Information Sheet # 148
April 28, 2005
AWP CONFERENCE IN VANCOUVER: READERS MOVED TO EMULATION
[On March 31 to April 2, seven Coe students (Corrie Ball, Kayla Goodfellow, Debbie Heckert, Liz Mathews, Liz Nicklos, Heather Petsche, & Jill Steffen) and I attended the Association of Writing Programs Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. During the three-day conference, we heard over 50 presentations and public readings by authors such as Anne Carson, Maxine Kumin, Ursula K. LeGuin, W. S. Merwin, Susan Musgrave, and Michael Ondaatje. Following the conference, everyone posted their conference notes to the Writing Center's Moodle. Printed below are excerpts from those observations. -Bob Marrs]
I wish that "undergraduate" was actually "underground."
I'd feel a lot cooler, somehow.
~ ~ ~
Attending a session called "Jazzing the Muse." There was loud jazz music pounding through this small room when I walked in. I admired the view of the mountain through the window that was right behind the presenters-even if the speaking was dull I'd have something to look at, I thought.
The next presenter made me feel as though everything I've
ever written is frivolous and dumb. But I really liked what
he had to say. He pointed out that in the U.S. we write
about things that are more personal, internal; literature
of the uninterrupted life; largely untaxed and/or ignorant
of history. Elsewhere, where people have to fight for things
like individual freedom, the literature is more politically
engaged. He suggested that American writers have a problem
with a scope too small. Here is something he left us with:
Our task should not be "how do I make the world better?"
but "how do I keep from making the world worse?"
~ ~ ~
FYI: 300 out of 100,000 books published in the U.S. yearly
are translated from other languages.
~ ~ ~
This guy from Las Vegas had a really cool notion about
the evolution of writing workshops and why there is such
a need in academia for a haven for writers. He said that
in "old times," the court society writers had
patrons. Then, in the Salon society, there was a gathering
and big exchange of ideas. Then, in Cafe society (Gertrude
Stein and company) there was a "hot house" gathering
place for writers. Now artists are "institutionalized."
In our society, we need the institution to trade ideas,
trade manuscripts, etc. . . . even though when it comes
right down to it, we "may not feel like we belong there."
~ ~ ~
Ron Carlson says the first draft is about letting go .
. . the second draft is about control-finding it again.
Carlson also said that he misses typewriter days: "If
you meant to hit an R and you hit K instead, you found another-usually
better-word that starts with K."
~ ~ ~
A quote from Ron Carlson (who, I wrote, is funny): "My
career as a writer is based on the fact that I don't leave
the room the first time I want to. I stay there 20 minutes."
~ ~ ~
The session on Creative Non-Fiction was the
best session I attended. Lee Gutkind talked about structure.
He believes in telling stories through scenes, and says
that structure is a frame for the story. The line that connects
it all. He also says that in good nonfiction there is a
public and a private story--a personal narrative as well
as a sense of shared experience.
Philip Lopate got up and created tension--because
"a good piece needs tension, and so does a good panel."
He rebutted everything that Gutkind said, and I agreed.
He fears the techniques of fiction and poetry make his students
afraid to think on the page. "The personal essay has
more flexibility than the short story--that's why I like
it!" You can discover the structure as you go, and
you don't have to always be narrative. The true spirit
of the essay is to "figure it out on the page. Don't
just re-create . . . bring your present consciousness to
it." And don't shy away from abstract language.
"I want to read someone whose mind is interesting to
me." It's not as simple as finding a set of scenes
and stringing them together. We all begin with fragmentation.
Brenda Miller said: "Feeling must give
way to form." The Experience and the Artifact are always
going to be separate. "All writing is lying. All writing
is telling the truth." The conscious use of form will
sometimes help the truth to come out. We use artifice to
get to the truth. "The more freedom we have to do what
we want, the harder it gets to dig deep." We build
the corral as we reinvent the horse. (Love this.) Form is
fluid and depends on content.
~ ~ ~
Session on the intimate voice in creative non-fiction.
