Original Voices: Teaching everyone to write

Original Voices
Teaching everyone to write
by Pat Schneider

When I was eleven years old, my mother moved my younger brother, Sam, and me away from a neighborhood of low-income apartments in St. Louis. We moved into one room in a basement on Pine Street, a quiet street, neat, with tree-shadowed bricks and lawns. Surely a better neighborhood. Surely a better school.

But the one room was dark. There were two small, rectangular windows next to the low ceiling. They let in a little light, but all I could see through them was the grass of the yard. Strangely disorienting, seeing grass above your head. There were two bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, one on each side of a coal stove in the center of the room. There was a free-standing sink and an electric heating plate with two burners. There was one bed for the three of us. The door between our room and the rest of the basement was loose; dust from the open coal bin on the other side of the door drifted daily into our room.

One day, when we had been there for a while, the woman from upstairs who owned the home came down and pounded on the door. Mama opened it. As Sam and I looked on, she raged: “Get out! Get out! You have brought roaches into our home! You are filthy! Get out of our house – NOW!”

It was probably true; roaches were rampant in the tenement we had fled. And Mama didn’t know how to keep order. Nor did she have the time or the energy. She worked twelve-hour night shifts sitting by the bedside of dying patients. We were “filthy.” And at ages eleven and nine, Sam and I believed the woman – and were ashamed.

Now we were not only filthy. We were homeless. Mama put us into an orphanage. 

*     *     *

When I was returned to my mother a year later, it was to two rooms in a tenement on a street in St. Louis where several times an hour, day and night, streetcars rumbled by. A few doors down from our building, prostitutes lounged in the doorways of bars and men sat spewing their vomit into the gutters. I believed that the women I saw through the windows of streetcars were rich. They were wearing fur coats, going further downtown to the opera. They didn’t know, they didn’t see, that there was a little girl watching from a third floor window. I hated them with a pure hatred. In the evenings I looked away from the streetcars, over the tops of stores that lined the street on the other side, to the St. Louis cathedral. The dome was painted gold, and lighted at night. It was everything I wanted, everything I couldn’t have. It was a million miles away. Again and again I vowed, silently, I will get out of here. And I will never forget.

I write these words seventy years later, an old woman with a broken hip, in a rehab facility a thousand miles or so from St. Louis. I remember tenderly that passionate child. But those women on the streetcar weren’t wearing fur coats, and they weren’t going to the opera. They were wearing fake fur, maybe. Most likely they were going to night-shift jobs in the city. I will never forget, but I know now that most people are kind, well-meaning, and generous. But the coal smoke on tenement windows in the inner city in those days was not unlike the spiritual and mental fog in these days that keeps good people today from seeing what poverty looks like, smells like, tastes like. The problem is that we don’t see, don’t hear, don’t know. Because we are kind, if we really saw, we would have to act. If we really heard, we would have to respond.

I was rescued from poverty by a small, dwindling congregation in an inner-city church. They sent me to college, bought my books and my clothes, gave me spending money, and told me not to get a job—rather, to give all my time to my studies. I have told that story, and what came after, in poems and books, most fully in How the Light Gets In

I was in my thirties, married and mother of three children, when my brother Sam rang my doorbell. He was what we would now call “homeless.” A “drifter” is what they said when we were kids. Alcoholic, he told me, from the day he was released from an orphanage, at age 17. “Sign to allow him to enter the army,” the orphanage director told my mother. They will make him or break him. 

The director was right: they broke him. 

He walked away from the army at age nineteen having committed no crime except to leave. He was given a dishonorable discharge and imprisoned in Lompoc, a maximum security prison, for one year. He was nineteen. 

That day, when he stood in my doorway, he had a small suitcase. I thought, He’s better. When he came before, he had nothing. A day or two later, he took from his wallet a small, folded piece of paper and said, “I want you to read something I wrote.” The paper was dirty, crumpled. The penciled words were so nearly illegible it seemed to me that no one in the world could read his words but me. It was only about three sentences, a story about a character named “Rebel” who was being “chased by motorcycles from hell.”

