NOTE: This series of essays was begun recently, and so far covers only the deepest roots of our history. Over the coming months, Pat and others will write additional segments, using archival material in the Special Collections of the Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts, which holds a large collection of AWA documents and AWA Press publications.

By Pat Schneider

Recently, in a workshop I was leading in the southern United States, an affiliated workshop leader asked me to tell her how AWA began. We had time, good glasses of iced tea, and I began with the earliest stories. When I finished, she said, “Thank you, Pat. We have a right to know, because we are so committed to the AWA Method.” I have thought about the truth of that, and about having such a story-telling history among our archives, housed in the Jones Library, Amherst. At the invitation of AWA’s Executive Director, Maureen Buchanan Jones, I offer here a story-based history of Amherst Writers & Artists.


PART ONE: The Deepest Origins: 1930’s – 1940’s

The beginnings of AWA lie even before my birth. How we became an international organization with workshops in several countries and all across the United States, is the story of many people in many places, but the deepest origins lie in my life, and in my story, so I hope I will be forgiven for beginning there, and lingering there until that part of the story is told.

My grandmother on my father’s side was an illiterate American Indian who in the 1930’s, when I was born, signed her name with an “X.” She never learned to read and write; in the 1940’s, to be an Indian was shameful; all the movies were about the good guys (cowboys) and the bad guys (Indians), unless they were about the “Yanks” and the “Japs.” She hid her Indian origins, and taught her children to hide it, too. She gave birth to nine children, most of whom lived hard lives in rural depression America. On the other side, my grandmother was a quiet woman married to man who was a passionate social-activist before that term had been invented. He handed out patent-medicine through the back door of his country store at night, to black people who had been refused care by white doctors. As a result, the Ku Klux Klan threw a bundle of sticks onto his front porch as a warning. He had a hot temper and passionate opinions about everything. He lost the family farm by signing on a friend’’s bad debt, knocked my grandmother down the stairs once, and left a legacy of concern about social justice in the world.

I was born into a family that struggled with poverty and had reason to care about justice. When I was four, my mother divorced my father for good reasons, and cut his family off entirely from contact with my brother and me – for not such good reasons.

Amherst Writers & Artists has its origin in the deep and complicated history of America’s struggle with race and poverty. It is fitting that we continue to wrestle with that complication by keeping our focus on both the creation of art through language, and on the creation of a more just social order by affirming the power, the beauty, and the importance of every person’s voice when it is freed from the constrictions of judgment and the learned disability of not being able to write. Alice Walker has said, “The longer I am a writer — so long now that my writing finger is periodically numb — the better I understand what writing is; what it’s function is; what it is supposed to do. I learned that the writer’s pen is a microphone held up to the mouths of ancestors and even stones of long ago.”

My illiterate Indian grandmother and my grandmother silenced by her position in a family dominated by a gifted but complicated husband, have no voice unless I give them voice. Their stories are lost. How many stories of men and women in prison, in refugee camps, in shelters, homeless, are lost? How many stories of wealthy and middle-class men and women are lost because they have been told they cannot write? Amherst Writers & Artists is about revolution. It is about changing the ways we define art, until “art” no longer is almost exclusively the expression of those of us with privileged formal education. It is about giving voice to the voiceless, valuing art that is a continuous artesian well, a never-ending stream in the kitchen, the workplace, the intimate conversation. AWA began with an illiterate Indian woman named Elzina Lakey, and a silenced housewife named Emma Ridgway.

PART TWO: History Of AWA: 1940’s – 1950’s

Amherst Writers & Artists has, throughout its history, held two things in balance: the writer as an artist, and the use of writing as a methodology to empower the under-served. That balance is our unique genius. And it has its deepest roots in the life of its founder. With apology, then, I continue the story of my own origins.

My mother put me into an orphanage in 1945 when I was eleven years old. At the time she said the reason was, “You will learn good table manners.” As an adult I spent some years being angry when I remembered that – until I had lived long enough to understand that what she meant was, “You will learn how to cross class, from poverty to privilege.” She was right. It was an essential education. I learned not only what it was like to eat at a table set with a knife, fork and spoon, but what it was like to have my own clean bed, my own dresser, in a room with several other little girls. She gave me a little five-year diary to take with me. I wrote my secrets there, some of them in code that I still remember when I read them.

