At the head of the Amherst Writers & Artists classes stands— well, not a teacher. Not in the sense of someone instructing students. Tonight one of our group members asked about the genus of the AWA techniques. It lies in the work of Peter Elbow and his ground-breaking book, Writing Without Teachers.
The book was released in 1976, forming the basis for Pat Schneider’s work that started the AWA methods, but Schneider didn’t begin to rely on Elbow’s work until several years after that. Elbow, who has also written a book of essays entitled Everyone Can Write, says that the “mother tongue” of writers is to be honored and encouraged. He writes in an essay that Schneider quotes in her book, Writing Alone and With Others:
People can’t learn to write well unless they write a great deal and with some pleasure, and they can’t do that unless they feel writing to be as comfortable as an old shoe — something they can slip into naturally without pinching.
So in an AWA workshop, as guided by Schneider’s methods, we are leaders, not teachers. We encourage a sense of comfort by taking risks with our own writing right alongside other group members, even while we guide and facilitate the safety and discussion about “what’s working with this writing” which we hear. It’s this taking of risks that enables the learning for everyone in an AWA group. People who write easily may find something in the method by using it to write deeper, closer to the truths and pain that makes up a writer’s life, and the lives they observe around them.
Elbow has also planted the seeds for the AWA methods that stress safety. He says in an interview that he has been careful to “try to make a big distinction between [the] four levels of audience relationship:
- Private writing that I don’t see and nobody else sees;
- Writing that people see but they don’t respond to it; they just share it for the sake of sharing;
- Writing that we share with each other (or with me) and there is a response, there is feedback, but it’s not negative feedback;
- Finally, writing that gets criticism.
“I find it helpful to think of these four levels of audience and responses, and I build a classroom in which all four are honored.”
Our classroom, if you want to think of an AWA group as having one, is a place where we write and share numbers 2 through 4 — and do all we can to make writing comfortable, so Number 1 happens on the nights we don’t gather.