AWP2014: Out of the Classroom: Possible Adventures in Creative Writing
February 28, 2014 § 14 Comments
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:
- Offer multiple events that are free and easy to get to. Swing dances. Political rallies. Pet cemetery. Monster truck show.
- 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.
- If you live in a small town, go to the Strawberry Festival with the goal of talking to the organizers.
- Do something you think you’d hate: a performance at the campus symphony, talk to a nun.
- Do something simple: eat by yourself, outside.
- 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.