I was thirteen, in the seventh grade, when I came out of the orphanage; that was the year of major trauma, because I could see how we lived. Dorothy Dunn, my seventh-grade teacher, did the unthinkable when she walked the hot summer sidewalks and up the dirty stairs of our tenement and knocked on my door. I couldn’t open it; I was too ashamed. I stood in the crack of the slight opening as she handed me a book. “This is my book,” she said. “I want you to have it.” She typed a long story that I wrote and had it read aloud on a St. Louis radio station, KFUO, two years later when I was in high school. “You can be a writer,” she had told me in seventh grade, and she worked with me after I left her classroom to make it come true.

In 1950, thirty-one years before the formal establishment of Amherst Writers & Artists, I was fifteen years old. In one sense, AWA began on a furiously hot night that year in St. Louis, in the third floor window of a tenement. Let me set the scene. Our “apartment” was two rooms. That year, my grandmother, who was declining toward her death, and my brother, who most of the time was in foster homes, were both living with my mother and me. There were four of us in two rooms, and there was no closet. All of my grandmother Emma’s belongings were in one dresser drawer. My mother worked twelve-hour night-shifts seven nights a week and tried to sleep in one of our two rooms in the daytime. She made $1.00 per hour. A loaf of bread was 10 cents. I remember searching through all the clothes piled behind the bed, littered on furniture, and on the floor mixed with all the other junk – for a dime. I remember kneeling, praying. Surely Jesus knew where there was a dime. St. Louis lies in the crotch of two great rivers: the Mississippi and the Missouri. In August, the city steams. Our rooms had no screens on the windows, and our mother didn’t know how to keep a space clean. Maggots bred in dirty dishes when Grandma wasn’t there. When she was there, she was silent in the overwhelm, but she tried to keep some order.

Three of us slept in the one bed – Grandma and I at night; Mama in the daytime. One night I sat in the dark on the small army cot in the room that served as kitchen and Sam’s bedroom, and looked out the window. Three stories down the Olive Street streetcars, and the Delmar streetcars rattled by every few minutes. The lights inside the streetcars made the people inside clearly visible. Across town, the golden dome of the St. Louis cathedral was lighted – over there, people had nice homes, yards, trees. The dome seemed a beacon. I was in my second year of high school. Miss Warner, my English teacher, told us that T.S. Eliot was the greatest poet. “In the rooms the women move to and fro/ Talking of Michelangelo . . .” I wanted to be T.S. Eliot.

I looked into the windows of a streetcar, and thought I saw women in fur coats going downtown to the opera. I wanted to go to the opera. I hated those women because I knew that looking out the streetcar windows, all they could see was their own reflections. They could not see a girl on third floor behind a tenement window. I swore a vow to the golden dome, to God, to myself: I will get out of here, and I will not forget. That vow came back to haunt me in my adult life, and powered the necessity of going back across the tracks into the places where poverty breeds and destroys without most people who wear fur coats and go to the opera ever having to look at it up close and in the flesh. That vow was the first stone laid in the foundation of Amherst Writers & Artists.

What I did not know, of course, was that women wearing fur coats and going to the opera did not take the Olive Street or Delmar streetcars downtown. They rode in cars over on Lindell Boulevard. Another thing that I did not know was that it cost money to go to college. My mother gave me gifts that made escape possible: in spite of her own despair, overwhelm, and incapacities, she pounded into me this truth: The only way to get out of here is to get an education. She recited poetry to me that she had learned by heart as a girl. She took me downtown to the St. Louis library, and to Forest Park to performances of light opera.

But it was Gerald Harris, the minister of a small Methodist church a few blocks from where I lived who decided that the church should give me a scholarship to college. I was attending by myself every Sunday; I was teaching Sunday School. I had no idea that my world was about to crash. I thought college was like high school – anyone could go, free. He convinced the church, which was preparing to lift its middle-class skirts and move to more comfortable surroundings out in the suburbs, to allocate money that a woman had given in her will to a scholarship for me rather than to the building fund. That man (or his wife, Lois, who may have had the idea,) saved my sanity, if not my life.

