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.