A feeling came over me akin to awe. Being chased by motorcycles from hell was a brilliant metaphor for alcoholism. I had been writing poetry and plays. Several had been produced, a few published. I knew that I had never written anything better than his one image. I said to myself, He is as much an artist as I will ever be. But he can’t spell, he can’t type. No one will ever know how good he is.

That moment was the birth of the Amherst Writers & Artists workshop method described in my book, Writing Alone and With Others (Oxford University Press, 2003). Everyone is born with potential creative genius. Everyone who lives beyond two or three years of age has one beautiful, complex, nuanced, original voice. 

*     *     *

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation from writer Julie Gardner to write the introduction to a book of writings by approximately fifty homeless and recently homeless women who have used our writing method in small groups at Mary’s Place, a day shelter in Seattle. They have broken silence, giving to us words—portals into their experiences and imaginations. From some of them, we have only a tiny cameo—a glimpse of their inner and/or outer lives. Silence, for some of these writers, is still too important a defense, too deep a survival technique, to allow us to hear the rich, beautifully nuanced voices they use sitting at their own kitchen tables telling a close friend their stories. Some have never before been asked to tell their own story. Some are still caught in a sixth grade teacher’s C-minus, still trying to speak a form of the language they heard in a long-gone classroom. But in some we hear the voice that is natural to the writer. There are rivers of rich imagery here, ripples of rhythm and music; there are eddies, rapids, still pools. It is for us, the readers, to guess the depth and dimension of experience, the intelligence and wisdom, the originality and diversity of language that flows underneath these glimpses of sun, shadow, and danger.

The privilege and the honor of hearing original voice, its unique rhythm, cadence, peculiarity, or even of hearing notes of it inside the trap of received lessons, is akin to my experiencing “motorcyclists from hell.” A listener to original voice is likely to be moved—to hurt, to laugh, cry, be moved to outrage, stirred to anger or to celebration, and to a desire to return story for story. Capture two guys talking over beer at a bar, and you have two characters; you have literature, written on the air. Language flowing in its own free channel is like a deep and beautiful river. 

In her invitation to me, Julie Gardner quoted something I wrote in Writing Alone and With Others:

A Writer is someone who writes. Everyone is a writer. You are a writer. All over the world, in every culture, human beings have carved into stone, written on parchment, birch bark, or scraps of paper, and sealed into letters—their words. Those who do not write stories and poems on solid surfaces tell them, sing them, and in so doing, write them on the air. Creating with words is our continuing passion. We dream stories; we make up stories, poems, songs, and tell them to ourselves. All alone, we write. We also write with others. Every time we open our door at the end of a workday and say, ‘You’ll never believe what [bleep] said to me today…’ we create story. ‘I was minding my own business, and he got right into my face! And then he said…’ Already we are creating character, voice, suspense—story. It may not be committed to paper, but the artist, the writer is at work.

”We are all connected to one another and to the mystery of the universe through our strange and marvelous ability to create words. When we write, we create, and when we offer our creation to one another, we close the wounds of loneliness and may participate in healing the broken world. Our words, our truth, our imagining, our dreaming, may be the best gifts we have to give.

It is a privilege to read the intimate voices of homeless or recently homeless women, sometimes grieving, sometimes sharing hard-won wisdom, sometimes breaking into lyrical language. “Remember you’re here, please don’t forget,” writes Kali. “Someday it will be your turn to rest but you don’t get to choose. / You will know the time has come when the wind sighs its last / and the flowers weep petals for their loss.”

Every human has a story, and every story is valuable. Most of us would agree to that. What might be more difficult for us to agree upon is this: all of us, speaking in our own original voices, achieve at times literary art. It may not be published, but the artistry is there. The voice that Paule Marshall has called “the poets in the kitchen” and John Wideman has called “the voices of home”—the voice used at home with family, at the bar with friends, in the night with a lover—is in fact the first, primal, and universal human art form. Every person has it. It is a travesty that our educational systems and our artistic snobbery have fenced in “literature,” excluding the majority of people on this planet from their own artistry.

