Recap on Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference, UK, Part I

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On the outskirts of Imperial College, London and just a block away from Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall, in the Huxley Building set on Queens Gate road, Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference took place Saturday 18 June through Sunday 19 June.
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On my way to the conference, a fifteen minute walk from our Kensington Flat where three generations of my family were blessed enough to call our home away from home in London, I got to see a quieter side of the great cosmopolitan city. Streets were virtually empty, and I spied one of the iconic historic blue plaques, alerting me to a former residence of none other than Benny Hill.
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The conference was all about process, valuing process more than the product of writing, which was really a pleasant surprise. Below are some tidbits from the panelists, whose ideas I will definitely be thieving for writing courses and for crafting my creative writing.

Rachel Robertson of Curtin University spoke on “A Mosaic Patterning: Space, time, and the lyric essay” where she illuminates on Bakhtin’s “chronotope,” how time and space are fused and unraveled, in which time knots and unknots itself, and narrative is suspended. Robertson cited the Zen phrase “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.” Form was a continual theme that arose throughout the conference, particularly the shaping of form through the crafting or process of art-making. Robertson compared how music and dance are the only art forms that truly free us from the historical space, embodying the “presentic” space, where time fails to be to be anchored or concretized. She also spoke of the bricolage, which was first introduced to yours truly at Miguel Syjuco’s reading of Ilustrado, when I asked him how he researched for his novel, he said he used a bricolage. Robertson spoke of bricolage as a repetition of imagery, a mosaic.

The second presentation of the panel was one of the most enlightening talks from Karma Waltononen from UC Davis. Her presentation covered “Writing Outside the Lines: From ‘Essay’ to Creative Non-fiction” where she talked about teaching the creative non-fiction essay as breaking away from the required rhetoric and composition. Many students tend to believe an essay means one thing only: a three point thesis with five point paragraphs and no real development for each paragraph.
Waltonen discussed how when she introduces an essay students feel like they’re having the rug pulled out from under them. She takes them back to the root of the word’s origin. ‘Essay’ is simply: to try.
She lets students know that they need to just take a chance and be rewarded for taking a chance.

Waltonen immerses them in the 4th genre and has her students think about the choices they make. She emphasizes that a good essay demonstrates a voice. At the end of the semester, students try to determine different writers’ style by having them guess whose voice is is whose. Another assignment is to have students record a conversation in the cafeteria, so they get a feel for what true conversational writing is.
They cover metaphor and simile, and, most especially, reducing wordiness or tightening prose.

She also goes over what she called ‘breaking rules prudently,’ which is what her grade school teacher taught her. Breaking rules should only be done intentionally for a certain effect, such as run-on sentences. What effect do you want on your reader? Finally, she has her students do a complete revision, and tells them she should only feel a slight deja vu when reading their revision. The changes should be foundational such as change in POV or moving from present to future tense. She does not want to know what happens next. Her challenge to students is letting them know that every word a student uses is a choice, and asking them “Are you being brave with this essay and how?”

Yours truly had a cushy presentation time, not too early and not too late. I was slotted at 11:15am on the first day, which gave me just enough time to see how other presenters presented, get the hang of the logistics, and then dive right into it. Along with the advantageous scheduling, I enjoyed the pleasure of presenting with two savvy professor writers who covered some innovative writing and teaching practices.

Laura Wetherington from Sierra Nevada College presented “Flipping the Creative Writing Classroom: Reading and Writing as Workshop.” In the flipped classroom, students gain exposure to new material. The flipped classroom is the anti-lecture, discussion based or workshop based, turning the workshop on its head. This kind of teaching has been dubbed the “new frontier” of the classroom. Students can reflect on authorial decisions to articulate why they made the choices they did and take creative approaches to reading. The emphasis is on reflective writing for each draft, and she has students revise with specific perameters, giving them a set amount of time to revise. Wetherington really stressed that students be conscious of the decisions they make on what to change with revisions, and she does this by giving them specific revision strategies that they have to choose from. She also quizzes them on technical terms and gives minute papers to guide their questioning with reading. Finally, she talked about the free-reading period where students came up with their own reading lists at the Poetry Center in the Sierra Nevada College. They roamed the library on their own to chose what they wanted to read to inspire their work.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett from Newman University in Birmingham, UK covered “Trick or Retreat? The Value of Creative Writing Retreats in HE,” explaining how she takes her students to retreats where they learn how to write by deadlines. It’s a challenge to write on spot, on location, and they use the model of flipped classrooms. The marking or assessment is based on informed analytical engagement–a term I may have to borrow for my Craft is Culture class–and the students work on writing prompts first as a group then move onto their own individual work.

Our panel raised some heated debate, which was most welcome since I expect to answer the same questions and address the same reservations from my students and other faculty. For more info on my paper presentation “Craft is Culture: Writing and Reading a Global Imagination” click here and here. A South African writer kicked off the Q&A by asking me why we should force students to write diversely. She understood why reading diversely is important but writing with diversity in mind didn’t see urgent or necessary. Three other presenters answered her immediately, talking about intention, motivation, and the need to expand voice and perspective. Some recommended reading they pointed to me, which I have to look into is Paul Gilroy’s After Empire and Kimberly Crenshaw’s work on Intersectionality.

