AWP2014: Out of the Classroom: Possible Adventures in Creative Writing

February 28, 2014 § 14 Comments

chinook_salmonA guest post from Alle Hall:

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 2014. Rm 611.

Panelists: Philip Graham, Dinty W. Moore, Harmony Neal, and Dana Sokolowski (a replacement for John Warner.)

You want them to write outside their comfort zone.

Or outside themselves.

Or just outside.

Philip Graham said, “I could barely get under-graduates to cross the street”—let alone be so adventurous as to reach into a cow’s stomach. Which ended up happening, after a great deal of effort toward adventure-taking. The CNF movement calls it Immersion.

The answer turned out to be structure.

Dinty W. Moore keeps things very structured when he teaches Immersion for intermediate CNF writers. He shared his five requirements. (The notes include comments from all panelists.)

1. Students must travel out of their comfort zone.

New writers turn in an indecorous number of “starts” about break-ups, hook-ups, bad roommates, and occasionally, abortion. Graham summed it up: “They are struggling for subject matter, poor little dears.”

Despite which, none of them want to go on adventures.  They k’vetch, “Why do we have to do this?” Week after week, Graham e-mailed a list of fun-sounding activities. A grand total of no students adventured forth until—finally—a young woman attended an agricultural fair. Here’s where the whole bovine belly thing came in. The next weekend, a different student went to roller derby. She wrote: “No one would dare tell a roller derby girl she was fat.” The class slowly started to get—if not religion, at least inspiration.

2.True immersion: at least ten hours on the ground with notebook in hand.

In a single weekend, or two hours at a time over five weeks, or however the timing works for them and their project.

As part of his requirements, Moore requires ½-page proposals, which he discusses in front of the class and asks the writer to defend. Graham as well as Harmony Neal and Dana Sokolowski, who co-teach, left it to the students to navigate their own experiences.

The next three requirements are based on the idea that 80% of the time, nothing happens. The job of the immersion writer is to immerse yourself enough that you can:

3. See under the surface.

Do not decide in advance that the brave and selfless folks handing out food to the homeless are brave and selfless. Allow them to reveal who they are.

4. Use intimate detail. The details you can only find by sitting back and watching.

One student went to a vintage button show. “Buttons tell the story of our past, one little piece at a time,” he wrote. “I think I’ll need to collect more little buttons, but I think I have a good start.”

5. Use voice and persona.

You are part of piece. Immersion is not straight-up journalism, where the writer attends a single event, finds two to three quotes, and writes it up with an attempt at glib.

Suggestions for Adventures:

  1. Offer multiple events that are free and easy to get to. Swing dances. Political rallies. Pet cemetery. Monster truck show.
  2. If you have students come up with their own ideas, have them turn in ½-page proposal and defend them in front of the class.
  3. If you live in a small town, go to the Strawberry Festival with the goal of talking to the organizers.
  4. Do something you think you’d hate: a performance at the campus symphony, talk to a nun.
  5. Do something simple: eat by yourself, outside.
  6. Have students take their adventures independently. This will give them the freedom to feel.

Alle C. Hall interviewed Leonard Nimoy, and her kids still don’t think she is cool. She blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children.




§ 14 Responses to AWP2014: Out of the Classroom: Possible Adventures in Creative Writing

  • Ah, the advantages of being 59. Thanks for the great ideas.

  • Alle C. Hall says:

    I have to admit, RZ, that I felt myself thinking something along those lines. “What do you mean, they had no interest in sticking their hands into a cow’s open gut.” “How can someone have no interest in swing dancing?”

    I wish I had a bit more of Philip Graham’s radical acceptance. Leading to me finally find a place for the following and fabulous quote by Harmony Neal. (I searched and search for a way to get it into the piece, but I dean up against word count, and I started as a journalist. The word count is the word count.)

    HN said, ” Phillip’s all: be a better person; I’m all: better be fucking learning something.” She is my new hero.

    Thanks for your comment, RZ. Keep aging.

  • Frederick Gottlieb says:

    A great approach. I would suggest one restriction – participants must leave all electronic communications behind. For the duration of the assignment they need to function as individuals disconnected from the web.

    • Alle C. Hall says:

      Interesting idea, FG. Can you tell me more about your reasoning?

      • Frederick Gottlieb says:

        I think it would force the individual to pay more attention to the real world and the real people around him or her.. Further, any interaction with other people would be direct and face-to-face. Finally, I am convinced that the real world is far more interesting than the virtual world.

      • Alle C. Hall says:

        The first time I hear Lee Gutlkind speak about immersion, he said something similar about tape recorders (which lets you know how far back this talk was … ). I recall him saying something along the lines of not using tape, or even notes, forced the writer to feel and to absorb.

        In conjunction with what our panelists said at AWP, I would add that as a pup reporter, I went into an article with my presuppositions. Once I got the quote I needed, I checked out of paying a whole lot of attention and started drafting the piece in my head.

  • good post alle! i was doing immersion writing and didn’t know it (but I’ve never put my hand into a cow before either…)

  • redsall says:

    Great stuff. I’d make it easier for them. Sit in a cafe, look at another patron, or listen in. Invent the rest of their day.

    • Alle C. Hall says:

      They cannot invent the rest of the day. (Caught you, fiction writer.)

      Fiction aside, Harmony Neal and Dana Sokolowski created similar assignments: first, describe part of the classroom. Next they went to a woodsy area of campus and had students describe woodsy stuff.

      With apologies to Harmony Neal, and Dana Sokolowski, who’s presentations I found helpful and humorous, I cannot imagine many students signed up for a writing class thinking, “I can’t wait to sit in the classroom and describe minutia.”

      Perhaps the assignment could be, “Go find something interesting and write about it” The class could brainstorm install groups, to get students thinking beyond the weekend’s parties, hook ups, bar-bellyups, and throw-ups.

      Tell me, what kind of geek was I, during college? I remember biking for two hours to the zoo to watch the gorillas. (Not that I am such a stud. I got a flat on the way and didn’t know how to fix it.)

      • redsall says:

        Hi Alle
        You can invent whatever you like! A better mousetrap, for example. Or a better clothes peg. Or the rest of the day. It might be fiction but that’s better than friction. Thanks for the comment.I like your blog.

  • Alle C. Hall says:

    Sorry to take so long to get back to you. Thanks for the complement about my blog – ABOUT CHILDHOOD, by the way.

    You are right. Anyone can invent anything. I should have added – but not if they want to call it CNF. However … on the advice of one writing teacher, Lyall Bush, I pulled a Laurie Anderson with one essay; I turned a stage light on the stage craft. Check this out:

    “We” were the popular girls of the sixth grade. By “we,” I mean a giggly gaggle of us, but when I get to chronicling the junior high part of this experience, a slew of blonde, sporty types interlope, and it is distracting to have seventeen characters traipsing about this essay. For the sake of clarity, I am collapsing the we-girls of the fifth grade into two: Kellie Hallahan and Feather Meade. This device will allow me to assign them qualities that, in the fifth grade, I could feel on my tongue but did not have the grace to trust.

    Questions? Comments? Concerns?

  • […] Out of the Classroom: Possible Adventures in Creative Writing […]

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