Picture the following scene:
It’s early on a Saturday morning, and a group of about eight women, some perky and eager, some bleary-eyed and quiet, pull up their chairs around a large table. They exchange a few friendly greetings and begin rustling keyboards or pens and journals into position, while the leader of the group takes her seat at the head of the table and commences the morning’s work with a reading.
On this day, she reads a memoir excerpt, a particular section focused on the author’s memory of her mother’s kitchen and family meals shared there. From the nest of this beginning come her instructions to the group.
“Write about food,” she says. “It could be a memory of something you cooked or ate, some food you shared, a closed restaurant you especially miss for the experiences shared there. Anything about food. Let’s take about 15 minutes. Go.”
Whether the group is hungry or just particularly inspired by this “prompt,” might be a toss-up, but there are wistful smiles and pleasantly thoughtful, contemplative faces all around as fingers begin tapping keys or pushing pens across open, waiting pages. For me, there is an immediate, visceral memory of chicken frying in the kitchen of my adolescence, where i surreptitiously committed my favorite domestic crime: pinching off the edges of the crust to munch the crispy, amber skin and batter as it cooled. Haven’t had chicken that good since, I realize with an inner smile, and I am off.
But on another Saturday, the prompt to the waiting writers is darker, more personal. It begins with a reading on fear.
“Write about something you are afraid of,” she says. “Take 20 minutes for this one.”
Seriously—20 minutes on fear? Maybe, I ponder, I’ll just write about how scary this assignment is. Sound like a nightmare that would make you break out in a sweat? Maybe too close to an exercise you loathed in a college writing seminar? Exactly. And yet these women show up one Saturday a month, some of them faithfully, over and over for nearly a decade, for the privilege, challenge, frustration, pressure, sweat, heartbreak and inspiration that all manifest around this table.
The pen pushers and key tappers produce, Saturday after Saturday, work that is as varied in style, depth, and content as the topics that prompt it. Some come to the table as novices, some as published authors of various stripes, including poets, historians, and essayists. This particular group, which the leader named Pilgrim Writers, has attracted writers ranging in age from early 20s to early 70s.
The secret sauce that makes the table a safe place is clearly articulated for newcomers and cherished by the old hands. It is the principles of the Amherst Writers & Artists, a writing workshop philosophy that began in the early 1980s. Amherst workshops are designed not to hone particular writing skills or techniques, but to simply encourage anyone to claim self-expression in any form or fashion the writer so chooses. Work is shared aloud at the table, but there is no critique. Listeners may offer only observations about powerful impressions or strong concepts heard in the work. No acknowledgement or query may ever be made about any biographical nature in the work, and the writer is referred to in the context of piece as “the narrator,” never “you.”
My personal favorite Amherst tenet is this one: A Writer is Someone Who Writes. That means, among other things, that everyone comes to the table as an equal, whether they write only in a private journal or have published an award-winning collection of poems. All voices at the table are honored, regardless of output, training, progress, or any other criteria.
I love this tenet because it exposed one of my worst weaknesses during my very first visit to the table. I heard about the workshop from a friend and registered via email, thinking this would be a lark, an interesting Saturday morning. Maybe it would be a chance to casually stretch some unused muscles, more than 25 years after I began a career as a journalist but later moved on to other jobs. When emailing the workshop leader, I thought surely it was important to mention my many years of writing experience. I noticed she didn’t acknowledge those self-important facts in her response, but didn’t realize why until I got to the table and realized what a colossal, arrogant misperception I had. My experience was, and pretty much still is, utterly irrelevant to the work of the morning.
In fact, the opposite was immediately, brilliantly illuminated, and how many pegs I travelled down when I realized my mistake. It sunk in profoundly when I was listening to a good friend read her work—she, who had never written anything except papers in school, and perhaps, I knew, the occasional recipe. And yet, she delivered a short few paragraphs that knocked everyone present back in their chairs with the utter honesty, clarity and deeply personal nature of her words. My own offering in that go-round: not so much. And while I should hasten to say that nothing about the Amherst format is focused on judging, or competition, or measuring one’s quality against another’s, I still learned that day that claiming one’s voice has very little, if anything, to do with professional training.
It has everything to do with things like commitment, risk-taking, faith, listening, encouragement and, perhaps most of all, courage. Great writing emerges first and foremost from a heart with something vitally important to say, then from a mind willing to step up and say it, out loud, regardless of skill level or vocabulary. Month after month, year after year, some of the most powerful work gifted by writers at the table to the lucky listeners in the adjacent chairs comes from the newcomers, often women who never imagined they could do it and maybe never before dreamed of trying. This is the beauty of the Amherst foundation, which nurtures writers not just to begin, but to keep at it. I am one of those, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
This particular Amherst group, the Pilgrim Writers, will soon celebrate 10 years of writing at what one regular likes to call The Magic Table. Why do the regulars keep coming after all that time? For me, there are multiple reasons. First, all warm and grateful credit to our leader, who is not only the soul of encouragement but a steadfast source of fresh ideas month after month. The fellowship of others who love words is a draw that never changes. Sometimes that translates into the sharing of information on resources, publishing, and writing events. Sometimes I walk away with a tip about something new to read. Invariably, if my own motivation to write is floundering due to diverting life circumstances or flagging inspiration, I come away from the table with the spark reignited. The voice in my own head, that travels through my own fingertips to the keyboard, is unfailingly enriched by listening to the voices of my fellow Pilgrims.
It seemed opportune to dedicate this essay to the Pilgrim Writers on this milestone for me. The G-Ma Chronicles just passed a two-year anniversary, and this is my 50th story published here. The determination to give voice to my ideas about family humor and mid-life foibles took root at the Magic Table and grew from there. So here’s to all the pilgrims, whether new to the journey or seasoned, who show up and put their hearts onto the open page. It’s not an easy thing to do. And a very special salute to our intrepid leader, Amy Lyles Wilson, who shares her gifts of leadership and encouragement so freely, year after year. Long may you Write, each and every one of you. Every word shared is a gift to the rest of us.