Sue William Silverman began the session by describing conversations
overheard on a bus in Washington, D.C. She noted how we
immediately begin to care about people as soon as we hear
their voices, the intimate speech of people on a bus. The
voices draw us to these people. Silverman suggested that
effective non-fiction depends on integrating into one's
writing an intimate, whispering, "horizontal"
voice and a more analytical, "vertical" voice
that takes us deeper into the story, that depends on interpretation
and establishes a distance from the events in order to reflect
on the events. These two voices don't establish different
points of view but rather different depths, the immediate
story and the deeper exploration for understanding of the
The second speaker in the session was Joe Mackall, editor
of the journal Riverteeth. Mackall admitted he always has
trouble finding his voice in writing. It's hard to do, like
finding one's soul. He talked about how he often had to
experiment with different voices while writing essays. For
example, he might initially adopt a voice to get started,
to access the material, but he might not stay with that
voice throughout the writing. Mackall quoted Richard Rhodes,
"Voice is always, to some degree, made up for the occasion."
The third speaker on the panel was Dinty Moore, who teaches
at one of the Penn State campuses. He emphasized that when
reading we want to feel the person behind the text, we want
both the story and the teller of the story. Moore was followed
by Nancy Lord, a non-fiction author from Alaska, who recalled
E. B. White's remark that what he liked about writing essays
was the process of going to Montaigne's closet and taking
from it a cloak of Montaigne's that could be used to hide
oneself for the writing that day. Lord talked about her
personal reticence in talking about herself in her writing,
but she still felt that a close attention to precise, accurate
detail made possible a personal, intimate voice. This intimacy
enables the writer to "seduce" the reader.
The final speaker was Steven Harvey from Georgia. He suggested
that all essay writing was whispered, sotto voce. Essays
are not concerned with argument or debate. In fact, true
personal essayists refuse to argue, to be combatants. The
goal is not to win the game Friday night but to let the
words sink in for Monday morning meditations. The author
seeks a friendly relationship with the reader; it's no accident
it's called the "familiar" essay. He noted how
he spent 15 years writing terrible poetry, and then one
day he switched to the essay genre and immediately the voice,
which had been so ineffective in poetry, was just right
for essays. We need to remind students of the value of genres,
introducing them to a wide variety of genres and subgenres.
~ ~ ~
Beginning writers are often beginning readers (if you want
students to be better writers they need to read a lot).
Quoting Saul Bellow, "Writers are readers moved to
~ ~ ~
Another session with Sue William Silverman, who stated
bluntly at the beginning of her talk about writing personal
memoir, "These stories must be told, must be heard."
She said there may be repercussions, but tell it anyway,
"it's not my job to protect the feelings of others.
. . . I hope they understand, but I can't control how others
feel." Two strategies for overcoming negative feedback
are (1) tell it directly, deepened with metaphor, and (2)
"tell it slant" (Emily Dickinson). Silverman pointed
out that we should tell a story, not a litany of complaints
"which would only interest my therapist," using
creative language to get our point across. If that doesn't
work, she suggested starting with "a subject outside
of one's self" to hook the reader. She mentioned a
story she had written about being part of the Pat Boone
Fan Club, which allowed her to contrast Pat Boone's squeaky
clean Christian image with that of her abusive Jewish father.
She also mentioned critics who question the literary worth
of memoir and pointed out that reviews of men's memoirs-of
battles or politics-were praised and thought "heroic,"
whereas reviews of women's memoirs pictured women as victims
or "navel-gazers." Silverman said she wrote several
"bad novels" prior to her memoirs. "The stories
belong to us . . . ," she said, "by telling secrets,
we become honest writers." The memoir is not telling
about what happened, but rather discovering how one feels
about what happened.
~ ~ ~
Session entitled "Nature Writing in an Age of Irony."
Alison Deming argued that nature writing is definitely not
marginalized. Some nature writing does have a problem of
excessive piousness and sentimentality, but this indulgence
in simplification can be rectified by nature writers staying
closer to scientific truth. A primary function of nature
writing is to translate scientific information into texts
that the public can use so that real work can get done.
Nature writing is essential for our culture because we must
write to tell what it is like to live at this time in history
(paraphrasing a remark by the poet Robert Haas). We don't
choose our subjects, our subjects choose us. Deming quoted
Gary Nabhan's comment that nature writing is the only true
writing and the rest is urban dysfunctional writing.
The poet Ralph Black commented that he was not going to
give a speech but a series of prefaces for a non-existent
speech. He told the audience that he never sits down to
write a nature poem. As for irony and nature: "The
only thing I know about irony is that when I say I don't
know anything about irony, I'm only being slightly ironic."
Irony is very much with us; what is missing is outrage.
Living in a world of wounds, we can't expect poetry to heal
these wounds, but poetry can give us a silence, invoking
the world to question itself.
~ ~ ~
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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.