*     *     *

In the 1930s two women, Brenda Euland and Dorothea Brand, who may or may not have known one another, each wrote a book that laid out the idea that there was another way to write than the one in classrooms from third grade to the Ph.D. Universally then, and unfortunately most of the time today, writing has been taught in a way similar to many other disciplines—one must learn “rules” before writing is “good.” For forty years, their ideas were largely ignored or forgotten, but a slow groundswell of discontent was building with the way writing was taught., In the 1970s, I wrote my first book about writing, The Writer as an Artist, Peter Elbow wrote Writing Without Teachers, and Natalie Goldberg wrote Writing Down the Bones. People began talking about what came to be called “The Writing Process Movement.” My own work grew into what is now an international organization of writers, Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA), using the method I described in my second book on writing, Writing Alone and With Others.

*     *     *

In our AWA workshops at Mary’s Place and in jails, prisons, shelters, hospitals, centers for youth at risk and many other venues across America and in Canada, Ireland, India, Malawi, and other countries; we are writing together, the leader or teacher writing along with the participants. In doing that, we all are equally learners, equally receiving feedback—only praise for first draft or just-written work and balanced critique when we ask for it on manuscripts later. 

It is true that we are changing lives. My own life was changed by a seventh grade teacher, by a college-age camp counselor, and by the pastor of a small, dwindling congregation. Each one of them dared to walk up the steps of a tenement through the smell of urine and roach poison, find me, and believe in me until I could believe in myself. That is the most profound work being done in Mary’s Place, in jails, in survival centers, and in writing groups for middle-class writers, where a Ph.D. candidate under pressure to produce a dissertation has had her writing voice bleached of almost all of its original color. Face-to-face, person-to-person, spirit-to-spirit, sharing words, sharing stories—the “teacher/leader” writing with the participants.

Our work is not relevant only to what we might call the healing and empowerment of those who have been denied the privileges of health, education, and prosperity. Early in my work, leading a writing workshop in a graduate school in California, I counted among the twelve workshop participants a man from Vietnam who had escaped war by boat and was here in graduate school. He was immediately frustrated by my method. The first time we wrote together, I laid a large cloth on the floor and put on it fifty or so small objects: a wooden spoon, a man’s pipe, a rosary, a yarmulke, an empty Jim Beam bottle, etc. I invited the participants to choose an object and write for fifteen minutes anything that came to them in response to the object.

He chose an object, but when we read, he would not, and showed us his page, the very few lines he had written. He said angrily, “I came here to learn to write English!” By the second day of our five-day workshop, he seemed a little frantic, and I really didn’t know what to do, but on a moment’s instinct, I asked him to write in his native language and translate to us when he read. He obviously thought that was a ridiculous idea and ignored it. On the fourth day, I urged him. He refused. Finally, on the fifth day, I offered more than one prompt, among which were the objects. He chose a foot-long, ugly plastic fish that I had “fished” out of someone’s sidewalk trash, thinking it would be a good trigger for writing. I noticed during the writing time that his hand was moving fast across his page. When we read, for the first time he joined in. What I can remember is his telling us that his father was walking with him through the jungle and said, “I can cut the rainbow in half.” They came to a little stream where the father bent down and caught a fish in his hands and laid it on the ground. The sunlight on its side made many colors. With his machete, he cut the rainbow in half. 

We all clapped, rejoiced, and I said, “From now on, write every paper for every class first in your own language—the language you dream in—and translate it! Your English is very good!”

He taught me an incredibly important lesson—that the language we dream in is the language of our unconscious. And the unconscious is the deepest reservoir of our artistry.

*     *     *

The AWA workshop method is not literacy training, although it is crucial to the development and deepening of literacy. It is not therapy, although its practices can be healing. It is not about educational theory, nor literary critique, though its goal is to revolutionize those. 

The implications of our understanding and our practices are huge for the teaching of writing in general, first grade through doctoral studies, and in settings where writing is used as a method of empowerment or healing. We have gotten it backwards, and not just in America. I have found, working in high schools in France and with adults in Japan, that it is a global quandary. Well-meaning teachers, trying to teach writing, teach instead the inability to write. Not being able to write is a learned disability. 

