Information Sheet # 148

April 28, 2005


[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.

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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 first speaker made two good points:

(1) When we improvise we are not pulling things out of thin air-we work with what's already there.
(2) Repetition makes us feel safe, and variation makes us feel free.

· The second speaker pointed out that wherever we go, whatever we do, we're always churning fiction, from waking up to going to sleep. When you walk you're really having an argument with your mom in your head (creating dialogue, revising the situation, etc). Close to 80% of one's day is caught up in these imaginary encounters (actually, I bet 99% of my day is, but anyhow ).

· The third guy suggested that making fools of oneself via writing is a good way to jog creativity. Because tension in writing is key, and being embarrassed brings about tension.

· The next speaker suggested that sometimes learning about places via reading about them trumps actually doing the traveling. I liked that she mentioned some authors who aren't American that I've read before. I felt like a better person, for a little bit.

· The final speaker had a handout and it had some stuff about Kafka on it and I wept. It was really nice. It had something to do with the simultaneous futility and brilliance of those little things that we think are, well, futile. I need to read some Kafka. This I knew.

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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?"

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FYI: 300 out of 100,000 books published in the U.S. yearly are translated from other languages.

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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."

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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."

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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."

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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.

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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 story.

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.

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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 emulation."

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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.

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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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