5 Things I Learned at AWP 2011

This year marked the third year in a row that I attended the annual conference and bookfair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. On Friday and Saturday, I listened to panel discussions about writing and teaching, enjoyed readings by well-known authors (Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris), and wandered the bookfair – a gathering of publishers, literary magazines, and writing programs from all over the country.

My goal this year was to discover new ideas and techniques that I could bring back to the classroom. I attended panels like “The Future of Creative Writing in the Academy” and “Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?”. I also paid close attention to what other writers had to say about craft and teaching writing. I’m happy to say that I made many notes for myself, and I’m even revising my lesson plans to accommodate what I learned. Without further ado, here are five things I learned at AWP 2011:

1. Freewriting may actually inhibit creativity. I often ask my students to “free write” in class, usually for periods of 10 minutes at a time. I try to make the freewriting as focused as possible by giving them a specific topic or task. However, I learned that freewriting may actually prevent students from fulfilling their potential. The fact that I’m watching them and making them write under pressure can be a great stressor. I need to make sure that students can also do the work on their own time, in an environment that makes them feel comfortable.

2. “It’s one thing to write about absurdity like Ionesco, and it’s another thing to actually be in that world.” Joyce Carol Oates mentioned this during her reading, and I identified with it so much that I pulled out my notebook and scribbled it down. She was referring to a completely absurd yet very real situation: arriving at a hospital in the middle of the night, after her husband had suddenly died from complications due to pneumonia. If you’re not familiar with Ionesco, he wrote a play called Rhinoceros – almost every person in this play turns into a rhinoceros, which is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of life. Oates, in her memoir about her husband’s death, must write about absurdity in a very real way. She challenges us to write about the “unwriteable” without resorting to rhinoceroses.

3. In order to be good at writing, you have to know everything at once. One of the panelists at the “Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?” panel made this assertion to describe just how difficult teaching creative writing can be. I’ve often thought this while teaching, but I never articulated it as such. In any given class period, I must assume that my students know grammar, understand literary terms, structure sentences correctly, exercise creativity, etc. My ability to teach creative writing depends so much on what the students already know. I’m assuming that their past teachers have taught them enough to let me do my job without backpedaling too far.

4. Students need to be exposed to “weird” texts so that they can discover what does or doesn’t give them pleasure. I should expose my students to nontraditional texts from various cultures and time periods, in order to give them a chance to decide what they do and don’t like about reading. This way, they know what options they have when they sit down to do their own writing. I struggled with this issue last semester, when I gave my students a text that wasn’t very well received. At the bookfair, I actually ran into a representative from Coffee House Press, the publisher responsible for this text, and she thought it was really great that I was trying to teach such a challenging, boundary-pushing book. In the future, I will not be afraid to add similar texts to my syllabus.

5. “Self is not a goal but a means.” I’ve often thought this before, but I like the way one panelist worded it so succinctly. Students should focus on turning the attention away from themselves when they write. They can use their own experiences and frame of reference to begin a story or poem, but the goal should not be to indulge themselves. The goal should be to create something with universality.

Also, if you’re curious, I added a few books to my reading list, based on recommendations from people I met at AWP: Beat Not the Poor Desk by Marie Ponsot, Fictions by Michael Martone, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac, The True Subject by Jane Smiley, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings by Robert Smithson, and Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler (which I’m currently reading).

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