– This piece was initially posted on davidbester.com following my affiliate training with the AWA in April 2008.
Texas Hill Country. Austin. I am sitting in a circle, inside a sunny conference room called The Living Room. I am holding a stone in my left hand, a pen in my right, with a journal balanced in my lap. The stone is a prompt for a writing exercise, one of many within a five day training session in the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method. There are 13 women in the group. I’m the only male. It’s not a bad place to be.
And that’s about as far as I can go with the tough guy trip report. Because if you are not familiar with the AWA method or haven’t been exposed to writing in groups, a lot of what I want to tell you might sound simplistic, obvious, or even a little la-di-da. That’s not what I want you to remember. So instead, I offer an overview of what drove me to this training session and how the AWA approach benefits my craft. I hope the writer in you will recognize a little of yourself somewhere in this journey.
What Happened First
There’s a novel kicking around in my head. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and after many false starts and stops, I began work on it last October. I expected to wrap up the first draft by the end of the year, based on Stephen King’s advice from his book, On Writing:
I believe the first draft for a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.
Yet after the 90 days had past, I had eight pages to show for my efforts. Eight. Screw you, Mr. King.
Looking for Clues
I encountered many barriers. I was distracted. My notes were insufficient. Real work got in the way. I also had certain expectations that the words would start sounding Novelistic once I got going, but this didn’t happen.
I found what I was looking for by accident. One of my daily reads is “Since You Asked,” an advice column at Salon.com by Cary Tennis. In January someone wrote in with a question about writing and part of Cary’s answer got my attention:
So I recommend that you find a writing workshop and attend it regularly for at least one year. Ideally, it would be a group that follows the Amherst Writers and Artists method, but just make sure there is a method. If there is no suitable workshop in your area, then buy the book “Writing Alone and With Others,” follow the detailed instructions in it and create your own workshop. That is what I did.
I had never heard of the Amherst Writers and Artists method. I checked it out. It sounded pretty good. So I looked up certified instructors in Toronto and didn’t find any. Impulsively, I signed up for an intensive training session to get certified myself.
The Crossings, Austin TX
The picture up top is my ‘dorm-style’ room at The Bunkhouse, my home for five April days at The Crossings in Austin, TX. The Crossings is a fanspabulous wellness resort and retreat center, a self-contained little world of good eats, nature trails and a vast assortment of wildlife including massive red wasps, snakes, day-glo butterflies and the muddy paw print of what could have been a mountain cat. The creatures brought back memories for one of our groups members, who had grown up in Austin. “I forgot how many things can bite you in Texas,” she told us.
Our group was led by two trainers, who both happen to be terrific writers and teachers. Patricia Lee Lewis and Celia Jeffries set the tone for our course, and guided us through the ins and outs of the AWA method. We spent a good deal of time completing writing exercises that each began with some sort of prompt. Sometimes it was a lyric; other times it was an object. The prompts could also be sounds, smells or one of our own choosing if we didn’t like what was presented. We also discussed the history and philosophy of the AWA method, as well as the nuts and bolts of running our own workshops.
A good deal of our work actually started prior to arriving in Texas, as we were each sent a copy of AWA founder Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others (Oxford University Press, 2003) to read.
For a long time, I believed that certain frustrations about writing were mine alone. Pat’s book and the AWA training session were revelations to me. I felt like I had finally found a group that spoke the same language I did, and that I could communicate using my full vocabulary.
Here are three of the main thoughts I brought into the training session that held me back as a writer, and how the AWA method enables me to see them in a new light.
Writing is difficult.
When I sit down to eat or get behind the wheel of my car, I know exactly what to do. Yet when I sit down to write, I hear all sorts of voices that tell me my writing is not good enough, or I am not sure what I want to say, or that whichever project I have in mind will be so hard to finish, it is barely worth trying.
The AWA method has led me to identify these voices are the work of my inner critics. Although telling stories comes naturally to us all, we have learned – often through people who felt they were helping – that sharing our work can lead to unwelcome reactions. These responses might include criticism, inconsistent suggestions on ‘how to make it better’ or perhaps, if people don’t ‘get’ what we are writing about, a confirmation of our deep-seated fear that we just can’t write worth a damn.
Designed to help writers get around these fears by writing and sharing in groups, the AWA method is based on the understanding that no criticism, questions or feedback will be offered on first-draft work. After all, if you have just written something, sharing it with the group will be the first time you have even read it yourself! This is where the concept of writing in groups becomes so valuable. Knowing that sharing your work will not result in unwelcome reactions is a powerful step towards building confidence to explore and challenge the limits of our voices as writers.