And again, a stone was laid in the foundation of Amherst Writers & Artists. The first stone was, You can be a writer. The second stone was, one person reached out across the tracks to one person.

PART THREE: AWA’s Origins: 1972 – 1982

Sometime around 1972, an event occurred that I consider the actual pin-point beginning of the Amherst Writers & Artists method.  My brother did not escape poverty as I did, and he arrived at our home one day, homeless and drifting.  He took from his wallet a folded and worn piece of paper and asked me to read it.  It was just one paragraph, written in pencil, barely legible.  It described a character name “Rebel” who was being chased by motorcyclists from hell.  I thought, “That is a brilliant metaphor for alcoholism,” which I knew was chasing Sam, “and he is as much an artist as I am, but no one will ever know it, because he can’t spell, he can’t type, and only I can read his handwriting.”

I told that story in an application for a Danforth Foundation Grant to do graduate work, and detailed a vision of teaching writing that would value the voices of those denied voice by poverty, class, and other impediments.  In 1979 I completed my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts.  I am grateful for many good things about that program, but I came out of it with an even more fierce conviction that writing as an art form belongs to all people, and that our criteria for excellence eliminates every voice except the voice of economic and educational privilege.

Although I did not know it at the time, I was part of a groundswell of educators who shared my desire to make writing accessible to everyone. It actually began with two writers in the 1930’s – both women – who had an early vision of a different way to become and to grow as a writer.  Their books are still available, classics now, and yet they are not often given credit for the origin of what much later, in the 1970’s, became known as “The Writing Process Movement.” I consider  Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, and Dorthea Brande, Becoming a Writer, the “mothers” of what became later known as “freewriting” (Peter Elbow), “the Amherst Writers & Artists Method” (Pat Schneider) and “morning pages” (Julia Cameron.)

This morning (September 21, 2010) I went to the Jones Library in Amherst and asked for the first two boxes of archives of Amherst Writers & Artists – and there, beautifully preserved in the library’s Special Collections, were our first days, our first announcements.  There was my own single workshop started in 1980,  and first documented in 1981.  By the end of 1982 it had grown to two workshops and I was opening a third with a total of 32 participants. Gene (Genie) Zeiger was beginning a workshop for young writers, Elizabeth Finn and Walker Rumble were dreaming of beginning a literary journal, and energy was building to form “some sort of association” for not only writers, but artists in music and painting and theater, all working together.

I remember clearly that I was advised by someone older and more experienced than I that I should go to Amherst College and find some famous writers to be my board of directors.  I didn’’t do that.  I wanted leadership to come from the ground that we felt we were breaking, people I knew and trusted.  In the archives are copies of formal letters I wrote asking Sharleen Kapp to be chair of a new board (I was too inexperienced to know that the board should elect its own chair, but we were not incorporated, so I got to do it my way!) Sharleen is wise and funny and she served as chair of the board for many years. Other long-term members of that first board were Genie Zeiger and Anna Kirwan. As a group we named ourselves “Amherst Writers & Artists” because there were both writers and artists in several disciplines among us. We decided to keep the leadership team small, and to do only those things that had our board’s unanimous consent. On December 6, 1982, we had our first organizational meeting.

We were full of dreams.  It cannot be said that we did not have high hopes.  Here is what the archived report says we dreamed in our first meeting:

People in the meeting were asked to share dreams for what might be.  The following were mentioned: Our own building, in which we could do work in dance, theatre, music, arts, cinema, have a coffee house and studio space.  A retreat center.  Writer’s conferences advertised nationally, held in the Lord Jeff [Inn, Amherst]. . . using local writers as guests.  Poetry as therapy; workshop for former mental patients.  Provide encouragement and support for artists and writers, writers’ support group.  Publishing calendars, posters. . . . a journal for AWA. A reader’s theatre. Self-publishing; arts and community affairs center; art supplies and resources center; legal advice; involve seniors; literary programs; teach reading through theatre; computer art and publishing on disc. Workshop in news writing for adults.  Publish a children’s newspaper (written by children.) Research models for cooperative publishing.  Edit and broker university and research news for wire services and national publications.

These last three stones completed the foundation: Let leadership come from the ground up. Keep the leadership team small; Have high hopes but act only with unanimous consent.

Wow!  Next Installment:  The Early Years:  Furious Growth.