Hanna Neuschwander's Learning Story


I was trained in school and through my early professional career to write and edit, to think and communicate clearly. Along with that training — which came packaged in an excellent, challenging education — I also learned to be a bit of a snob. I read books I was supposed to read, I could define “synecdoche” and follow iambic tetrameter in a poem, and I quietly judged people who didn’t punctuate or capitalize in emails.
About two years ago, to escape the loneliness of freelance editing from home, I decided to do some volunteering. I found a group called Write Around Portland that advertised the opportunity to be a volunteer editor. The organization runs writing workshops for people that wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to write in a community of other writers. Write Around Portland teams up with social service and education agencies, like residential treatment centers for youth with addiction problems, or shelters for battered women, or the VA, or jails, and they offer 10-week writing courses.
Many of the people in these workshops had bad experiences in schools. They had been told, in one way or another, that they weren’t capable or worthy of achieving much in the way of an education, and some are consequently prone to resisting someone (possibly someone younger than them, with less life experience), standing at the front of the room and instructing them in how to “properly” construct a metaphor. That’s just not likely to work for them. And, more to the point, not likely to add in any meaningful way to their eventful lives. So these workshops are run more like conversations. You sit and write, you share, you talk, you learn from the people around you. You practice, in small but concrete ways, supporting the other people in your group. You learn about them from their writing. You might discover that people have very different ways of using punctuation, but that each way is capable of conveying the singular power of someone’s voice or their story. In education circles, it’s called “meeting the student where they are,” or, more formally, constructivism. In human terms, it’s about humility — recognizing that people, adults and children alike, bring more to the table than they are usually given credit for.I’ve never actually been to one of these workshop. I only read what comes out of them. At the end of each 10-week session an anthology is produced, one piece of writing from each of the workshops. I get the finished anthology and I edit it for typos, formatting, grammatical errors — although the vast majority of these are left untouched, as I evaluate whether they convey a voice, a circumstance, or an intentionality on the part of the author. To do this, I have to suppress every instinct I have about language and completely relearn how I was taught to judge writing. I sit with each anthology for hours over two to three days. I pore over each piece. I make changes, then go back and unmake them, then remake and unmake them again.
My training did not prepare me to listen to a writer’s voice, no matter how unpolished or untrained. I had to learn that punctuation is much more flexible and powerful a tool than I imagined. I had to unlearn the meaning of “error.”
Technically, there are errors all over these pieces — sentences that stretch on exhaustively, like balls of yarn, raps with tortured tenses like this one: “I gone loved you an hate you till the day I die,” endless numbers of poems about wizards and goddesses and swirling purple skies of rage. But when you spend an hour with one of these pieces, you begin to be able to unravel its inner logic and catch a glimpse of the person who created it. I begin to feel very lucky to have some knowledge of these people’s lives, their stories. The best function of literature, the one that has propelled it along for hundreds of years, is its ability to find the cracks in the world we think know and to widen the chink, bringing us closer to other people — even complete strangers — in the process.
I wouldn’t have learned half of what I have learned if it weren’t for the people doing the writing, and the people who felt it was important to run these workshops. Their deep compassion and love of their work was enough to cause me to rethink my training, to give me pause long enough to consider that this paradigm shift might be worth exploring. Once each anthology is edited and out of my hands, it goes off a printing shop. Three times a year at a church downtown hundreds of people gather, arranging themselves on tightly-packed folding chairs, to listen and support the workshop participants as they read their poems and fiction from the anthology. They are family, they are friends, they are fellow writers, and they are people like me, who only attend church three times a year for this gathering of souls, to feel part of something meaningful and life-changing. There is mmm-hmm-ing, there are confirmations (“Tell it, Sonya, just tell it”), we clap, we laugh, we share Kleenex, we accommodate those around us, we lift up those before us, we feel bigger and better than we did an hour before. The opportunity to hear and see these people, these voices that I’ve struggled with and come to admire, is confirmation of the value of my newfound humility. They have no idea how much they have changed me, but I thank them all the same.