The core misunderstanding is this: the teaching of craft before establishing in the learner trust in his or her own voice destroys the basis of writing as an art. The teacher must first affirm, strengthen, and listen to the student’s original voice. Only upon the foundation of hearing, valuing, and trusting our own voices can we build a structure of craft. Original voice is the surest access to the unconscious, and the unconscious is the birthplace of art.

Are we saying “standards” don’t matter?  Are we saying “craft” in the art of writing is useless, or irrelevant?  Absolutely not. What we are saying is that the teaching of writing must not put the cart before the horse. To teach writing in elementary and secondary schools by stressing the use of “proper” English before praising some aspect of a written work—the voice, the narrative, the suspense, the passion, the characters, etc.—or at any level to teach by emphasizing what is not working well, neglecting to lift up in equal measure what is strong, is to unintentionally teach that the language the learner brings to the table is inferior. It is necessary, of course, to teach the usage needed for for academic achievement, for business, for professional advancement, and ultimately for expanding the writers’ artistic possibilities. But that can be done, especially with young or under-served learners, as teaching a second language rather than as a replacement of original voice, and with upper grades and graduate learners, by establishing in every critical assessment what is strong in a work before pointing out what needs amendment/revision. This is a challenging task because what we receive on paper usually is not in fact original voice. It is a mish-mash of half-forgotten lessons and the bruises of failure. That is why having people write first drafts in short, timed writing sessions and in response to prompts that surprise them is so effective. Under the pressure of time and the prompt of a surprise, original voice gets tricked into showing its vibrant self. When that happens in a small group that gives only positive feedback vocally, the learner is given an initial place of confidence upon which to stand. Repeated experiences like that develop in the learner a foundation of trust upon which craft can be built without damage.

The “language of home” has been already somewhat established in the womb. We now know that a newborn recognizes the voice of his or her mother. Rhythm, cadence, the music of spoken and sung language already is known enough to distinguish voice from voice. The foundation of the writer is already laid. By the time a child is a few years old, he or she has mastered an enormous amount of craft: sentence structure, story structure, manipulation of language to express humor or outrage, and on, and on.

Persons whose lives are impacted by societal or familial dysfunction receive a different kind of “education” than those who come from stable, supportive environments and who have the prosperity required to receive what we call “higher education.” The very word “higher” betrays our history of embedded hierarchical educational practices. My brilliant young friend, R.M., writes out of her own experience of being stabbed while she held her baby and was watched by her four-year old son. She is the age of my children. And while my children are all college graduates, R.M. knows things they will never know. The essential questions for us are these: 1) Is R.M.’s “education” (what she knows, what she understands, what she does not know and struggles to understand) intellectually inferior to the “education” of those more fortunate? And 2) Is R.M.’s original voice adequate to tell her own story? If not, will it become so by training her not to use the word “ain’t” and not to use more than two adjectives in a row? 

She needs my help to polish her work of art. But first, she needs my help to believe that her written story takes my breath away and is in fact already a work of art. 

When I was a college student, I spent one summer working in a Methodist mission in Appalachia, a school with dormitories for boys and girls. One day the cook at the mission, a woman named Fanny May, perhaps 35 years old, who had only a few teeth in her mouth, asked me where I lived. I told her Missouri, and she said, “Are there mountains there? ” and I replied, “No, only hills,” she looked up at Pine Mountain and said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have the mountains to rest my eyes against.” I knew, even then, that I had just heard a poem, although I didn’t yet know that it was written on the air.

