“A writer is someone who writes,” poet William Stafford said, a quote Pat Schneider repeated again and again throughout her lifetime. Schneider, the author of ten books and countless plays, and mother of four, believed passionately that everyone carries creative genius and every single person—regardless of education or circumstance—has the ability to express that genius through writing. When Schneider died on August 10, 2020, at the age of 86, the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists, an organization dedicated to helping people discover their deepest stories through writing, had spent a lifetime putting her belief into practice.
Schneider was born Patsy Vought in Ava, Missouri, in 1934, near the Ozark Mountains. When she was four years old, her parents divorced and her mother eventually moved Schneider and her younger brother Sam to St. Louis with her as she searched for work. There they lived in a tenement building, and later her mother put both children in an orphanage. These experiences of poverty and the shame associated with it would influence Schneider’s later work in social justice, particularly her passion for working with women whose voices had been silenced through poverty.
As a teenager Schneider received a scholarship from a local church to attend Central College in Missouri. She traveled to the West Coast after graduating, hoping to help her brother who was in prison there. Her mother, meanwhile, was suffering from mental illness. Although she could do little to help her family, while in California, Schneider was given a scholarship to attend the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley to study for a master’s degree. It was here that she met her husband, Peter Schneider. She was initially afraid to marry him, believing that her family’s poverty and brokenness would ruin his life. But he remained patient, and eventually she agreed.
The couple moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1966, where Peter Schneider took a post as a minister. In the 70s, with three young children, Schneider returned to get her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. There she studied with Peter Elbow who in his 1973 book, Writing without Teachers, was beginning to question the traditional way writing was taught in schools and colleges. Schneider was deeply influenced by his arguments that good writing was the result of an iterative process that involved writing for short periods without editing early drafts.
When Schneider graduated with her MFA in 1979, she had hopes of getting a position teaching at a university. But as a mother of three small children and with her husband’s career based in Amherst, she did not have the option of moving. In her book Writing Alone and With Others, she wrote about a time when she felt she had to put writing aside:
On a particular winter afternoon, I felt as If I would lose my mind. It was a day when all three babies were fussy, and nothing I could do was enough. We were all in the kitchen; it was cluttered with toys, baby formula, laundry, and breakfast dishes. . . . In that desperation where one does not observe oneself, I ran out of the kitchen, up the stairs two at a time, grabbed the typewriter, brought it down and slammed it on top of the throbbing washing machine—the only cleared surface in the kitchen. With two babies playing on the floor and one strapped to the changing table, I pounded out a page-long poem. Although it did not say so directly, the meaning was, I will never write again. When I finished, I stood in a kind of shock, knowing three things: I had been writing; what I had written was not bad; and nothing, as long as I lived, would keep me from writing again.
Eventually Schneider and poet Margaret Robison, a fellow MFA graduate, decided to start a writing workshop based out of their homes. After a few weeks, they shared how disappointed they were at the writing they heard in the workshop. They’d followed the traditional format taught in MFA programs where writers brought in polished manuscripts and participants rigorously critiqued them. The writing was stiff and unimaginative. So the next week, Robison brought a collection of seashells and scattered them in front of the participants and told them to write whatever came up. Schneider recalled that moment in Writing Alone and With Others:
Each writer took a shell, held it, and we wrote together. What a shock! The writing that we heard people read was rich, deep, full of metaphoric reference and surprising turns. None of the freshness of voice had been edited out by anxious writers preparing for critical feedback. Margaret and I never looked back.
From that experience, the two friends continued to develop the workshop method that would eventually become known as Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA), which Schneider founded in 1981. Working independently, writers such as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, and Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, were also beginning to advocate for and teach writing as a process, not a once-and-done product, arrived at with great pain and anguish.
In Schneider’s workshops, writers wrote for short periods of time, usually 15 or 20 minutes, and then only to prompts or what she called “triggers.” She believed that in responding to prompts, writers were more likely to bring up images and stories from their unconscious minds, stories they had hidden deep inside, and which convention encouraged them to keep buried. The timed nature of the writing encouraged writing without editing. She argued that the greatest impediment to writing wasn’t a lack of ability or a lack of education, but tension, the internal editor which watered down a writer’s original voice and inhibited her best stories.
Each participant was invited—not required—to read his or her work out loud. But rather than critiquing it or offering suggestions, participants responded with what they liked about the writing and what resonated with them. Schneider maintained this was the only appropriate response to new writing. Time for manuscript critiques came later. And by telling a writer what stayed with the reader or listener, the community was giving important information to each other about what worked in the writing, what to keep, and what to pursue. Schneider knew that most writers had lost confidence at some point due to a critique of their writing. Banishing the fear of writing became the goal of her introductory classes so writers could move on, unimpeded by past scars.
