Monday, November 26, 2012

Boston and London

2013 promises to be an exciting year of conferencing for me.  It starts in March, as I head to Boston for the annual mammoth necessary insanity of the AWP Conference.   Boston, of course, is one of the great heritage cities of the United States and has the added benefit of being the hometown of my oldest sister.  I'll be wearing two hats at AWP this year.  I'll be there to represent Toad Suck Review, of which I am currently the associate editor, as we share our brand new issue #3 with the world.  (See my previous post for more commentary about this.)  But I will also be speaking on a panel that addresses the subject of novel writing workshops.  Such workshops are a relatively new, but exciting, development in the world of creative writing instruction.  For decades the short story form has dominated fiction workshop activities, and basically for one reason: a class can easily read in advance and discuss in one class period an entire short story (or two or three).  It's a manageable sized bite of work to prepare and process.  Now I adore the short story form--I really do--but it's a fact that most fiction-writers-in-training have their eyes on writing novels eventually (or immediately), and it's also true that novels are typically preferred over story collections in the eyes of publishers.  Most of all it's true that learning to write a successful short story does not really train one to write a successful novel.   They are very different animals.  So what, as creative writing teachers, do we do about this? Do we open up our regular workshop class to both novels and stories?  Or do we create separate classes just for novel writers?  And if the answer to that is yes, can we ask students to write a whole novel in a single semster's time?  Do we expect the whole class to read it?  How do we workshop it?  Does a teacher possibly have time to read 15 or 20 student novels over the course of a semester or at the end of the semester?  These are good, pressing questions, and different teachers--myself included--have come up with their own answers to them.  What we should not and cannot do is fail to encourage our students in their pursuit of longer forms.  That would be a disservice.  By happy fortune, I will again be teaching my Novel Writing course next semester--to a mixed group of graduate and undergraduate students--and therefore I will be able to bring my latest news, and my latest experiences, to the panel discussion.  I'm really looking foward to it.

The wanderings continue this summer when I head off to another of the world's leading cities for the Great Writing Conference, held June 29-30 at the University of London, Imperial College.   The brainchild of Australian Graeme Harper--who studied, wrote, taught, and administered in the UK for decades and does so now in the United
States--Great Writing is in its fifteenth year and going strong.  Without question it is the most important creative writing conference in the United Kingdom and arguably the second most important in the world.  Writers and teachers from virtually every part of the Anglophone world participate.  I submitted both a proposal for a critical presentation--on historical fiction (of course)--and a proposal for a creative presentation.  Graeme later informed me that the selection committee liked both proposals and accepted both, but I had to choose to present one or the other.  As a creative writer, it's my first instinct and my first pleasure to read from my own fiction, so that's what I've decided to do.  I will read from a collection of short stories--half historical and half contemporary in nature--that are all set on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Nantucket is a hisorically fascinating and physically beautiful place, a piece of the United States but at the same time--in rather fundamental matters of personality--not really.  I can't know how many in the audience will have ever been there, but it doesn't really matter.  My job is to bring the island to them.

What an honor to have the chance to speak at both Great Writing and its American predecessor in the same year.  In many ways, Great Writing is a superior experience to the manic, crazy-busy, bacchanalian, writers-on-steroids entity that is AWP.  At Great Writing, the papers seem a tad more thoughtful, the audiences a bit more attentive, and the discussions between sessions more relaxed and more probing.  (Because more time is afforded for them.)  It's a very nourishing conference, and I've missed it.   I last attended Great Writing in 2007, when it was held in Bangor, Wales; the year before that I attended my first Great Writing in Portsmouth.  Both Bangor and Portsmouth are quietly charming locations, cities I was quite glad to get to know.  But it is certainly hard to beat London as a site for a major international conference.  We won't quite stop traffic like the Olympics did, but I like to think that, for a few days at least, Great Writing will something real to the cultural life of the capital.


  1. John, First I'm excited about the novel-writing class. Second, you mentioned AWP as a "mammoth necessity" and while I've never been there I've heard enough stories that I understand the mammoth part. What, in your opinion, makes AWP a necessity? I've met a lot of writers who enjoy going and seeing the panels and reuniting with friends and I've also met writers who see it more as a reunion and who don't care to plug in to the collective mass. What's your take?

  2. Hi Louie. Thanks for the comment. Well, I guess that's it. It's a necessity simply because everyone will be there. Maybe that's not a real justification, but it's certainly a reason. You'll notice if you go that you'll spy people from different parts of your writing life: folks you work with now and you worked with a long time ago, writers that are coming to campus next semester and those who did many years ago. It's kind of cool actually. If AWP is simpy a reunion for some people, I think that's a good reason to go. Staying in touch is important. On the other hand, TSR always gets serious business done there. We get serious exposure. And while I've learned that you don't want to overload on panels--there's a law of diminishing returns that comes into play--some of the panels actually can be provocative and extremely helpful. The novel writing class, in fact, was developed because of panels I attended at two different AWPs. (And I also picked up something from the Great Writing conference that helped me.) It's such a big conference that everyone's experience off it is going to be different. It's big; it's crazy; it's exhausting; but finally it's worth it, I think. Most of the time.