Annie Lewis — Santa Fe, NM:
The first time I experienced Anya’s teaching was in a one day workshop on Creating Character. Anya is a riveting teacher. The class was an intoxicating blend of meticulous planning and wild flights of inspiring improvisation. Her passion for writing colored everything: I was captivated by the inspiring way she spoke of writing. Spontaneous poetry sprung from her mouth, her eyes gleamed, her hands flew around her. Her voice spilled out author’s names, the names of books. All was informed with her own deep appreciation for the mystery of literature, the birth and life of character, the eyes and voice of the narrator, the song of story, the breath of sentence.
Before the mid-morning break, I had decided that she was to one I wanted to study with. I teamed up with a friend who was also at the workshop, and we began to organize classes for her in Santa Fe.
We offered her four part syllabus “Elements of Story.” In the first part, Anya provides an authoritative foundation in storytelling, skillfully and articulately exploring the basics of bringing stories to life. Then, in the next three parts, she systematically deconstructs those elements, clarifying the rules and then sharing potent examples of writers who break them all. Each eight week series becomes more and more outrageous, until by the end, she has exploded everything you think you know about writing.
As I progressed through the classes, I began to see that anything was possible if I stayed true to my vision and immersed myself in the world I was creating through words. My writing woke up and began to live, to spark and crackle and jump off the page.
One thing that amazed me was the way she could hone in on the missing places in people’s writing, the secret blind spots, the underlying gaps that made things not work. It was fascinating to see her do this for the writers in the class. Just listening to her I learned so much. When it came to my work, she pointed out that I had a habit of accomplishing something through my writing, and then proceeding to tell the reader just what I was doing, in case they didn’t get it. This, I realized, came from feeling I had that no one listened to me, coupled with a lack of faith in my writing. After she pointed this out, I saw it everywhere, and I went through and edited it all out. The writing had so much more power once I did this.
Through the focused teachings Anya gave about narrator, I discovered the voice of the being who was telling the story of my novel, and she became so fully embodied that her wisdom began to inform everything. Paradoxically, my narrator’s specific perspective simultaneously broke the story open and provided a container that allowed what needed to happen to manifest.
I remember I once said to a group of my fellow students, “If Anya has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing we can’t do.” Everyone in the room agreed.
I came out of this series of classes with a feeling of empowerment and freedom: the freedom to speak my truth under all circumstances. It is this freedom that Anya has fearlessly dedicated herself to, in her own writing, and in her teaching.
I think this is addressed most directly in her legendary class series Writing for Social Change. Just listen to the class titles: Re-dream a Just World. Place and Exile, Borders and Crossings. Yearning and Justice: Writing the Unlived Life.
What I’m finding now is that the notebooks I filled during her classes have become a treasure chest. I can go back to the notes I took on her lectures and our discussions, back to the writing suggestions, back to the in-class writing topics, and find renewed inspiration any time I am stuck, or just want to tap in to her contagious love of literature. Some of us who took her class have continued to meet, and we have found that doing this together is a good way for us to write in our meeting. Her dynamism is so palpable that it springs back to life just from reading the notes. Take this example, which I found by opening my notes at random; “Go home. Take out the last thing you wrote. Put it on your desk. Look at it with awe, as if it is a new being, a tiny bit of God, a flame that warms but does not burn, a mystery that is opening leaf by leaf. Pick it up and put it down. Breathe it in, put your hand on it and describe what it means to you, its effects on you. What it does to you, what it is to you.”
When I introduced Anya at a reading here in Santa Fe, I ended my introduction with these words:
“One might be tempted to surreptitiously collect relics: her eyelash, her old book marks, the cup she drinks her tea from, as if just holding them would reveal unexplored worlds.”
I then quoted one of my fellow students, Amy Fisher. “There was my writing before Anya, and my writing after Anya.”
Working with Anya has forever changed my relationship to writing, pulling it from deep in my unconscious up into the light of inquiry. I had been writing for quite a while, following the movements of my mind, my own impulses as to how to tell a story, and suddenly through her teachings I saw that I have so many choices as to how to proceed at each moment. Writing has become so much more playful and exciting. Since I have been working with Anya I appreciate the infinite complexity and richness of working with words, and writing has become the most intellectually challenging thing I have ever encountered. The joy I now get from my relationship to my craft is immense.
These are but a small portion of the gifts she had given me.