Great writers are born, not made.
I spent many beer-soaked nights arguing this point at University. In fact, I recall coming up with a hierarchy (Authors at the top, Writers in the middle, Typists at the bottom) to explain the level of talent different storytellers brought to the table. In my early 20s this seemed perfectly reasonable, as I had no doubt that with a carton of cigarettes, a quart of bourbon and a week’s worth of peace, I could create an Author-worthy book myself.
I smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of single malts, yet I have very few – as in, not one – novels to show for these thoughts. The AWA method positions writing as a journeyman’s craft, one that requires dedication and hard work to chip away at the rough ideas we have in order to take them to completion. By reducing the pressure on myself to create great works from the first draft, I am free to explore my craft and learn from my peers. This may sound straightforward. But if you have sat in a room for years trying to uncover greatness while pecking away at your keyboard as an all-in-one writer, editor, audience and critic, you may have an equal number of bad habits to try and correct.
I need to sound like a serious writer to be taken seriously.
I have a list of favorite writers and novels. When I think about the stories that I want to tell, I inevitably try to figure out if they are ‘as good’ as these works, and whether they will one day share a space together on someone’s shelf. I have been known to take certain phrases, characters or plot structure and steal them use them as inspiration for my stories.
Pat’s book and the AWA training session highlighted the futility of this approach. Think about your own favorite books or movies. Chances are one of the things you liked best about them was the originality of their plot, characters or set-up. One thing each of us as writers have going for us is our own voice; a unique perspective on how the world works based on our memories, our experience and our imagination. Work that aims to develop this voice will improve our craft and make our work stronger. Holding it up to the standards of someone else’s efforts will end up in something less memorable.
Three more thoughts
Another reason I value the AWA approach is that the workshop leader is an equal who writes and reads along with the group. Think about this relative to other methods. If you are in a class that is being graded, you run the very strong risk of writing to please the teacher. If you are taking a course by a writer you admire you may learn an awful lot about their approach to craft, but since we are all different in how we tell stories, this might not be a method that works for you. And you might not even be aware of it, since this process may feel difficult and you know no other way. The AWA method’s only goal is to give you a framework to develop your own voice as a writer. And since this is a goal for all writers, it is likewise an approach that can benefit us all.
In many ways, the affirmations and practices of the AWA method remind me of military language. For an outsider, the constant “Sir! Yes Sir!” business may seem hokey and artificial. For the people who have been trained to use it though, it becomes a reliable way to communicate with others from dramatically different backgrounds without getting into fist fights every five seconds. Since the AWA method restricts criticisms and respects the unique voice and talent of all participants, it has proven to be a highly successful approach with a variety of silenced groups including incarcerated men and women, veterans, abuse victims, as well as those with low-incomes or illness.
When the training session started, I immediately asked how much flexibility we had as workshop leaders to modify the affirmations and practices behind the AWA method. By the end of the session, my request was off the books. Over the last 25 years, the AWA has picked up enough proof points to show that it works with all writers, regardless of economic, social or educational status. I am a believer.
About my group
As the post title suggests, I was the only male in the bunch. Well, for most of the training session. We were also joined for two days by Charles MacInerney, a wonderful presence and teacher in his own right. But in the time before and after Charles was with us, it was me and the gals. I had initially intended to break this report down by somehow introducing each of the women than took the training with me. Over writing exercises, gossiping, lunch, beer and one memorable run through The Crossings’ nature trails, I bore witness to some remarkable moments of strength, generosity, and hilariously filthy language.
After giving the matter some more thought, I have chosen to keep the identities of my group members private. One of the essential practices of the AWA method is that confidentiality about what is written in the group is maintained, and the privacy of the writer is protected. In the spirit of this practice let me say this to my group members: if any of you happen to stumble by these pages, thank you for accepting me as a writer and an equal in your circle. The honor was mine.
The Way Back Home
A voice wakes me from sleep.
“Ladies and gentleman we are at cruising altitude and it is now safe to use your electronic devices and computers.”
By this point, after five days and 19 writing exercises, my mind responds immediately to prompts and I am already imagining all the different reasons why I would be on an airplane. In fact I am so well trained that I have already pulled out the ol’ notebook before I realize this isn’t an exercise at all but an actual announcement from Delta representative Maggie.
No matter. Before I was even conscious of the effort involved, I was 61 words in, off and running.
For those of us who live in fear of the blank page and the empty box of ideas, this is pretty powerful stuff.