Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Great Writing great

While in the United States most people are still sound asleep, I'm typing this post from what is just about my favorite locale in the world: a little provencal town called Raphele-les-Arles and an elegantly restored farm house its owners call Mas Ballot.  We just came over yesterday from London where the Great Writing conference convened last weekend.  As usual, Great Writing was superb, with an astonishing variety of participants and a palpable spirit of collaboration.  I talked with a Scottish woman who long ago migrated to northern Israel and now teaches in a university there.  I talked with an Australian woman who lives in Turkey.  I talked with a Mexican-American woman from California who teaches writing in Germany.  I talked with an American poet who before coming to the conference had done the grand tour of Europe with his grandchildren and his daughter--Nicole Cooley--who, as it turned out, was one of the stars of the conference.  (She's pictured below.)  I talked with an Irish woman who not quite so long ago migrated to New Zealand, where she is currently finishing a Ph.D., although she may soon need to move to California because it appears that her partner is set to take a job there.  I talked with a South African woman who lived three years in the U.S. and has for sixteen in England.  I talked with an Englishman who teaches in Scotland and an Irishman who teaches in England.

I heard a researcher from South Africa present a paper comparing the approaches of two separate primary school teachers in her country and how the assignments they used--and the results they got--reflected their two very different attitudes toward creative writing itself.  (Not surprisingly, the teacher who trusted in and encouraged her students' originality, who saw creative writing as an important act in and of itself, not merely a means to teach a variety of language arts terms, achieved much more with her students.)  What I couldn't help but think was that this all sounded exactly like the problem with language arts instruction in my son's own school back in Conway, Arkansas.  I heard a poet read who is half-Tanzanian and half-British but who was raised in northern Canada, where she still lives and teaches and farms.  (Yes, by choice and it's no easier to farm there--organically, no less--than you might expect.)  I heard a French woman who lives in Australia read a paper on the work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  I heard an Australian fiction writer who teaches in England and whose last novel was a considerable literary success in America--i.e. David Rain (author of The Heat of the Sun)--give a wonderful presentation on the "Seven Myths of Writing."  (That's him pictured above.)  I heard an academic from New Zealand read a homage to Flannery O'Connor, a paper that focused on O'Connor's days as a student in the Iowa Writers Workshop, where the New Zealander academic had spent a summer two years earlier participating in fiction workshops led by Lan Samantha Chang.

It was inspiring to see so much thought, so much concern, so much passion expressed on the subject of writing and writing instruction--and from so many corners of the world.  We teachers of writing walk around with the notion, I think, that we are all so provincial, suffering in our own little salt mines with nobody much paying attention or understanding.  But Great Writing demonstrated again, as it always does, how hopelessly wrong such ideas are. With a conference so globally aware and globally focused, it should come as no surprise that even the meeting's two main
organizer's--Graeme Harper and Simon Holloway--are from elsewhere.  (Graeme currently lives and teaches in Michigan, and Simon teaches in Manchester, England.)  Not a single person associated with the conference actually works for Imperial College, London, where the gathering took place.  Everything about Great Writing--from its planning to its outreach to its intentions--is "from afar."  That's what makes it such a fascinating gathering, especially for writers like me whose experience with writers conferences mostly derives from the enormous and inward-looking AWP conference.  Great Writing is much less enormous and much more outwardly focused.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Great Writing Keynote Lecture, which this year was not so much a lecture but a series of short (five minutes) presentations on various issues surrounding creative writing from ten different speakers from around the world.  Graeme called it "10 X 5," and it might have been the highlight of the gathering, because not only was it fascinating to hear what concerns different people from different parts of the creative writing universe, but it stimulated a terrific amount of discussion immediately afterwards, which was exactly the point.  An English writer and teacher expressed concern that with his students increasing fascination with, and commitment to, electronic media they might lose their connection to the immediate, visceral world around them.  Thus he takes them to an old but still functioning train station in Staffordshire and makes them observe the living stories being written moment by moment in that building by those who pass through it.  A Scottish writer noted that with the growing independence movement in Scotland, a movement that has embraced Scottish writers among other aspects of Scottish culture, being a working creative writer in Scotland today is implicitly a political act.  Nicole Cooley decried that outrageous cost of many American MFA programs and also their lily-white color (too few teachers, students, and visiting writers of color, she rightly companied).  Her applause line: "No one should have to go $60,000 in debt to become a poet."  Another speaker from England, a woman who is a poet and archivist, argued that creative writers ought to take better advantage of the archives of their local institutions.  There is no end to the number of stories embedded in those documents, she said.

It's to be expected that any discussion about issues in creative writing practice and creative writing instruction leads to complaints about creative writing's place in the academy.  This was certainly true Saturday evening in the post-lecture discussion.  There is, after all, much to complain about.  And some of the complaints--not all but some--are amazingly consistent from continent to continent.  But finally Simon Holloway raised a good point.  He said that in all the years he had participated in Great Writing he had constantly heard creative writing instructors strike up defensive poses, as if they had to justify the very existence of their discipline.  (Unfortunately, they probably did--and in many places, my own university included, they still do.)  "But when," Simon asked, "are we going to go on the offensive?  When are we going to say to these administrators, 'Look at all the students we bring in; look at all the tuition funds we raise; look at all the prestige and good press we generate.  What are you going to do for us in return?'"  Simon suggested that maybe it's about time to turn the tables and offer a few "help us or else" ultimatums.  It was great to hear, great to consider, and probably long overdue.  It's a kind of fighting spirit I'll need to remember when long after this exquisite French rest stop is over and I'm back in the academic trenches in Arkansas.


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