Pat Schneider

Pat Schneider, 2012

We are all connected to one another and to the mystery at the heart 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 wound 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.

—Pat Schneider, from Writing Alone and With Others

• • •

Pat Schneider (1934–2020) was the founder and creator of the Amherst Writers & Artists method. She was a writer, poet, teacher and editor, playwright and librettist who lived and worked in Amherst, Massachusetts.

She used to ask people in her writing workshops to respond to just-written work read aloud with these questions:

What do you like?
What stays with you?
What is strong?

With these simple guidelines, Pat Schneider transformed writing into a supportive act done with others, led by a facilitator trained in the Amherst Writers & Artists method, a way to create first-draft work without editing suggestions or criticism. She liked to say that you wouldn’t point out the wart on a brand baby’s nose. Instead, you’d talk about the baby’s lovely eyes and captivating smile—genuine compliments.

It’s easy to criticize, Pat said, as she led workshops all over the world, gracefully leading writers into the deepest places of their hearts and souls and persuading them to put their words, their voices, their stories on the page. It’s more challenging to find and point out what’s working than what’s not in a just-written piece. Often the writer cannot see fine words, phrases, sentences, beginnings and endings, Pat said, because the writer didn’t like the difficult place they had to go in memory or imagination to retrieve that material.

For fifteen years Pat worked intensively with a group of women from low-income housing projects in Chicopee, Massachusetts, creating and leading writing workshops designed to encourage, teach and enable the women to resume their interrupted educations. That work prompted her to create and found Amherst Writers & Artists, a nonprofit organization that remains strongly committed to Pat’s inclusive method of writing.

Pat believed, as she told everyone on the first day of her workshops, that each of us has a voice worthy of putting on the page. Her five essential affirmations outlined in her book about the AWA method, Writing Alone and With Others, are:

• Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
• Everyone is born with creative genius.
• Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.
• The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.
• A writer is someone who writes.

That last affirmation, in particular, is one that has changed thousands of people’s lives, persuading them to see themselves as writers. Her work continues today in Amherst Writers & Artists, a nonprofit organization that reaches writers literally around the world.

I’m honored to say that I was a close friend and colleague of Pat’s, and that I’ve served at her direction for many years as the editor of AWA Press, which has published dozens of books and annually publishes the AWA literary journal Peregrine.

Pat was well published in her lifetime. Besides Writing Alone and With Others, she wrote two spiritual autobiographies/memoirs (How the Light Gets In was the most recent), and five books of poetry (the latest of which is The Weight of Love). She was also wrote 14 plays (nine of which were performed) and her libretti have been recorded by the Louisville Symphony and performed by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony in Boston’s Symphony Hall and in Carnegie Hall in New York.

But it is Pat’s poetry that most touches my heart. Since her death in August 2020, I find myself reaching for her poems to hear her good voice. I often tell people that she was a superb poet, with a fierce dedication to craft, to getting every word, every line just right. But hers is also accessible poetry, easily understood with deep emotional resonance. And poetry, she taught, as all good poetry teachers do, should make a reader feel something.

So what I’m sharing here are some of my favorite poems of Pat’s—most published, some not. It’s one of the best ways I know to introduce her to people who will not get to see her snapping blue eyes, experience her quick wit, and her always compassionate responses to writing. One of my favorites was when she’d tell a writer, “I could sit for more of that.” Not “you should keep writing” or anything forceful. Just that, should you want to write more along that line, Pat would offer a supportive listening ear.

I like to think that’s how she hears my words now and those of all us who read aloud to each other in an AWA workshop or writing group. Thank you, Pat.

Pat’s poems

Read Blessing for a Writer.

Read Going home the longest way around.

Read About, Among Other Things, God.

Read The Patience of Ordinary Things

Blessing for a Writer

By Pat Schneider

May you hear in your own stories
the moan of wind around the corners
of half-forgotten houses
and the silence in rooms you remember.

May you hear in your own poems
the rhythms of the cosmos,
the sun, the moon and the stars
rising out of the sea and returning to it.

May you, too, pull darkness out of light
and light out of darkness.
May you hear in your own voice
the laughter of water falling over stones.

May you hear in your own writing
the strangeness, the surprise of mystery,
the presence of ancestors, spirits,
voices buried in the cells of your body.

May you have the courage to honor
your own first language, the music of those
whose lives inhabit your own.
May you tell the truth and do no harm.

May you dare in your own words to touch
the broken heart of the world.
May your passion for peace and justice be wise:
Remember—no one can argue with story.

May you study your craft as you would study
a new friend or a long-time, much-loved lover.
And all the while, lost though you may be in the forest,
drop your own words on the path like pebbles

and write your way home.

(First draft written by Pat for participants in a Sacramento, CA, workshop in 2012.)

Going home the longest way around

By Pat Schneider

we tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
We make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
diminishing returns.

Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.

And they were silent, the children,
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.

It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.

from Another River: New and Selected Poems 
Amherst Writers & Artists Press (printed on a broadside with art by Barry Moser)

About, Among Other Things, God

Pat Schneider

The primrose blooms in the garden.
The mourning dove calls in the sycamore tree.
Rain on the sill of the window,
sounds of every kind of weather
are sweet in this old house.

In the pantry, jars of beans,
lentils, sunflower seeds. Sesame. Jars
of preserves, small cans
of spices stand in rows.

It is here.

A woman stands in the doorway
and calls. Her apron bleached from washings
and from hanging in the sun. Behind her,
through the doorway, the house
is dark and cool, and the word
that she calls into the late afternoon,
into the shadows gathering under the lilacs,
into the long, long shadow of the sycamore tree
is come.
Come home.

from Another River: New and Selected Poems (Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2005)

The Patience of Ordinary Things

Pat Schneider

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

from Another River: New and Selected Poems (Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2005)