Green Windows Creative Writing Workshops Utilize the Amherst Writers and Artists Method
I sat quietly at the Omni Commons in Oakland, CA, biting my nails and shifting my weight in my seat every few minutes. As I waited for the Green Windows monthly writing workshop to begin, I was nervous. Speaking out loud to a group does not come naturally to me, and I’ve never liked being the center of attention. I’d spoken with founder, Peggy Simmons about her program in detail, but still, it was new to me. But as soon as the workshop began, Simmons was quick to let us writers know, “you can’t write wrong” and ask us to “trust ourselves.” And after a few brownie bites (there’s always some kind of chocolatey comfort food available), I was reading my work aloud and letting my fellow writers know what I liked about their work.
Peggy Simmons is the founding director and lead facilitator at Green Windows: Art of Interchange, a nonprofit program and member organization of Intersection for the Arts started in 2008 that aims to make creative writing workshops accessible for everyone. Green Windows holds a public workshop once a month at the Omni Commons, although they are currently searching for a more accessible and stable location. They also run writing workshops at senior centers, homeless shelters, juvenile halls, and more. Green Windows is support “for people who don’t have support for their creativity” and “brings very different people together in a safe way, to get to know each other, through their creativity,” said Simmons.
There are no teachers in the workshops, only facilitators. “I don’t consider it teaching and that’s a really important aspect of it,” said Simmons, “The work is done as a group. We learn from each other, so we’re all there as teachers, we’re all there as learners.” Both Simmons and her apprentice, Jenna Frisch, facilitate workshops, and the workshops not only help people to write but carry with them a life philosophy. That philosophy, as Simmons and Frisch told me, is to “look for what you like.” “We have this tendency to lean into pain, lean into criticism, lean into all the things that aren’t working,” Frisch said. Both Frisch and Simmons believe there is a better way, whether it be in your writing, your body, or your personal life.
To put this into perspective, Simmons gave the example of asking her 5 year old niece to employ this approach at an art museum. “We walk in and I’m like, ‘Hey, just look for what you like. Tell me what you like from what you see’, and we had so much fun,” Simmons said. “It made her pay attention to things, and she found beautiful things that I might not have necessarily seen myself. It’s just a completely different approach to life.” In this way, the AWA Method allows people to approach creative endeavors whether they believe they have talent or not.
At a typical Green Windows workshop, participants take some time to write on a prompt and then read what they wrote aloud to one another. After reading, participants are welcome to comment on the writer’s work, specifically pointing out the things they liked about the piece, or the things that are working well. “It’s an amazing way to learn by reinforcing what’s working in our own writing. But also by looking for what’s working in other people’s writing, we can see what might be missing in our own,” said Simmons.
This method was created by Amherst Writers and Artists, an organization that functions on the basis that “every person is a writer, and every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn, and develop craft.” Simmons and all other Green Windows facilitators are AWA certified, and hold all of their workshops under the same philosophy.
Both Simmons and Frisch feel strongly that they don’t want to put anyone out or push anyone away by the idea of having to speak in front of the group, or share personal information. For that reason, everyone is welcome to skip their turn to share, and all work that is read aloud is treated as fiction. “We’re not here to get to know each other, we’re here to help each other with our writing, so we don’t need to know whether or not it’s true,” Simmons said. Treating all writing as fiction takes the pressure off anyone who doesn’t want to share their personal life with the group, and in the end, allows participants to write in a more authentic manner. “If you get a bunch of people from really different backgrounds together who wouldn’t normally cross paths, and you’re like ‘Hey, have a conversation,’ that may or may not go well. It may be super hard.” said Simmons. But having that conversation by “being our authentic creative selfs” leads to more productive results, according to Simmons.
Everyone is welcome to the public workshops, whether they consider themselves a writer or not, and they are welcome to join the group for any reason. “We have people who are there to work on novels,” Frisch said, “and we have people who are there because writing is community and writing in this way feels good.” Green Windows doesn’t have one particular objective for their participants. “I’ve had writers leave the workshop, tweak what they worked on and get it published. I’ve seen entire novel manuscripts written. Other people will never look at stuff again. It’s really individual,” said Simmons. This lack of a particular objective can be freeing for many people, allowing them to let go of competition and let the writing be therapeutic. “When groups have a result in mind, it can put people out and create competition,” said Frisch, “and [Green Windows] really doesn’t. [Green Windows] dismantles the way we think about learning, and what creative interaction and creative community looks like.”
There is a supposition that only some people are creative, and that only those people need partake in creative endeavors. Green Windows is of the mind that not only can everyone be creative, everyone can reap mental and physical benefits from tapping into their creative side. “I hear a lot of people say I’m not creative, I don’t know about this, I don’t do this kind of writing,” said Simmons, but after going to a workshop, many people have told Simmons that “[Green Windows] has allowed them to access some space in themselves that they didn’t know was there.”
The main goal of a Green Windows workshop is to get people writing. “You know a workshop isn’t for you when you leave it and you don’t feel like writing anymore,” said Simmons, “but if you leave and you want to keep writing, no matter what, that’s a win.” Green Windows workshops aim to do just that, regardless of whether that writing will be published in the future or not.
Before Green Windows, Simmons worked for an anti-poverty human rights organization, The International ATD Fourth World Movement. After learning about the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method, she created Green Windows as a way to marry her love of social justice with her love of creative writing. “I think it’s really important in any sort of social justice work, that you’re doing it with something you’re passionate about,” said Simmons. Simmons currently works part-time at the Oakland Public Library alongside running and facilitating workshops. “I decided fairly quickly that I didn’t want to have Green Windows pay my rent,” said Simmons, “I wanted it to develop more organically, which is what happened.”
Simmons plans to keep Green Windows as a small-scale organization, so she doesn’t have to spend time running a large non-profit and can stay true to her vision, focusing on what what really matters to her—helping people write. “I want it to be free to evolve as itself,” she said, “even if Green Windows stays just as small as it is now, if people come through the door and they go off having learned something, then the work is being spread without my having to grow the organization at all.”
Crux and Green Windows have similar missions; to encourage creativity and provide a space for all voices, including those who don’t already have support for their creativity. If you’d like to participate in Green Windows, monthly workshops open to the public are held from 7pm-10pm every fourth Sunday of the month at the Omni Commons in Oakland, CA. A sliding scale donation of $1-$40 is required. Visit www.greenwindowswriters.org for more info.
To read poetry and stories written by Green Windows participants, download Crux Magazine Issue #1, here