Amy Fisher — Wildlife Biologist
As a teacher and editor of my memoir in progress, Anya opened a portal to my imagination, allowing me to write stories in ways I never envisioned. Under Anya’s tutelage, I wrote passages that went into my book virtually unchanged. Invariably, they are the parts that are most alive. I won the 2006 New Mexico Discovery Award, first prize in non-fiction, for a story I began in Anya’s class. I divide my writing into two phases: pre-Anya and post-Anya. There is no comparison.
When Anya spoke in class, a hush fell over the room. Entranced, we listened to what this divine creature with the flaming red hair had to say. For inspiration, she read excerpts from the best writers of our time: Edward P. Jones, Michael Ondaatje, Sherman Alexie, Kathryn Harrison, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver and more. She expounded on subtext, metaphor, voice, characterization, conflict, and loss and how to stay in the dream of the story. With equal doses of empathy and passion, Anya compelled us to “look for cracks and allow the demons and angels in.” Like an alchemist, she concocted ideas for stories that took shape in our minds. We wrote in class and we wrote at home and when we read out loud, our hearts pounded hard. Finally, we could see where the energy dipped and where the story took flight.
As an editor, Anya showed me how to separate my narrator from my character to make both more effective. This was a major breakthrough. She also recognized powerful themes in my work that I hadn’t seen, so I was able to develop them further. She gently pointed out where I generalized or used poetry to suppress difficult passages. Anya didn’t change my voice, but rather sought clarification, deepening, symmetry, and closure with generous doses of encouragement and humor.
If my house were burning down, I would grab artwork, my book, and the notebooks I wrote in Anya’s classes. If you’re looking for an average writing teacher or editor, go elsewhere. Anya resides in the upper stratosphere of creativity and, if you let her, will lift your writing to heights you never dreamed possible.
Dora Wang, M.D. — Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, University of New Mexico School of Medicine
Since I first started taking classes and working individually with Anya, I have sold my memoir to Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Books, I have received a writing residency from the Lannan Foundation, and I have had several short works published. It is rare to find a teacher who is not only expert in the technical aspects of writing, but who has a deep appreciation of literature and literary theory, and who is a terrific muse. Anya puts her heart into her teaching. She is always prompt and professional. For her students, Anya makes a world conducive for creating–one of beauty, trust and high standards.
Jennifer Ruden, MFA University of Oregon graduate, has published four short stories, a number of articles, and been a teacher and literacy advocate. She is working on her first novel, Leaving Utopia.
The worst thing I did was to study writing in an academic setting. It stalled my progress and hindered my voice. Such politically-fueled pedagogy was pointless; moreover, it made the entire writing process conscious, negating the notion that at the core of writing resides mainly magic. The best thing I did was study writing with Anya Achtenberg for several years. She was able to bring me back to writing, gently. She is a nurturing teacher and compassionate as well as keen reader. She is truly gifted in both writing and teaching-a rare combination, one that should be embraced as well as celebrated. My writing shined with Anya, her insights there to illuminate it.
Marilise Tronto, Representative to the United Nations of The International Women’s Writing Guild
…I’ve been to many workshops of many kinds, all of which have left an imprint, and I’ve been fortunate to attend several of yours. Your work has always struck me so deeply; and clearly I am not alone in this response. But I must say the most recent Big Apple was by far the most impacting event in which you shared your teaching; your ongoing growth as a human and an artist amplifies your teaching accordingly….
Your lifetime of artistry is woven through your scholarship and your thoughtful respect for the many authors you reference, yet more importantly through your respect for each individual in your audience. It’s rare to experience a master teacher affirming and encouraging the fledgling master within each student.
Right from the start, somehow you embraced everyone in the room. While that’s unusual, what was more remarkable was how fully you entered each person’s heart. The shift in the room was immediate and striking. Everyone forgave themselves for anything that could hold them back and threw caution to the winds, plunging in courageously to doing the work of the workshop. Your writing exercises are phenomenal launching pads, but everyone was listening to you so intently while simultaneously engaged in deep movement inside themselves. I don’t know how you effected this transformation, or what persuasion you invoked to ignite the room into instant bloom. Everyone was glowing with eagerness to share their thoughts….In your inimitable fashion, you opened our awareness to help us recognize the truth that what we seek so ravenously externally lies within. We are both the question and our answer.