More on the conference and what I’ll be nicking for my own teaching and writing practices to come soon…

Part II: Recap on “Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference UK

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The view from the Kensington Flat, where I stayed during the conference.

Continuing coverage of “Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference UK,” held at Imperial College, London, there were so many enlightening panels that offered great insight on the process of writing and best practices in teaching. Below is a taste from the hastily scribbled notes I took. Check out Part I here.

Melissa Bender’s “Just Like Us?: The Novelist’s Responsibility to the Historical Record, which she said was more of a meditation, focusing on Gwendolyn Brooks, Year of Wonders, a historical account of Derbyshire, 1666, where the town of Ames was quarantined to prevent the plague. Bender highlighted the idea of fidelity and reflected on how writers make decisions to be or not to be faithful to history, knowing that there are different histories. She focused on our responsibility as writers and readers to history, and how the historical novel transports readers to a different place, which allows readers to empathize with points of view that aren’t their own. The historians’ challenge versus the historical novelists’ challenge covers such questions as (some of the below are from yours truly):

  • What or who is demonised and why?
  • What is fetishized and why?
  • What is exalted and why?
  • Are the specific subjects demonized/fetishized/exalted to reflect our contemporary values or the values of the past?
  • What is the source of all the problems?
  • How do you develop empathy though you have a different set of values?

Bender cited Sarah Vowell, who says “education is empathy” and that we learn about our situations by taking in other’s people’s POV. Its not about policing the details of historical fiction or the duty to historical record. Novelists must use their imagination since we can’t recreate the past. As readers and writers we need to think about the choices we make and the consequences we create through narratives.

Lauren Hayhurst’s research perfectly coincided with mine in her talk “Creative Writers as Cultural Representatives: A critique of the ‘political’ in relation to ‘literature’ and how Creative Writing can help reinvent Multiculturalism.” Hayhurst doesn’t doubt the power of Creative Writing in multiculturalism. She spoke of the difference between process and product, and how the process is hidden. Reviewing the idea of British Multiculturalism, which she explained was met or is viewed as “confusion and ambiguity,” she highlighted how there is no consensus in its definition. Hayhurst pointed to Paul Gilroy’s After the Empire, and how Gilroy claimed that reckoning with history requires active dialogue to create cohesion. Fiction as an engagement with creativity. Writers must take ownership of our responsibility as cultural representatives, especially since we rely and use our products, the novel or text, to engage and understand the world. What biases inform our interpretations? Hayhurst demands a recognition of novels as a source and form of knowledge. She also referenced Jennifer Web and Donna Lee Brian’s idea on “agnostic thinking,” how knowledge is contingent as opposed to “true,” which provides a framework for an active dialogue. Hayhurst urges us to examine our motivations and intentions as writers.

One of the questions her presentation raised for me is how do we maintain the creative journey and intellectual discovery for the writer but also take into account our responsibility as “cultural representatives” or as givers of “knowledge”? How do we balance our discoveries as artists with the discoveries of the reader or what we want them to discover in our work?

Hayhurst wrapped up her presentation focusing on how writing requires developmental, growing consciousness?  Aesthetic values and ethical values are tied up she argues, concluding that our positionality leads to interpretation and therefore representation to the readers. “Its about flexing the imagination, imagining for your own gain or for someone else’s,” she concluded.

I truly hope to reconnect with Hayhurst, so we can collaborate on future work!
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Toward the end of the conference, I had a chance to reconnect with a fellow Hawthornden resident, poet and professor Julian Stannard (photo above), who said that a poem is an accident. He read from his new work What Were You Thinking.

There were two papers that intriguingly covered process, valuing the craft of writing more so than the product. Annabel Banks’ “The Poesis Project: Real Time Capture of Poetic Process” and Rosie Shepherd’s of Goldsmiths College, UK, “Where is the Creative Process? Its right there!” seemed to be speaking directly to one another in terms of the physical process of writing and the process that takes form and eventually turns to content with a poem. Banks talked about how as we edit a text it grows and shrinks. The finished product could in a sense, as Banks explains, be the dead body, the corpse after its life has run its course. “We are networked, part of a knowledge matrix when we go online and work on a computer as opposed to working with the simpler technology of pen and paper” she says. Both Banks and Shepherd seemed to consider the product as secondary to the process and had me thinking how technology assists and enables content, meaning, and therefore interpretation.

Some general thoughts, that came up for yours truly is how do we imagine our imaginations? How is form formed? Craft is part artists’ intuition and other part artist’s extreme rationality. We make countless decisions as artists, and those decisions have to be calculated or based on some knowledge and prior experience or perhaps the artist’s intuition is simply based on gathered knowledge and experience. The product is a time stamp, a time capsule, and part of the continuum of work of the networked matrix. There is lots to ponder as the rains started to flood the streets of London. See the sky view from the Kensington flat below.

One more final installment to come. Stay tuned…

 

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