Back one week now from the sprawling and fascinating AWP–Association of Writers and Writing Programs–Conference in Boston. I try to go every year. Like a super-sized high school reunion (I go to those too), AWP is that crazy mixture of anxiety and old friends, an enormous get-together (this year, over 11, 000 of us!) that inspires both ardent naysayers (many of whom still attend, mind you) and devoted followers. I happen to love it.
I wanted to gather my thoughts on what I got out of this year’s conference. I found myself taking good notes and am going to try to make sense of them for you here.
The first panel I attended was called Bearing/Baring Race in the Creative Writing classroom, a topic I’m very interested in for a lot of reasons–the main one being that I teach many kids of color and am always concerned about their place in my classroom, and the ways in which I draw them in or alienate them. Panelists talked about experiences of feeling challenged by white students when they walk into the classroom and see a non-white teacher. I experience that same feeling from my African-American students though the challenge isn’t about my worthiness to teach in general, my authority, or my credentials, something these panelists do experience. My challenges seem to be about my ability to teach these particular kids. Their faces seem to say: what do you have to teach me? What is it I can possibly learn from you? I have had African American students from Petersburg, VA (where they have attended previously all-black schools) tell me they’ve been taught not to trust any white people, and here they come, into our “white” school, into this classroom with a white teacher who asks them to sit in a circle and talk about a myriad of things they’ve never talked about before. They are used to authority and a teacher up in the front of the classroom telling them what to do. I wanted to hear about the structure of the creative writing classroom–usually a kind of workshop setting–but no one addressed that and I didn’t have the opportunity to ask the question.
The point that stuck with me came from Kwame Dawes, about the failure of empathy being a failure of imagination. How true. And perhaps the most important reason right there about why arts education matters.
The next panel I attended addressed the issue of Zombies and Genre Fiction. Panelists discussed whether or not to allow students to write genre fiction in creative writing workshops. It seems a generally accepted “rule” of most creative writing classrooms–mine included–not to allow students to write genre fiction. What I tell my students is that I’m hoping to teach them to write well period. And by learning to write well, they can write whatever they want. While I was hoping to be convinced to change my policy, I wasn’t. Much of the discussion revolved around the problem of creating a convincing world in genre fiction — which rings true in my experience, at least for the type of genre fiction my students prefer: zombie apocalypse or vampire or other-worldly type stories. These stories require the building of an entire world, and as one panelist suggested, if you can’t take a character on a drive through your own hometown, or write a compelling dinner scene, chances are you can’t create an entire world yet either. Point taken.
Other panel highlights included Women in the Literary Marketplace and Women Writing the Wild–both of which focused on the particular struggles of women writers and the VIDA count: http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count.
I was most taken with Meg Wolitzer, (and can’t wait to read her new novel The Interestings) who raised the issue first in a NY Times Book Review essay “The Second Shelf” –http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
But one the most fabulous moments for me was hearing Jeanette Winterson — who was supposed to be featured in a conversation with Alison Bechdel (who got stuck in the snow and couldn’t make it to Boston) — but who held her own and captivated the huge audience with her humor. Reading, she said, is a democratic act. “The scariest thing for people in control,” Winterson told the audience, “is that they can’t know what is going on in your mind when you read.” She read from her memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal and encouraged us all to get out there and read and write.
A surprise highlight was the panel on Contemporary Writers on Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter. Since I teach American Literature and The Scarlet Letter, I was eager to hear what contemporary writers thought of it. Panelists included Jennifer Haigh, Amy Wright, and Megan Marshall, the author of a new biography of Margaret Fuller — which I bought. The conversation and presentation fascinated from start to finish, ranging from the recent NPR story about online shaming that features The Scarlet Letter:
to Hester as a feminist heroine. Megan Marshall suggested that Hawthorne modeled Hester Prynne after Margaret Fuller, a tidbit that made me even more interested in reading Fuller’s biography. Panelists also discussed the ideas of illicit love that fascinated Hawthorne — according to Marshall, Hawthorne kept his engagement to Sophia Peabody a secret; Amy Wright discussed the idea of all judgment being self-judgment, a kind of blasphemy, especially in Puritan society; and Jennifer Haigh focused on the writerly lessons she learned from reading The Scarlet Letter–the cinematic quality of the story and the dramatic, theatrical language; the narrative voice. I left renewed in my enthusiasm for teaching this classic.
Finally, I attended a panel on Place in Fiction, with Jennifer Haigh and Richard Russo. I’m always drawn to writing in which place figures heavily. One of my earliest impetuses for writing was figuring out what “home” meant to me. After living in Paris, France as a college student where I immediately felt at home–and then spending a year teaching in Senegal, West Africa where I also felt a sense of home, I wanted to explore what home is and how we’re influenced by those places where we live. Now, living in Virginia, I feel more than ever that I’m a true New Englander at heart, that I’m irrevocably marked by my childhood in New England. Richard Russo said that when the world is new, things get imprinted in your brain. He said that this is why the place(s) you live in prior to age 18 have a profound influence in how you see the world. Of his own exploration of place, he said that writing taught him “[he] could only be who [he] was” and not escape his origins or become who he wished to be. Isn’t this the lesson of The Great Gatsby, the tragic lesson that Gatsby never learns but that we readers do? Both Russo and Haigh talked about the connection between geographic place and a way of thinking, the way in which the physical world interacts with the interior mind. This is a goal of my own writing and a phenomenon I’m hoping to demonstrate in my novel-in-progress, The Year of Needy Girls.
And — of course, no AWP round up would be complete without a discussion of the non-literary parts–the conversations with old friends, the book fair, the run-ins I only seem to have at AWP, the book signings (I was thrilled to meet Elizabeth Graver and to have her sign a new copy of The End of the Point — I cannot wait to begin reading. Here’s a link to NY Times book review: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/books/review/the-end-of-the-point-by-elizabeth-graver.html?ref=books):
the dinners– one with ARGS alums, a real delight, at Towne, a trendy restaurant attached to the Hynes Auditorium, and another with new and old friends at The Elephant Walk, a French/Cambodian restaurant that was a favorite when I lived in Somerville and Cambridge. I walked in and talk about feeling at home–the smell of jasmine rice and lemongrass brought me back immediately both to my time in MA and those long-ago days in Senegal. I ordered from the prix fixe menu–crispy spring rolls rolled in basil and lettuce and dipped in fish sauce, and loc lac, spicy and tender beef chunks dipped in a lime sauce, and a French salad of beets and goat cheese that I couldn’t pass up.
And the best thing of all about my time at AWP–I got to spend time with my dear friend Connie Biewald and her family in Cambridge, MA. On the first day of the conference, I walked from Connie’s house to Harvard Square in light snow, reveling in the winter landscape and enjoying the walk through familiar haunts. Friday brought a blizzard that was less fun to travel through, but what else can we expect from a winter conference in New England? I left Boston on a sunny day with temperatures in the 50’s, cyclists and runners clogging the path along the Charles River. I came home excited to be part of this enormous group of writers and readers. How wonderful that so many people care deeply about language and stories. Now, let’s get to it!