Somehow, your Big Apple teaching let me into the room of myself with all the lights turned on. What feels most remarkable is that now, months afterward, I feel certain I won’t let my light go out again. The illumination has lasted-thus, not a workshop high, but a new way of being. You unlocked the armor and flung open the portals to honoring my fullness, and gave me handles and toeholds to access and develop it in new ways.
Thank you for being such a supportive mentor- your teaching is poetic, steeped in social justice wisdom and a potency spoken from the margins, your voice a collective of voices, broad and peripherally diverse. I think of nets, networks. Your voice as a writer and teacher makes the strands of space that connects more visible. You do that when you teach I think, evoke the deep hidden layers of meaning, the interstices of silence where potent stories reside and you tease them from others by the way you speak, the way you hint at the interweavings within a life, a character’s perceptions, the nuances of truth.
Anya worked with me on my fourth novel, The Blind Eye, a parallel story of forced conversions in 16th century Portugal and a contemporary Cuban-American woman searching for her identity. Her insights were remarkable. With her astute suggestions I honed it into a piece I felt could be submitted to a contest. And, indeed, I won First Prize from the Arizona Author’s Association!
Marcia Fine, Gossip.com; Boomerang–When Life Comes Back to Bite You; Paper Children; A Blind Eye (winner of 1st prize in the unpublished novel category from the Arizona Author’s Association)
Anya Achtenberg has been my inspiration and teacher extraordinaire. I have followed her all over the country because of her unique way of teaching and her ability to inspire. She reads quotes from other authors and poets, creating a safe space for us to express ourselves.
I have also worked with her one-on-one and completed two historical novels under her tutelage. She is insightful and very intelligent. Her breadth of knowledge as well as compassion make her unique. Patience and clarity in terms of character analysis are helpful; hers is extraordinary, as though she was in my characters’ heads, too.
Anya is by far the most talented instructor I have worked with after taking years of writing instruction. I highly encourage anyone who wants to be a better writer to take advantage of her talent.
Shanti Bannwart, Licensed Psychotherapist, M.A. and Life-Coach; Santa Fe, NM
I have worked with Anya Achtenberg for several years, in small groups and large workshops. I seek her out and follow her workshop schedules closely, because I see her as unique in her style of teaching.
- Anya thinks, perceives and teaches on the fertile “bottom of the creative river”, she is not interested in the surface and the obvious, she immediately dives deep.
- Anya poses questions that invite this depth, she goes to the source of thoughts, perceptions and belief systems, she shakes the ground the writer is standing on and that opens cracks in the “already known” so that one sees through to new places of reality.
- Anya is never theoretical, she invents the truth freshly, in participation with her students, she invites and calls for authentic seeing and writing.
- Anya is authentic from such a strong place that I totally trust her. Her urge to find the bones inside the outer appearance of things is highly infectious. She opened viewpoints for me that blew like a fresh storm through established fields of fixed ideas and turned them creatively upside-down.
- Anya’s teaching style is unusual, she is always a partner in exploration more than somebody who thinks they already know.
- Anya’s assignments have often startled and challenged me. The result showed up as a totally new piece, like remodeling a house. Very exciting and surprising.
- I have recently published several essays that were “remodeled” during my work with her.
- Anya is disciplined and devoted to her work, she always starts a session with a specific topic for learning and teaching. I love her examples, her mentioning of specific works and her quotes. I know that I will continue to be her student and that there will be no end to her power of inspiration and encouragement.
Brenda Weihl Santa Fe, NM
Anya teaches the craft of writing in a gentle, non-threatening, supportive way, dosed with humor. I feel so fortunate to have found her!
Anya’s classes allowed me to not just be able to re-dream a world but to re-dream a universe! With me in it! My glorious writer’s self!
Anya’s classes were a path into helping me successfully find my inward voice which now in the present has allowed me to write in a fury! Since Anya’s class I have had the opportunity to do poetry readings in Chicago, and created a writing group called The Night of the Living Tongues.
Judi Behrendt, Public Health Nurse; Hospice Nurse
There are no words to describe the admiration I have for the work of Anya Achtenberg. In addition to being one of the most remarkable, talented writers I have ever read, she is “luminous” as a teacher of writing!! I have had the opportunity to attend several of Anya’s workshops and each one has been so powerful and motivating that it has led me to write in ways I had never previously suspected that I even had in me! When she stands before a group to teach she is filled with life, and becomes absolutely radiant with love for the word, and love for the people she teaches. I have attended many writing workshops throughout my life, and Anya’s have been the most exciting, unique, and productive I have ever experienced. I have also had the privilege to have Anya do editing work for me, and she gave my work the kind of deep, loving, and careful attention that each of us wishes that an editor will give to our “beloved creations!” If that’s not enough, Anya is a beautiful, powerful woman and human being, who believes that we can “change the world” with our writing, and she shows us how to have the courage to do so. There is really nothing more I can say, except “take Anya’s workshops!!”