There was no hierarchy in her workshops—Schneider wrote to prompts along with everyone else and always read her work at least once in a session. This, she said, made everyone equally vulnerable and required everyone to take the same risks. It also proved there is no such thing as writers who write well all the time. Even seasoned writers could have a bad day. To keep writers in the workshop feeling safe, all writing was treated as confidential, discussed only in the workshop. A second rule was that all writing was treated as fiction, unless a writer specifically asked to have it treated as autobiography. This ensured that when giving feedback, participants used phrases like “the narrator” or “the mother” or “the child” to give distance between the writing itself and the writer’s personal life.
During this time Schneider continued to publish her own writing and raise her four children while leading three workshops out of her home each week. One time a published poet asked her to exchange and read each other’s work. The poet marked Schneider’s poems up with red ink, inserting her own word choices and syntax into the poems and ultimately revised them “to death.” The poem that Schneider did not revise was called “Mama” and went on not only to be published, but anthologized:
Kerosene, gasoline, Maybelline, Vaseline—
Mama said she knew a family in the Ozark mountains
named their baby Vaseline Malaria
because the words were pretty.
Mam’s dead now seven years, and I don’t visit
the shallow grave where she wanted her ashes buried.
The one time I did walk there alone,
a big, black dog stood guard,
his legs braced far apart, fur
On his neck rising. (1-10)
Through this experience, Schneider realized her unique voice as a writer was an asset, not a detriment. She became a passionate advocate for writing in what she called one’s primary voice—the voice influenced by childhood and by all the places where one has lived and all the people one has lived with in the course of a lifetime. She insisted that by writing with our primary voice—not one of the acquired voices we use in our profession or when talking to strangers—writing rings true and authentic and is imbued with emotion.
As Schneider perfected her workshop techniques, she grew in her belief that telling the truth in one’s writing was a political act and that to remain silent was also a political act. She began to write more about her own experiences of poverty, and she started a writing workshop with a group of women from the Chicopee Housing Project in western Massachusetts. Here, Schneider practiced the same workshop techniques with women whose voices had been silenced due to poverty, racism, incarceration, and other factors. The workshop continued for a dozen years, and in 1992, Florentine Films made a documentary about it called, Tell Me Something I Can’t Forget. Several of the women in Schneider’s workshop, after giving voice to their stories and finding a new identity, went on to complete a college education.
As the possibilities grew for her unique workshop style and the potential it offered for disadvantaged and previously silenced groups, Schneider asked some of her former students to begin to lead workshops of their own. Several of the women from the Chicopee Housing Project became AWA leaders. Schneider herself was invited to lead workshops in California, Ireland, Connecticut, and elsewhere. Specialized workshops were developed for people in prison, teen mothers, breast cancer survivors, and others.
In 2003, Oxford University Press published Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others, which offered insights gained from more than twenty-five years of teaching her workshop method. The book offers 150 prompts for writers who are working alone and a step-by-step guide for writers interested in starting their own writing workshop based on the AWA method. In his introduction Peter Elbow calls Pat Schneider, “The wisest teacher of writing I know.”
Though Schneider and her husband made a decision to leave their church in the 1980s, she remained a deeply spiritual person her entire life, embracing the teachings and wisdom of many religions to inform her own spiritual journey. In 2013, Schneider wrote How the Light Gets In, an account of how her writing and her spiritual journey became one and the same. The book explores writing as a spiritual practice and chronicles how writing revealed to her some of her most profound spiritual insights. In a chapter entitled “Forgiving,” she writes about meeting her half-sibling, her father’s other daughter from his second marriage. As a child, Schneider’s mother repeatedly told her, “Your father doesn’t love you. He has another little girl now.” This led Schneider to reject seeing or learning more about her father for most of her life. In “Forgiving,” Schneider writes letters to her half-sister as a way of coming to terms with her past and letting go of the deep hurt and anger she held for years.
In addition to publishing ten books of poetry, plays, and nonfiction, Schneider’s creative work received widespread recognition. Her libretto, “The Lament of Michal,” was performed in Carnegie Hall. Her poetry was read on National Public Radio sixteen times, and her plays have been performed in over 300 productions. Each of her four children grew up to become published authors. But her legacy is also the vast body of creative work she launched by inspiring, encouraging, and holding up the voices of so many other writers and artists in her lifetime. Thousands of people have taken the AWA workshops, taught by writers who were taught by writers who were taught by Schneider, and the legacy goes on. In Writing Alone and With Others, Schneider summed up her teaching manifesto, which also reflects the generous spirit of her life’s work:
I cannot teach anyone to be an artist, but then I don’t have to because everyone is already an artist. Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already within our students. Our task is only this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, and to encourage.