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by Pat Schneider

Amherst Writers & Artists is one manifestation of what came to be known in and following the 1970’s as the writing process movement. Although its deepest origins are in books by two women, Dorothea Brande, 1934, and Brenda Ueland, 1938, they have seldom been recognized as the founding mothers of a new and profoundly more humane way of teaching writing. Before the 1970’s, a competitive, negative-response method was used almost universally. Then there emerged a groundswell of reaction. In 1973, Peter Elbow’s articulation of a new approach in Writing Without Teachers (Oxford University Press, 1973) became well known in academic settings; and starting in 1979, knowing nothing of Elbow’s work, I began to develop a new workshop method, non-hierarchical, non-classist, craft-based but specifically designed to eliminate shaming, belittling, and bullying in responses to written work—all of which were deeply engrained in the teaching of writing in schools, colleges, and universities. From second grade on through a doctorate, persons were being taught, both subtly and overtly, that they could never be “a writer.”

For the first twenty-five years its life, the community that named itself Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) consisted of three related but somewhat separate parts: (1) entrepreneurial creative writing workshops; (2) outreach to under-served populations such as women in low-income housing, youth at risk, and the incarcerated; and (3) AWA Press, a small, independent press, publishing books of poetry mostly by writers in our community, and occasional books about our work. Two major events were influential: the publication in 2003 by Oxford University Press of my book on our method of writing workshop leadership, Writing Alone and With Others, and a companion film to the book titled Tell Me Something I Can’t Forget, made by Diane Garey and Larry Hott for public television by their international award-winning film company, Florentine Films.

All throughout its history, I have imagined and intended to write a narrative history of the organization—a compilation of memoir writings by myself and others who wish to contribute to it—to accompany AWA’s very large archive in the Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts. At one point I did write two short essays on the original roots of the organization in my own personal past, and fully intended to begin the next essay by researching the archived materials at the library as my reminder and major source material. However, life being what it is, time for that never came.

Now, many years later, in my eighties, I face my own limitations and understand that if anyone ever does a studied and researched history, it will not be me. However, it may be appropriate for me to write pieces of personal memoir of certain moments in our history, as an addition to existing archival materials. I have invited other leaders, past and present, to add their own remembrances by sending them to me or directly to Special Collections, Jones Library, Amherst, MA 01002.


Having just completed MFA degrees in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts, my friend, poet and artist Margaret Robison, and I both were facing major changes in our lives that required us to have an income. Margaret was seeking a divorce; my husband Peter and I were leaving the church after his twenty-five years as a United Methodist minister. We had always lived in furnished parsonages; we were facing no income, no home, no furniture. Margaret and I decided to start an independent creative writing workshop. I had the advantage of having been the director of publicity for the U. Mass theatre department for two years at the suggestion of one of Peter’s parishioners, Jim Young, at that time chair of the Department of Theatre at the University. After those two years of experience, I knew how to do publicity. Margaret designed a beautiful poster; I talked a local printer, Hamilton Newell, (also one of Peter’s parishioners) into printing them in exchange for our plugging his print shop. Margaret and I persuaded a local radio station, WRSI, to letting us do a weekly interview with famous local writers. (There is an almost inexhaustible supply in our five-college valley.)

It was such a rare thing for anyone—let alone women, in 1979!—to lead an independent writing workshop arts newspaper that The Valley Advocate carried a full cover photo of Margaret and me over a bold line: Two Women Start Writing Workshop.

In the last year of Peter’s work as a clergyman, we led a workshop in the parsonage. There we discovered that the method we had experienced as MFA students in workshops at UMass was not only a poor way to teach writing—it was positively disabling. Sitting around talking about what is wrong with a piece of writing, giving little or no positive feedback for the strengths in any piece of work, simply destroyed, rather than stimulating and encouraging good writing. We dropped that method entirely, offered participants a simple prompt, and asked them to write whatever came to mind. We gave responses that were only positive upon first reading, but gave thorough and careful questions, suggestions and encouragement when they brought in typed work in manuscript. The difference in the quality of writing we received was astonishing.

At the end of that year Peter and I were in a new home at 77 McClellan Street, Amherst , and Margaret was giving her time to the Poet in the Schools program. It was another two years before the workshop that I created alone began to develop into what became Amherst Writers & Artists.

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