Zoe Krasney, University of British Columbia: Low-Residency MFA.
Through my years working with Anya as my writing teacher, coach, and inspiration, one phrase of hers echoes in me whenever I reach towards the empty page: go deeper within. Anya’s joyful teaching method has served in all my writing, to take each step as a journey into the unknown fathoms of the human heart, a place where, instead of being frighteningly alone, we find the deepest connections to one another… I’m now taking poetry in my MFA program, which I hadn’t written in 40 years. Though I want to get back to longer work-probably focusing on creative non-fiction-I submitted a poem to the Palabras Press poetry contest and won second prize. They have offered to publish a chapbook, which I’ll finish in April.
Norma S. Tucker, Ed.D.; Bethesda, Maryland
To be a participant in Anya’s workshops is to enter the entrancing, sensitive, intelligent world of a gifted teacher, writer, and storyteller. Anya creates workshop story; lets us wonder and wander in her tale of the magic of writing, of writing truth. She, as the storyteller genie, rubs the vessel of the group, collectively, and of each individual, urging the bringing forth of truth – imagined and unimaginable; fancy and folly and oftimes horribly foul. She offers delicately, deliberately, and appropriately her story; her knowledge of writing, of particular writers, and written works to inspire, to describe, to relish, to allow her participants to discover how we move “beyond inhibitory shame” to tell the “fullness of being,” our being.
I’ve attended two of Anya’s workshops: The Power of Autobiography and Autobiographical Fiction, and Writing for Social Change: Redream a Just World. After each, I’ve returned to my writings with newly learned and reinforced dimensions-to shape more fully, delve more deeply, to narrate my truth, what happens, what makes us, what makes us tell.
After the first workshop, I submitted three pieces for publication. One went to the final round of consideration in a literary journal; for an anthology, one editor wrote, “You are a gifted and talented writer….” Another still remains “under consideration.”
Soon after the second workshop, I submitted a new writing to The Taos News. It appeared in that publication a few weeks later.
I reread my Anya notebooks, write from her prompts about things I could not in the time of a workshop. I review her lyrics and picture the room and the people, as we responded to her genie-us and imagined and brought forth.
Jonean Walton; Joy in Disguise (memoir); B.B.A. and M.A. in Counseling
Three years ago I had the opportunity to attend an International Women’s Writers Guild seminar where Anya held a one day workshop. Through her teaching techniques and working with her for a year, she helped transform my 70 page book a 190 page memoir. By giving me the tools and skills to see the world through my characters’ eyes, I was able to birth them from a life of black and white into a life full of color.
Anya gave me the confidence to find my voice to reach my dream. A few weeks ago, I met my mentor and agent. Now it looks like my first book very possibly will be published by the spring of ’08. Not bad for a woman who has lived with a severe speech impediment for 43 years and had trouble believing my “voice” was worthy to be heard. Thanks Anya!
Charlotte Taft, New Mexico
I first came into contact with Anya Achtenberg at an International Women’s Writers Guild conference in 2003. I had seen a notice in the newspaper and knew, I needed to be there with the kind of non-logical knowing that I have learned to trust. I had been writing a novel since the dawn of time, and it was occurring to me that perhaps I should have learned something about writing first. Oh well. It was a large group. Anya read from fascinating poetry and prose, and had us writing in no time. After each exercise Anya invited people to share what they had written. I didn’t share anything, but my heart opened to a whole new possibility for my writing. When a few of the participants set up ongoing classes with Anya, I was committed. I went to many classes with Anya after that. Every one of them was rich and inspiring. Anya was so generous in sharing her breadth and depth of knowledge and her appreciation for the beauty of words and phrases. The work I did in those classes was vital and immediate and more real than any writing I had done before. I learned so much abut how to pare down–and about how to come to my work with new perspective. As I started to feel braver about sharing my work, I developed more confidence and an appreciation for the intimacy that developed. I’m still working on the novel. I can’t honestly say whether it will ever be published. But I can say that my own experience of writing and creating has been changed forever by working with Anya. If you have this opportunity in your life, take it.