Saturday, February 12, 2011

Colorful Tights, Bad Carpeting, and (Un)ironic Beards: My Experience at AWP, Part 1

The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference met last weekend at the Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C. For those of you who were not in attendance, I will be recapping the experience in a two-part blog. I attended AWP for the first time last year in Denver, and I found it overwhelming, in part because I tried to cram as many sessions into my day as possible. By the end of it my brain hurt. This year, I picked my top two panels each day and stuck to them. I spent as much time at the bookfair as I did in panel sessions, and I focused on what I believe the main idea behind AWP is: networking and mind-melding with other writers. The venue was lovely, despite our somewhat disappointing table placement at the bookfair and the carpeting, which someone likened to the floor of a casino (see the photo above).

While I was working the table for Hamline on Thursday, Judith Kitchen and Stan Rubin stopped by to say hello. I really enjoyed meeting them, especially since they have been so wonderful to the Water~Stone Review (Hamline’s literary journal), and this year’s CNF contest is named after Judith. After expressing concern that many young writers today put too much emphasis on being hip, funny, and “the next big thing,” Judith grabbed my arm and said, “I'll give you some advice: Cultivate your serious side. Some writers approach writing like it’s play and play is fine, but play comes from an idea. When I read a piece like that I think, ‘I see your game, but what’s the idea that feeds it?’”
I could have dismissed this as merely a difference of aesthetic opinions (Judith, I would never do that), but when I went to the “What’s Normal in Nonfiction?” panel later that day, Bonnie Rough said something similar. She basically said, “The most important thing to do [in writing] is say something interesting, and say it in an interesting way. But that last part is a distant second.” She went on to talk about how she rarely has loved a piece because of its form alone, that form has to serve function, and function has to work with the form, not against it.

It seems so simple as I’m writing it, but what she and Judith said gave me pause. I tend toward the funny with my own writing, and, I’m not going to lie, I understand the draw of writing experimentally, creating a new structure, or being the next big CNF rockstar. But I think Judith Kitchen and Bonnie Rough made really good points. Writers of CNF in today’s world are pushing the limits of what CNF is and what CNF does, which is great, but there is something to be said for a really well-written piece that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, cheap tricks, a quick joke, or fancy theatrics to dazzle the reader. This doesn’t mean CNF cannot be funny or experimental (see below), but these have to serve the deep subject.

Speaking of funny and experimental, the “What’s Normal in Nonfiction?” panel also included Ander Monson, who I think of as the Zach Galifianakis of CNF writing. I mean, he isn’t as awkward, but he has a beard, he’s witty, and his opening line was “Excuse my laptopping, this is how I roll.” Pretty great, huh? I wrote down several quotes from his portion, including “Add story to anything and story eats it,” about how nothing is really a “true story,” it is just story, and how memory already edits or storializes (edistorializes?) an experience as soon as it is over. He also talked about how the essay explores “the sheer odd fact of the real and our thoughts about it,” said that everything in nonfiction is okay by him (basically), and directed the audience, “Good girls, y’all go on home,” which I took to mean no one wants to read something that is too safe, so don’t be afraid to go somewhere dark, scary, and a little bit edgy. Doesn’t that just make you want to go write?

The other panel I went to on Thursday was called “Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay.” It also was a great panel, and a nice balance with what Bonnie Rough and Judith Kitchen had said. One of the panelists, Rebecca McClanahan, gave a 13-point presentation, two points of which I will paraphrase: “#2 Beauty is as beauty does”: the lyric essay does not have to be pretty, poetic, or serious--just like music, lyricism can be funny, it can laugh, and it can be used to write about even small things. And “#12 Go ahead, wear the crazy hat”: play, try weird things, write in a different point of view; “the lyric forgiving of the odd or unusual idea.”

So serious or funny? Play or be real? I guess we are back to the questions of what is nonfiction, what are its aims? And what is the lyric? I didn’t expect to get answers to these questions in one (or two) session(s) but it would have been nice. I did appreciate having lots of thoughts about nonfiction flying around and much to mull over in the coming weeks. And of course, I appreciated hearing what Ander Monson said: “Everything is okay...Except try to avoid being a self-aggrandizing liar.”

Stay tuned for more from the conference in Part 2. *Apologies to Ander Monson and Bonnie Rough for not saying what they said as brilliantly as they did. I took notes, I swear. *Thanks to Judith Kitchen for her comments and for allowing me to blog them. And thanks to Rebecca McClanahan for sending me her notes on this talk. I hope I did them justice.

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