AWP 2014: Planning for Surprise

March 7, 2014 § 2 Comments

awp xrayA second and very brief take from Ann Beman on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:

Last day of AWP, afternoon session. Panel title includes the words “surprise” and “unexpected.” I’m hoping for cake or cosplay characters or unfurling tooty horns, at the very least. I have failed to note the apple symbol next to the event description. Apple = pedagogy. Pedagogy = the least likely event type to feature cake or cosplay characters or tooty horns. Just goes to show. Expect one thing, and you will get something entirely different. Something unexpected.

For instance, there’s the woman in the second row. She distracts me from the authors — Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, Desirae Matherly — at the front of the room. I’m digitally recording the panel, so I cease taking notes and become obsessed with describing the shade of purple illuminating this woman’s long hair. The hue reminds me of Twilight Sparkle, of My Little Pony fame. Which is odd, because I don’t recall where this imagery could be coming from. I don’t even have children. I take a different tack, deciding it’s a brave purple. Better yet, a Radiant Orchid, the color of 2014, according to Pantone. Yet another association out of left field. Where am I getting this stuff? Further examination is in order.

Oddly enough, these surprising associations feed into what panelist Desirae Matherly is saying about subtext. She talks about the surprises in finding something to write about and encountering the “aha”, or “whatever underlies the piece we sit down to write.” She talks about learning to recognize and work with the unexpected material generated in an essay.

Similarly, Tom Larson speaks of outlines, of making plans where none existed. “The shitty first draft is the plan,” he posits. “And the outline it manifests is the surprise.”

Yes, I think. Sound the tooty horns. All hail the shitty first draft. Let it go where it wants, and see where it takes you. All hail the purple hair in the second row.

PS: After the panel ends, and I literally bump into the cosplay Ork with the battle axe coming off the escalator, I am only a little surprised.

Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.

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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