Saturday, April 10, 2010

AWP, Day Three

Up and down day at the conference today. At breakfast this morning, at a cafe around the corner from our hotel, we spotted an old friend, a fellow who once taught at UCA with my wife and I but who has since moved to upstate New York. With him was his ten year old daughter, who I remember as a little babe, born as she was while our friend still lived in Arkansas. After breakfast, I stuck to my promise to myself and worked for a while on the novel. I was rewarded with some ideas on how to better arrange the Antwerp section, which has always felt weak to me. (More on that in another post.)

I hurried over to the conference at around 10:30 and attended two sessions, neither of which were completely satisfying, delivering less than they advertised. (A frequent problem at AWP.) The first session was about managing one's novel from start to finish, which sounds expansive, deliberate, usefully thorough. Unfortunately, none of the panelists presented papers; it was solely discussion. I have nothing against focused and informative discussion, but I've found in my career as a conference goer that discussions can too easily devolve into chit chat and laugh lines. That happened in this session, and as a result the scope wasn't nearly as thorough as it could have been. In a panel discussion it's imperative for the leader to keep the group on track, ask pointed questions, and keep in mind the original promise of the session. The leader of this session started out trying to do so but was almost immediately derailed by one of the panelists, a well known and charming fiction writer (who was once a professor of mine at George Mason), given to telling funny stories and/or making impassioned rants. Every time he spoke today it seemed that discussion ground to a halt. Questions did not pass from him to other panelists, but stopped, I guess because he seemed to talk so authoritatively and/or wittily. This was unfortunate because some of the questions--whether they came from the leader of the panel or from an audience member--were directed to all members of the panel, specifically asking for feedback from all of them. It was by no means a completely unprofitable session, but it was hardly the soup-to-nuts overview promised by the session description.

The second session I attended was even more disappointing. This session was centered around the "how and why of employing unusual points of view in fiction writing." I knew things were not going to go well when the very first speaker started off by saying "It's the afternoon of the last day of AWP, and I don't feel like talking very much." Excuse me? The room was jammed--worse than any other session I've attended--with people eager to hear about the advertised topic, and she just excused herself from doing so? In that case, step off the panel. This is another example of a phenomenon that burns up my wife (and about which she has written at length): writers who seem to feel that the world owes them a living just because they are writers. As teachers they shouldn't be expected to put the least energy into their teaching--despite the fact that they are getting paid for it--and as panelists they are allowed to blow off the assignment with a breezy, grinning "I just don't feel like it today." We're supposed to just chuckle and let them off the hook. Bullshit. That room was packed with people and that panelist abandoned them. As the discussion continued, the "how and why" was barely touched on; panelists more or less just described some stories they had written. How teachers should broach the question of point-of-view with their students was a subject completely ignored. Most strange was the fact that the panel was organized as a discussion (groan) rather than a presentation of papers, despite the fact that almost all the panelists had written papers for the session. Did the panel leader not know this or not care? It became frustrating hearing panelist after panelist say "Well, I said this a lot more thoroughly in my paper, but . . ." and then proceed to give a brief, watered down, and not terribly illuminating or original comment on point of view in fiction. Why, I thought, don't you just read your papers? I don't understand this attitude that written and delivered papers are inherently boring. Not if they're well written, they aren't. And we're writers, after all. We're always going to be more interesting, more thoughtful, more original, and more cogent in our written speech than our spoken words. So give us your written words! I quickly lost heart, sitting there on the floor, listening to drivel offered up as insight. (At one point one of the panelists seemed to be claiming third person omniscience as an unusual and original point of view.) With about a half hour remaining in the session, I left. Not just the panel but the building. I needed to see some more of Denver--something else I promised myself before I came. So I walked to the vicinity of the state capitol building and found myself at the Denver Art museum, where I passed (finally!) a useful hour looking around.

So I don't sound too much like a grouch, I should say that between sessions today I manned the Exquisite Corpse booth, and along with selling some copies of the journal I wrote some poems! Inspired by the incredibly energetic, linguistically swirling prose poems of Skip Fox--whose book Delta Blues I bought yesterday--I wrote a few of my own. I couldn't help myself. Skip put energy into my head that just had to get out.

In a little bit I'll head to my final session at the conference: a session on historical fiction. Given the pressing matter of getting my Van Gogh novel successfully revised and done, I'm hoping this proves to be an illuminating session. Later, my wife and I will have dinner with two old friends from our doctoral student days at University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Yesterday, we had drinks with Heather Cox, a UCA Writing Department graduate, who is really throwing herself into the MFA program at Roosevelt University, thoroughly enjoying Chicago, throughly shining, and really making our department and our major look good. She's a wonder. Way to go, Heather.

This is probably my last post from Denver. Despite today's grousing, I'm glad I came, and I hope you enjoyed following the conference with me. Next time I post I'll be back in Conway, (constructively) sweating over my novel again. See you then.


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