Amherst Writers & Artists Journey
Over twenty years ago, while I was teaching overseas, an advertisement in Poets & Writers caught my eye. It was such a tiny ad tucked in those back pages, a call to write with Pat Schneider, founder of AWA, in western Massachusetts, something I could have easily overlooked. What especially appealed to me, however, was the picture of what seemed to be a young girl pulling in a long, wide fishing net. Instead of flipping the page, I grabbed my scissors and cut, tucking this ad into my wallet for safekeeping. Soon I forgot it was there.
The writer in me had been keeping journals for years, filling them with poems and observations as I moved through childhood, college, graduate school, and then while I lived and taught in Turkey, England, Kuwait, France, and Switzerland. Along the way, the desire to do more with my writing grew stronger and stronger. I recall myself as a young teacher in front of a class of fifth graders, explaining during a Language Arts class, what is meant by voice in a story. In that moment a resounding voice inside of me probed, “How can you teach these children about finding their voices, when you have yet to find your own?” I took this question very seriously, and began searching for an answer in adult education creative writing classes all over London, where I was living at the time.
A few years, and half a dozen classes later, when I shared my desire to pursue writing more seriously with my then husband, he said, “Whoever told you that you could write,” and, “If you were meant to be a writer, you’d be writing by now.” Our marriage would not survive much longer. At age thirty-one, I found myself back in my native Massachusetts, living in my childhood home, and trying to determine my next move. When one morning, I found the AWA ad tucked in my wallet, I took it as a sign and called the number. Pat Schneider’s writing group was full, so she directed me to Patricia Lee Lewis and Patchwork Farm, where my AWA journey officially began.
I wrote with Patricia Lee Lewis and Pat Schneider every chance I got, making the drive to Amherst and Northampton from Douglas, where I was still living, and then later from Brookline. In 2002, I completed Pat Schneider’s AWA Facilitator Training course, and I began leading small groups for children and adults. In 2004, I attended Queens University's low-residency MFA, and then in 2006, I relocated to Iowa City, Iowa, to attend the Nonfiction Writing Program (2006-2009), where I wrote stories about my childhood in a mill town in central Massachusetts, stories about the people who raised me, my teenaged mother, my tormented father, all those I had loved and lost, those without voices, without formal education, some without hope or a way out. At last, I began publishing my stories, memoirs, essays, and poems.
Considering how hard I worked to build a writer’s life for myself, considering the literary magazines and journals that line my bookshelves, those containing my literary work, I find it hard to believe that 8, 9, and 10 years later, I’d be fighting to find, or rather reclaim, or maybe truly claim for the first time my identity as writer. When the professional author I assist would tell people that I was also a writer, I would cringe. At one point I asked her please not to tell people that. When I found and lost two agents, when the manuscript I’d been writing and revising for years had been passed over and rejected, I lost faith in myself. I heard my former husband’s words, as well as my late grandfather’s, “Who do you think you are?”, and I was silenced. I declared to those closest to me that my writing life was over, that I was not a writer anymore. I turned all of my attention to mothering, assisting, and teaching composition and ESL.
Author, editor, and agent Tracy Crow, who has been a constant in my life since our time together at Queens University of Charlotte, once reminded me that even if I never published another thing, I would still be a writer. I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t. Maybe it has to do with social class and identity, with being a first generation college student, with being a survivor of domestic abuse; I consider such things now, as I grapple with why calling myself a writer has been so difficult for me? Didn’t AWA teach me that a writer is someone who writes? Why would I have let those outside of myself define who and what I am? Thank God, and I do in fact thank God, those days of doubt and insecurity are behind me.
What happened? What changed? Well, I believe it was divine intervention. Not long ago I opened an email newsletter from Patricia Lee Lewis with a call to write with her in virtual winter CAVE. Without hesitation, I answered her call, recognizing it as a sign, knowing it was exactly where I needed to be. It has been one of the best decisions I have made in years. My time with her, and in a few other AWA writing workshops, has brought me home to myself, helping me rediscover the joy of writing, and so here I sit and write in my sunlit kitchen in Iowa City, where I will welcome you, and where I will honor your one true inner voice.