AWP 2013, Friday Report
Posted on March 9, 2013
What a day.
Today involved only one official panel, one incredible reading, and lots and lots of socializing.
Ambre and I are back at our hotel two hours earlier than we were last night, and yet I feel even more tired than I did at midnight last night. That’s okay. I can deal with tired.
This morning we slept in a bit. Ambre and I are both moms, so “sleeping in” means getting up around 8:15. We met Carolyn for breakfast at a Panera Community Cafe, which means that people are asked to pay whatever they can for their meals. Suggested donations are provided. The staff was incredibly friendly–it was perhaps the friendliest Panera I’d ever been to.
The snow was intense this morning. Many folks who were planning on driving to the conference today were unable to do so, and I hear that more than a few panels were affected by the storm. That includes the Jeanette Winterson/Alison Bechdel panel, but I’ll get to that in a bit. After we said good-bye to Carolyn (who was only in town for to visit and was not attending the conference), Ambre and I headed to Hynes Convention Center via the T. It was a quick trip, and being the organized, think-ahead-mom-types that we are, we packed a change of shoes for our arrival and checked our wet boots and shoes at the coat check. GENIUSES. That’s what we are. (And mothers.)
I’m going to blog later about my impressions of the book fair, so I’ll save those reflections for later.
The only panel I attended today was The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide to the Composition Classroom with panelists Michelle Burke, Erica Dawson, Heather Kirn Lanier, Donald Dunbar, and S. Whitney Holmes. Ambre and I both said afterward that it wasn’t quite what we expected, but then we couldn’t quite put into words what we had expected and how the panel had deviated from that.
The panel was interesting and useful. I will admit to some frustration in recognizing that the students they work with appear to be, well, smarter than mine in some ways. I found myself doubting whether or not my composition students could really grasp the concepts I need them to grasp if I followed their strategies, because I often have a large percentage of students who are playing major catch-up when it comes to composing academic papers. Despite that initial frustration, I left the panel with a number of good ideas for my teaching.
A few key take-aways:
- From Erica Dawson: Many people question the legitimacy of whether or not creative writing can be taught, and yet there is little doubt that composition can be taught, even though those of us teaching composition in grad school and afterward often have even less training for the work than we do for creating creative texts. That said, creative writers and student academics who are learning to write college-level texts are doing the same thing: they are establishing language to communicate a specific internal idea. These parallels are important and transmutable.
- From Michelle Burke: The hybrid assignment that combines creative writing with composition can be successful in helping freshmen writers understand that the writing experience is about having an ah-ha moment and then figuring out how to ensure that the reader can have that same moment while encountering a text. Burke teaches a course that uses dystopian literature as the text, which reminded me a lot of my themed composition course that used superhero films as the foundational text for the class. I would like to incorporate a number of her ideas, including an emphasis on understanding the history of a research topic before evaluating the contemporary answers to that research topic.
- From Heather Kirn Lanier: Creative nonfiction writers know that the essay is the perfect and appropriate place to take major risks in writing. Freshmen composition students, on the other hand, are likely to view the essay as a mask to try to convince their professors that they are intelligent or good people. The role of the comp instructor should be to get the student to unmask himself or herself and take risks.
- From S. Whitney Holmes: Composition students aren’t necessarily disinterested in the work, and some may even pursue writing eventually. She assigns her students a multi-genre research paper in which they do tons of research, but then present the material in different genres. Her ideas were a bit beyond my students’ ability levels, but she did get me thinking about possibly incorporating an audio unit into the course in which students create a radio-style piece of writing that they must actually produce for credit.
- From Donald Dunbar: I loved Dunbar’s analogy that he uses for his classes, which are made up exclusively of culinary students. He distills the definition of cooking as the process of applying heat to food and then says that according to that definition, the process of holding a pork chop over a gas burner with one’s hand could be considered cooking, and it could become a perfected skill. However, once the cook witnesses someone using a pan for the first time, the use of a pan becomes an option that is available to them to use if they want to. So are all other conventions and experiments when it comes to cooking. Writing is the same way. We can only communicate as well as the tools we have seen in use and mastered, and while some of us may be content to always hold the pork chop over the burner, most of us want to move on to more effective and communicative versions of writing/cooking.
After the panel, I did a little bit of shopping at the Prudential Center because I needed a break from thinking and planning.
Lunch was with Ambre and our friend Emily at California Pizza Kitchen, and after a brief return to the book fair, it was time to go to the Alison Bechdel/Jeanette Winterson panel.
Remember how I said there were storms?
Bechdel, who is from Vermont, was unable to make it to the conference today, which left Jeanette Winterson presenting on her own. I will have to dedicate an entire blog post to her presentation, because it was a downright spiritual experience. I was honored to meet her afterward, and while it was just a book signing, our brief conversation will likely be the highlight of the trip for me. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit plays a very symbolic role in my transition from fundamentalist to progressive that I was a bit nervous to even attempt to explain that to her. I got my words out all right, and the moment was very rich for me.
Once we had gotten our books signed, several of my friends from the University of New Hampshire and I went to Wagamama for dinner. Delicious, of course, and filling. Not that it couldn’t be made even better with a post-dinner trip to Pinkberry.
I had an interesting time in grad school trying to figure out where, exactly, I fit in. I had to fight for a teaching position, I wavered between social groups, I disliked certain elements of the community, I had a baby midway through my time there, I lived farther from campus than most of my classmates, and I often felt alienated from certain parts of the group. By the time I graduated, though, I really did feel rooted in the community. It wasn’t the way I expected to lay down roots, but it worked for me. Spending time with the other folks that I felt were growing in the same orchard as me was wonderful today.
Our conversations this evening ranged from frustrations about the challenges of teaching struggling writers to the panels that we had attended, from our own writing to our own thoughts on sex and families and whether or not it’s normal for a person to store a chocolate-dipped banana in their bag for an entire day before getting it out to eat as a special accompaniment to PinkBerry frozen yogurt. (HINT: I’M THE ONE WHO THINKS IT’S NORMAL.)
Saturday is the last day of AWP, and I have pretty extensive plans for it. Until then, I’m going to do some grading (my students deserve to get their grades back eventually, I think) and get some rest.
Thanks for sharing this week with me!