By Patricia Lee Lewis
Nearly twenty years ago, I took my first-ever writing workshop with Pat Schneider. Back then, there was no “AWA method,” no national trainings to learn how to run workshops, no book describing the process. There was only 7:30 – 10:30 p.m. once a week at Pat’s and Peter’s yellow farmhouse in the middle of Amherst. That’s where I found not “how to write,” but home. It was the kind of home you always dreamed of, smelling of fresh coffee and brownies, soft with laughter and wild with hugs, and the whole purpose of the next three hours was to write anything.
Amazingly, the other writers seemed to be there to listen and to tell you what they liked about your piece. They weren’t even allowed to say something negative, not about your brand-new-baby writing. This was a home for writing, a home for the emerging self, a place to gain the courage to write the truest thing.
In a few weeks, I wrote about my son’s suicide. It had been nine years since he died. I barely spoke of it to anyone, certainly not to strangers, and I had never written anything about it outside of my private journals. That night, on the tray of objects Pat passed around, sat a spent shotgun shell. I was instantly on the Provincetown dunes, wandering at the ocean’s edge after his death, in search of healing. Blades of beach grass bent to inscribe the smooth sand in arcs like fine calligraphy. Three shotgun shells lay on the sand, shattering the delicate lines. It was the point where grace meets destruction; I fell on my knees and wept for my child.
The piece I wrote that night was in the third person. I needed distance. It was fiction, as we consider everything we write in our groups to be fiction. And it was the truth. I waited until everyone else had read, not sure if I could share the story. Finally, at Pat’s invitation, I began. I couldn’t breathe. I wept, I read, I sobbed, I read. Pat’s voice–I could look at no one–gently instructed, take your time, let yourself breathe; and with that I got through it. At the end, there was silence. I was terrified. What would they think of me, a mother of a child who killed himself–the worst possible thing? Pat said, simply, thank you for reading and for your courageous writing. Then she turned to the group and said, what stays with you about the writing?
My whole body relaxed. This really wasn’t a therapy group, this was about writing! I could write anything and they wouldn’t think it was about me. It didn’t have to be about me. I could write about anything in the world. This was fiction. There was a narrator, a character, dune grass etching sand.
For the next few years, I wrote stories, always in the third person, often from my life, often about my son. I wrote poems, too, that grew out of Pat’s exercises and readings. I began to experiment a little and then more boldly. It was fun.
All this time I was, like everyone else, overly busy. Sometimes I would race 30 miles from a meeting to plop breathless into “my” chair in the writing circle. Some weeks, that circle was the only place I would be still enough to write.
When Pat offered the first training in what had become the “AWA method,” some nine years later, I took it. It was inspiring and practical, too. Maybe I could do this someday. It wasn’t long before I had my chance. Pat needed help with Saturday retreats. She had been to Patchwork Farm and thought others would like to write there. Would I consider one Saturday every few months?
Since then, I’ve earned an MFA degree in creative writing and been honored to lead dozens of weekly workshops and weekend retreats at Patchwork Farm and other beautiful places in this country, and week-long writing and yoga retreats at sacred sites around the world.
Recently after a Patchwork Farm workshop, I overheard one of the writers who is a regular member say to a new participant, “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t come here to write. It’s become my home.” I knew exactly what she meant.