Last week, I went on a week-long residential training course, becoming a certified writing workshop leader in the AWA method. If you’re curious what that means, check out Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. The writing retreat I did last year was also AWA, and it created a really rich, powerful experience. I’d wanted to learn how to help create similar experiences for other people. The method resonated with me partly because, although it’s obviously not the same as playwork, the philosophies behind each have a lot of overlap and some of the practices mirror each other in interesting ways. On the long drive back, from Mono, Ontario to Brattleboro, Vermont, I gave those similarities some thought.
AWA starts with the affirmations, which are as follows:
- 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.
Aren’t they beautiful? It reminds me of how we talk about play, trusting that children know how to play even if they need support in getting started, or to stay absorbed. Writing can be a kind of play too, a way of traveling to the deep places. AWA is all about trusting in the writer’s voice and instincts, respecting their process on its own terms. This is where the ‘genius’ lives in its oldest definitions, in our contact with a sense of divine and our ability to bring something new into being.
Writing makes something, and that process can be scary. We all have trauma of some kind relating to learning to write, being told that our stories weren’t as important as our grammar or penmanship. We all met the red pen of authority. At the same time, we ache to tell our stories. We long to take those flights of imagination, and remember how it feels to fly. People say they want to write, but don’t. I do that too. We agonize, invent new strategies for making things extra complicated.
This is where the workshop leader comes in, gently and with a light touch.
In the training, there was lots of talk of ‘holding a space’ within which writers are free to take risks, to listen to their instincts and explore an internal landscape. The leader supplies prompts, but writers are encouraged to use or ignore them, to write in any direction they please. Everyone is invited to read, and no one has to. When a writer finishes reading, the workshop leader offers eye contact, a touchstone in the room as they come back from wherever it is they have been. There are specific practices in how AWA workshop participants respond to freshly-written work, delicately and without criticism.
The most striking element, I think, is the AWA stance that everything is fiction. When we choose where to begin and end, what to put in and what to leave out, we’re fictionalizing. That frees us to discuss what people share on its own terms, as writing. This might be a little unclear until you see it in action, but trust me when I say that it protects the writer and listeners both, allowing the process of writing to be therapeutic without it becoming one big damp and squashy therapy session.
You could, if you were so inclined, consider this a sort of play frame.
In a strange way, this feels like a cousin of playwork – another way for me to extend these beliefs to some adults. I can imagine that many who fear play, who are startled by discomfort and alarmed by their own nerves, might benefit from what an AWA workshop experience offers. In my case, that was a sense of being held, very gently, and encouraged and believed in. All that, while writing stories!
I’m not entirely sure how to start using this training yet, but I’ll probably start by holding a couple of local open workshops to get a little practice in. I’d like to run one or two with fellow playworkers – any fellow writers interested should email me! I’ll be in the UK again this September and December, and you guys, this would be so much fun! Someone is doing AWA online, and I want to know how that works. Lastly, and perhaps most of all, I want to start doing writing workshops because I want to be doing more writing myself. I know what it is to live in a paralysis of second-guessing, to spend more time avoiding the page than sinking into it like a warm bath. Having known the darkness, I want to help hold a torch.