Power in sharing what’s working

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I’ve often written here about the work of Pat Schneider, who founded the Amherst Writers & Artists practices I use in my writing groups. But Pat had a font of practices to draw upon while building up the AWA network: the writing and teaching of Peter Elbow.

While Elbow’s seminal book is Writing Without Teachers, I’m told his best volume on writing is the follow-up Writing with Power. The book is 25 years old. More than 20 years after Writing with Power first went into print, Elbow wrote the forward to Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others (our guidebook as AWA group leaders). In his forward, Elbow says:

In [her book’s] section about writing groups, she has made an interesting rhetorical decision: She presents the material in the form of advice to someone who wants to… lead a writer’s workshop… She makes palpable a crucial theme: Groups for sharing and responding require wisdom and firm leadership.

Many people have found to their sorrow that it’s no good saying, “Let’s get together and share our writing — and we’ll just see what happens.” There are crucial guidelines and rules of thumb that at least one person much take responsibility for.

Otherwise, Elbow says, these un-led groups will form with people likely to take advantage of one another, give unhelpful advice or give it in an unhelpful manner, and usually abuse each other’s privacy.

His comments in that forward echo Elbow’s writing in his own book. We learn best together, sharing what works. A few days ago I met a writer working on a several projects, and so I explained what we do in an AWA group. I stressed our listeners’ positive response on first drafts. She replied, “Oh, I don’t need someone to tell me what’s working in my writing. I know that. I need someone to tell me what’s not working.”

An AWA workshop is not for everyone, but I’d beg to differ from that writer’s belief. Elbow says that reading aloud the fresh writing “is push-ups for the specific muscle used in taking responsibility for your words.”

And it is so easy to become a facile writer, easy with the process, while holding back that kind of responsibility — the deep prospect that shared writing in a safe environment offers. “Sharing gives readers the painless practice in just listening and enjoying what they hear,” Elbow says, “and learning gradually to be confident of their reactions.”

Positive response can change writing for the better, Elbow explains.

For improving your writing you need at least some readers to be allies, persons who wholly cooperate in the communicative transaction. I believe you will improve your writing more through freewriting and sharing than through any other activities described in this book.

He goes on to set the foundation we use in the AWA Way: If we cannot identify what is working in a piece of writing, we have little or no hope of understanding what is not working. Elbow says when you hear a group member read every week who’s no better than you — and then that writer comes up with a passage that’s terrific — you sometimes can learn more about how to improve your writing than you learn from clear explanations of what’s wrong with your writing, or good advice on how to fix it, or inspiring lectures.

Matters of tone and voice are particularly hard to talk about or teach. They are best learned through hearing what you like and imitating it — and hearing what you don’t like, and getting rid of it.

This advice comes from a professor who has taught writing at MIT, Wesleyan University, the Harvard School of Education and Evergreen State College (the last the alma mater of Steve Jobs and Simpsons creator Matt Groenig.) Finding someone who’ll tell you what to fix in your writing is often not the best way to maintain your progress as a writing. Hearing from readers can be a rare thing in a writer’s career, one with surprising gifts. It can inspire you, as Elbow says in his forward to Schneider’s book. “Pat’s book makes you want to sit down and start writing.”

So does Elbow — and his spark, and the AWA distinction, is built upon sharing.

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