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The Week That Changed My Life

“Tell me something I can’t forget.”—Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers & Artists

I can’t forget Pat Schneider’s charming yellow farmhouse on 77 McClellan Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. Before I traveled to Pat’s house in April 2012 to receive my training as an Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) writing workshop leader, I believed that my week in that house would change my life. I was right!

Before my training, I had a 20-year career in publishing, beginning as an editorial assistant at Macmillan Publishing in New York City and ending as a magazine editor for the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. But I secretly longed for the fun, creative side of writing, and when I went to a writing retreat led by AWA workshop leader Maggie Butler in 2009, I knew I had found it. By the third retreat, I knew leading AWA workshops was my path, too.

In Pat’s cozy bookshelf-lined living room, 18 of us sat in a circle of mismatched chairs pulled from all corners of the house. Three in the circle—Maureen Buchanan Jones, Kathleen Olesky, and Karen Buchinsky—were there to teach, and 15 of us were there to learn, with avid faces and shining eyes. Pat was away leading a retreat that week, but her energy lingered in the house, cheering us on.

By the time we arrived, all of us had written in AWA workshops many times, and we knew the value of the workshop method that Pat had developed. We had, through the doorway of well-chosen prompts, discovered new things about our writing and ourselves. I had already written about my mother’s 1970s avocado kitchen, my Scots-Irish ancestors, my little brother peeing in my eye during a diaper change, and my childhood friend Eddie goading me into hitting my father over the head with a Fisher-Price push toy. I had written about my grandmother’s date-filled cookies fresh from the oven and my cousins working the potato harvest in Aroostook County, Maine. I had written about the agonies of being a tall girl with curly hair when petiteness and straight hair were in vogue. Everything poured out of me in these workshops—short stories, poems, memories—and it felt good and true, like cold, clear mountain water. And now I, along with my fellow trainees, was ready to learn how to create sacred space for new stories to be born.

Many times during that week we gathered in Pat’s light-filled kitchen at the back of the house for lunch and coffee breaks, and we shared our histories and dreams for our work. We wrote together, laughed together, learned about group dynamics and good writing prompts, and asked lots of questions (at least I did—poor Maureen!). In the process, we deepened our understanding of ourselves as both writers and group leaders. We became more true to ourselves, ready to take on the challenge and the privilege of group leadership.

I think of all this today as I embark on my 10th year of doing this work I love. Many of you reading this have sat in a writer’s circle with me, and I am grateful for your companionship on the journey. I celebrate the stories and poems you have shared, and the wisdom, power, and emotion they carried. It was a joy to witness their birth. I look forward to celebrating many more.

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