Storytelling: Profound Communication

A WRITER IS SOMEONE WHO WRITES

After personally learning the benefits of Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method of writing, I invited a facilitator to share it with my teaching colleagues and me so we could bring it to our classrooms. According to Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and with Others, “Everyone has a strong, unique voice” and “Everyone is born with creative genius.” After assuring my students of these truths, Schneider’s affirmations and practices provided a creative, encouraging environment where participants discovered their unique voices. The satisfying results in the classroom led me to become a certified AWA facilitator. 

At first, many of my students hesitated to write their stories. Some harboured self-doubts or misconceptions about themselves and their writing. They’d received harsh criticism and no longer believed in their capabilities. Or their life circumstances robbed them of their confidence. Yet in my writing workshops, participants shed their disbelief in their ability to write and learned “everyone is a writer.”

Sue Reynolds, psychotherapist, writer, and certified facilitator with Amherst Writers & Artists, developed a seven-lesson curriculum based on Schneider’s method and AWA’s Five Essential Affirmations:

  • 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 education 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.

The curriculum also promotes AWA’s Five Essential Practices of Writing:

  • Everyone’s writing, including the leader’s, is treated with equal respect and value;

  • Writing is kept confidential and treated as fiction;

  • Writers may refrain from reading their work aloud; 

  • Responses to just-written work reflect what is strong and successful;

  • Responses and exercises support the development of literary craft.

These affirmations and practices create a safe space where students rally their courage to write and share freely and thus acknowledge themselves as writers. 

AWA WRITING WORKSHOPS IMPROVE CRAFT

Free writing, treating all writing as fiction, and receiving positive feedback build students’ confidence and improves craft. After learning the elements of story and identifying them in short stories, Reynolds suggests students list five to six transformational moments in their lives and five to six transformational moments in the lives of others. Short story writer Raymond Carver describes transformational moments as those in which, “A moment comes in a story where something happens and after that nothing is ever the same.” Students then choose the one transformational moment from their list that they are the most reluctant to write about and write what comes up for them about that occurrence. Through a series of freefall writing exercises, students fictionalize this real-life event, improve their craft, and develop short story elements. Following each exercise, they read their raw writing in small groups and then others identify what is good in the writing and what stays with them. In so doing they learn from each other how to write well. Perhaps the writing reveals a troubled character, evokes an emotional response or uses the five senses. Group members might share poignant words or phrases that grab their attention or note specific details. Through the writing and sharing of raw writing in small groups, each student finds and express their unique voice.

TRUTH MAY BE BETTER SHARED IN A WELL-TOLD STORY

Perhaps what is most difficult for students is not writing their stories exactly as they believe they happened. Julie Schumacher discusses the process of being “faithful to the truth and not the facts” in her University of Minnesota article, “Turning ‘Real Life’ into Fiction: How to do Justice to Grandma.” She says writers must recognize that their experiences and their “fictional counterpart are not one and the same no matter the similarities.” She suggests that “real life and the people who inhabit it are full of uneven moments, fallow passages, unseemly habits and clichés.” The truth may better be shared in a well-told story. It is the “emotional or psychological truth that matters.” Though sometimes hesitant to change actual occurrences, students gradually make modifications. They venture to alter the point of view, introduce a fictional character, drop the story into a new location or era, or write a new ending.  

WRITING AND SHARING OUR STORIES CONNECTS PEOPLE

In writing real life as fiction and sharing their stories, students communicate profoundly. For example:  a daughter arrives for afternoon tea at her mother’s home then remembers her mother died; a woman recovers from sexual assault after being drugged at a bar; and a man feels spooked by the ghosts who haunt him until he acknowledges them. These are the stories students tell. In her book, Page Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy, Barbara Kyle suggests that: “telling stories is humanity’s most profound way of communicating.” 

Diverse stories that expand our world view often emerge when fictionalizing real-life stories. In one of my classes, Hashmat bridged a cultural chasm when he wrote about several young men who escaped from Afghanistan during the 1990s war and subsequent Taliban take-over. Hashmat describes the young refugees in his story as covered in so much dust they looked like they were “exhumed from graves.” One character grew so parched he cried out for “water, water, water.” Their plight became clearest when another character drank his own urine to satisfy his thirst only to find it burned his throat and esophagus. Years later, I can still hear the characters’ impassioned pleas for a drink. Hashmat’s unique voice enlightened me and my students about the harsh realities of escaping terrorism. In sharing our stories, we acknowledge each other’s transformative moments, connect on a deeper level, and honour our writing. 

TEACHERS WRITE WITH THEIR STUDENTS

An essential practice of Schneider’s Amherst writing method is that the teacher writes and shares with students. While participants are empowered to write, you’ll also share in the energy of a creative writing community. So, take that moment after which everything changed for you—that instance of embarrassment when you were kicked out of the mall because your step-mother stole a dozen music cassette tapes; that day you jumped out of a rowboat into deep water and almost drowned; or that afternoon you stood on the deck of a ferry and a whale swam alongside the stern, submerged, and flapped its tail—and write your real life as fiction.

Don’t be surprised when your stories and those of your students become your transformational moment in teaching.

STUDENTS VALUE THE AMHERST WRITERS & ARTISTS METHOD

“I found the writing process to be liberating. I wrote about something I normally wouldn’t write about.” ~Lori

“I think the process of turning life into fiction is an excellent way to make our voice heard.” ~Coen

“To become a good writer, you must write… At the beginning my ideas were limited. But as I wrote the exercises, I realized I had much to say. I did something new in the writing process, sharing and writing some things about my life.” ~Prince

*Students’ story plots and quotations used with permission.

Lynda retired from teaching and now freelance writes. She facilitates writing workshops and hosts writing tours and retreats using a proven workshop method in Panama. www.thewordtour.com, www.tranquiloretreat.com