AWP 2014: Planning for Surprise

March 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

fire retardant

Jody Keisner guest-blogs on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:

Panelists: Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, and Desirae Matherly. *Note: Patrick Madden was unable to attend. His work was read by Thomas Larson.

In short, panelists cited examples from their personal essays and discussed the surprising ways their essays have evolved. Ideas for their writings-in-progress came to them when they were jogging, at the bus stop, showering, engaged in conversation about something else, and sleeping. Writing begins with thinking, and to some extent, obsessing about subject matter. Let the brain turn an idea over and over, they coached, and let the story tell you where it wants to go. Be especially open to essay writing—the exploration of an idea or a question (versus memoir writing—the exploration of an event that has already been experienced and thus, has some predetermined finality).

Things They Said: In 13 Tweets #AWP14

  1. I’m teaching gorilla English. *Attributed to Alex Pollack
  2. Teaching is a subversive, humanitarian act.
  3. Assigning personal narrative requires the instructor to witness.
  4. My writing time is spent mostly not writing, but searching.
  5. The hard part about writing isn’t the writing, it’s the thinking.
  6. The great joy of writing is getting my mind to do something it hasn’t done before.
  7. Give yourself time to re-see.
  8. Dream and imagine in alien shapes.
  9. Write to generate, not to confirm, a purpose.
  10. Hunters and members of the Rodeo Club know how to be close observers.
  11. A careful first draft is a failed first draft.
  12. The book and I co-partnered.
  13. Your prose begins at the first moment you startle yourself.

Two exercises for disrupting traditional, linear narratives:

  1. Begin by writing about something seemingly quite boring, like grocery shopping, sleep habits, or bathing. Keep writing and then write some more. Your mind will be forced to move sideways and out of narrative mode.
  2. Write on any subject of your choosing and then switch your paper or laptop with another writer. Pay attention to the subject matter selected by the other writer. Now write on the emerging themes, and write creative nonfiction. Switch again. Once your paper is returned to you, marvel at where your subject went when it was let loose and into the wild.

Jody Keisner teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama; Third Coast; Women’s Studies; Brain, Child; and elsewhere.


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§ One Response to AWP 2014: Planning for Surprise

  • allehall says:

    Hello Dinty,

    I read today that you have about 10 more posts to run from the AWP. and realized, of course, that since I did not turn in my second and third posts right away, I was doing that thing I do when I strive for perfection rather than deadline. Bad journalist, bad journalist.

    I will get one of the post to you late tonight, and the other to you, late tomorrow night?

    Thanks for your forbearance,


    P.S. I am really enjoying reading all the blog posts.


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