Thursday, April 15, 2021

Amherst Writers & Artists—Finding Your Voice


Amherst Writers & Artists

At my first writing conference I heard well-established writers enthusing about the Amherst Writers & Artists method of writing. It intrigued me because they said that the secret to getting your best story onto the page was to dig deep and write fearlessly. Not worrying about what teachers or professors or other writers might think appealed to me but I had a few unpublished books under my belt and thought I'd figured out how to write. What I wanted to know was how to get someone to publish my book. 

Bet many writers go to conferences like I did, in a hurry to be published and fairly confident that the writing itself isn't an issue.

What I've learned over the ensuing years though is that getting a book published isn't the problem as much as writing the best stories I can. What I've learned is that while many of us may have this big fantasy of what a published book will mean, the fantasy isn't the reality. What I've learned is that if you really love to write your stories and focus on doing it to the best of your ability, absolutely wonderful things can follow.

There's something brilliant and empowering about finding your voice and using it.

Finding your Voice

A few years after I had my first books published I went to an Amherst Writers & Artists workshop on an island in Greece.

I told the facilitator of the workshop that I was currently working on another book and that I'd probably not attend all the daily classes. I wanted to hole up on my balcony alone and write. She responded encouragingly, asking only that I attend the first class to see how it worked. So I did. 

After that first class I went to every single class during the retreat, plus the extra ones they offered in the evenings. I was hooked. Not only that, but every book I wrote after I began to practice the Amherst Writers & Artists method became clearer and better. It was as if I'd once begun to sing with the hint of a frog in my throat, and someone encouraged me to stand taller, to clear my throat, take a deep breath and focus. Then when I sang, they sat in the first row and smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and encouraged me so that I began to sing in my true voice with real confidence.

Amherst Writers & Artists Method

This writing method has intrigued and given me so much back that for years now I've wanted to take their training class and learn whatever magic these workshop leaders impart. I applied for acceptance in their training program recently and was accepted. During the first day of training someone said it's somewhat difficult to explain to someone who hasn't taken an AWA class what it is without sounding like you're in a cult. That cracked me up. I've felt the same when I try to curb my enthusiasm and recommend the classes to other writers.

In fact, I think at least one other writer has asked if I prefer to work only with writers who've trained in the method. 

After completing the training and becoming certified I can answer that question. I prefer to work with supportive people. Amherst Writers & Artists helps writers to discover and share their stories in a safe and supportive environment. Everyone in the group is welcome and everyone is considered a writer of equal standing (published or not). There's no condemnation or criticism. It's not therapy, but it's therapeutic. If you share something close to the bone with someone and they rip it apart, it teaches you to hold back. 

If you share something close to the bone that you're writing and other writers tell you what works in the piece—it empowers your writing voice.

Writing to Prompts

How does this empowering writing method work? It seems incredibly simple but so do many of the moves you see in the Olympics. The facilitators of the workshops guide the writers through a series of writing prompts. Participants write for a specified amount of time, then read out loud in turn. That's the scary part for most writers. Feedback. If it sends you into a panic, or you don't want to share, you always have the option to pass. This is when the introverts in the group breathe a collective sigh of relief. (I know I did.)

It's fine if you don't want to read. Yet, if you do choose to share, or when you're ready to share and read (even if your voice shakes), the reward is great. The other writers in your group will listen closely and they'll tell you what works for them about the piece. They won't infringe on or criticize your work, they won't red line or comment on grammar, it's a first draft for pity's sake! They'll simply tell you what stood out, what they heard, and what works for them. That feedback is invaluable.

"So much depends upon..." is one of my favorite writing prompts. I think I've written to it in every class I've ever taken/taught. Not two answers have ever been the same. Another thing I've loved about this method is the privilege of listening to so much brilliant writing. I invite you to write to the prompt, for about four minutes. If you do, and want to share, leave it in the comments below or email it to me and I'll tell you what works for me. Below, I share what I wrote to it in my last class.

So much depends upon...time.

    How much do you get? A cup? Half a cup?

    How will you spend it? On yourself? On your people? Work? Kids? Family?

Science thrills me.

    I have big books about time.

    That Stephen Hawkings one.

    Or Julian Barbour who doesn't believe in time.

    He says everything happened at the same time.

    The Big Bang—the formation of the universes—humanity here on earth.

    Just whoosh here—then everything gone.

    No time. Could our concept of time simply be how our minds are capable of perceiving existence?

    Like dogs and color?

It doesn't really matter I figure.

Time. Perception. It's brief.

    It's a half a cup of whoosh.

    I'll take it.

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