to create a quilt block. When she had finished with it, and was admiring it and planning to get more fabric to complete the quilt, she heard these words:
You have to choose. Either you will make a quilt, or you will write. You have four children. You have a husband. You have his congregation in the church next door. You cannot have it all. You will either write or you will dabble in a lot of other things. (215)
Occasionally someone in one of my workshops will bemoan the fact that she keeps returning to the same material in her writing. She wonders if she is stuck, or if there is something wrong with her. That’s when I tell her another piece of wisdom that has stayed with me: how Pat, in returning again and again in her writing to the St. Louis tenement where she grew up, came to understand that she needed to keep writing about it because it still had something to teach her (How the Light Gets In, 63-64).
There is so much more to be learned from Pat, of course, and I am grateful for the gift of the books she left behind, to be dipped into when the well is running dry.
A Wish Fulfilled
I didn’t meet Pat at my training in 2012. She was away leading a retreat in Canada, and I was trained by former AWA executive director Maureen Buchanan Jones, Karen Buchinsky, and Kathleen Olesky. It was a wonderful week and a deeply satisfying training, but I always felt incomplete that I hadn’t met Pat. That changed at the AWA conference in South Hadley, Massachusetts in May 2015. I happened upon Pat and Maureen right before the Founder’s Dinner on the first night, so I introduced myself to Pat and asked Maureen to take our picture. Pat was as lovely and down to earth as I had imagined her to be, and I was thrilled to meet her. The next day I was one of the lucky participants in her poetry workshop, where I got to see her work her magic. And really, the magic was this: she was simply and wholly herself, doing the work she loved with integrity, authority, and heart.
I will miss her.
About, Among Other Things, God
by Pat Schneider
The primrose blooms in the garden.
The mourning dove calls in the sycamore tree.
Rain on the sill of the window,
sounds of every kind of weather
are sweet in this old house.
In the pantry, jars of beans,
lentils, sunflower seeds. Sesame. Jars
of preserves, small cans
of spices stand in rows.
It is here.
A woman stands in the doorway
and calls. Her apron bleached from washings
and from hanging in the sun. Behind her,
through the doorway, the house
is dark and cool, and the word
that she calls into the late afternoon,
into the shadows gathering under the lilacs,
into the long, long shadow of the sycamore tree