What would happen if we were to radically value the original voice of all people?  To do so might be like the ancient Biblical image of a camel trying to enter the eye of a needle. There is a sense in which we must be willing ourselves to be vulnerable, to lay down our accumulated learning, to write using our own original voices along with those we would lead, or teach. In some sense, every person is “other” than myself. Each one of us carries with us a unique story. If we are to enter into the experience, the life, the voice of those who may be “other” than ourselves, we must listen for music that is different from our own. The experience of an other may be as foreign to us as that of the young mother, stabbed as her son looks on, or as unfamiliar as that of a father cutting a rainbow in half. Each writer’s development as an artist with words depends, as R.M’s does, upon someone valuing the wisdom of her experience and the articulation of her story written in her own voice. As she herself learns to value those, she begins to want to learn craft. How to spell what she cannot spell; where to put punctuation; how to turn a passionate first-draft outburst of the essential facts of her story, whether autobiographical or fictional, into a form that can even more deeply reach her reader. How to break lines of a brief vision into a sonnet or even a villanelle. She will want those skills, and a wise guide will offer them to her without in any way dismissing the power and integrity of her own voice, raw in her original drafts.

It is time for a revolution. It is an outrage and a disgrace that our understanding of art is dominated by assumptions of class and privilege or by narrow assumptions about what counts as education. That our definition of art in language is limited to the voices of those who have what we have deemed “higher education.” Think of the voices in refugee camps, in housing projects, and in inadequate schools. It doesn’t take much criticism to silence a writer forever. It doesn’t have to be the sting of one particularly cruel response, like the one received by a woman in one of my workshops who said she had not written for thirty years because a high school teacher had written on her assigned story, “This is monkey feces on canvas.” Nor like the Viet Nam veteran who was told he couldn’t continue to come to a workshop because others couldn’t bear what he was revealing. Most often, people are silenced by the slow erosion of their confidence in receiving more critique than affirmation. In either case, what happens is a learned disability taught by failure and shame.

All through the years there have been gifted teachers who have known better, done better. I have been touched by more than one of those. We praise and acknowledge the two women who first wrote books describing a different way to write, and offer thanks to Peter Elbow for his lifetime as theoretician and linguist, challenging the academy and inviting the individual writer to believe in the creative possibilities of what he calls “free writing.” 

We are about revolution in the way we teach writing. We dare to value not only the known great writers of the past, but also the voices that have been excluded from our definitions of literary art. The voices of the poor, the incarcerated, the silenced in all levels of society—those whom Rabindranath Tagore called “the least, the loneliest and the lost”—who have been excluded from acceptance across all of the lines of ordinary human dialogue.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Philip Levine’s youth was spent working in Detroit factories, which led him to speak for the working class in some of his writings. He has been widely quoted as saying, “I saw that the people that I was working with... were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States, they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them.”

Our work leaps beyond even what Levine was talking about. As important as speaking for them might be, in our writing circles, they speak for themselves.

Myrna, one of the writers in the Mary’s Place book, Original Voices, writes, “As I write I create myself over and over again.” So do I. So does every writer who, while learning craft, has been helped to believe in her or his own voice. 

When I was freshly back from the orphanage at age thirteen, I saw who we were, how we lived, and I was deeply ashamed. At the orphanage, everything had been clean. Everything had a place, and the housemother saw to it that we kept everything in its place. In our two rooms at home, there was no closet. A sheet strung across a small alcove in one room hid a narrow “Hollywood” bed. Seven families shared one bathroom that no one cleaned. I was not loved in the orphanage, but I was not ashamed, either.

One day, there was a knock on our door, and there she stood—my seventh grade teacher, Dorothy Dunn, in the smell of urine and roach poison. School was over for the summer, but there she was, smiling at me through the crack I opened, trying to hide the clutter behind me. I couldn’t let her in. 

She handed me a book. “This is my book,” she said. “I want you to have it. You can be a writer.” 

I think I said, “Thank you.”

Then she turned and walked down the stairs.

Those of us who use the Amherst Writers & Artists method, or those who out of their own wisdom and experience follow similar guidelines, can never forget, for those we lead are our teachers. They teach us, and we have listened. We have heard. §



Pat Schneider is a poet, playwright, librettist, and author of ten books, including How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice and Another River: New and Selected Poems. She is the founder and an alumna of Amherst Writers & Artists, and, for 30 years, she was an adjunct faculty member at Pacific School of Religion in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. See more at patschneider.com. (Photo credit: Nina Bramall)