What do you call 10,000 writers on the shores of Lake Michigan?
The start. The start of a three-day conversation that happens every spring when the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) convenes its national conference.
So what do creative writers and writing teachers talk about? Well, there's the craft itself, of course, research in historical fiction, the art of the joke, writing for young adults, writing the long poem, narrative fiction and cognitive science, just to name a few of the panel sessions that explode the romantic myths that creative writing is best attempted only by the isolated genius. But, since most of us are teachers, we also find ourselves talking about the teaching of creative writing.
Even though you wouldn't know it from films such as Wonder Boys or plays like Theresa Rebeck's Seminar (currently starring Alan Rickman on Broadway) where "old school" creative writing classes, as Dinty W. Moore describes them in our recent post "What is Creative Writing Anyway," consist of creative writing teachers lecturing the kids on exactly how it should be done, more creative writing teachers today are re-examining the workshop and often moving beyond it, incorporating subjects such new media, hybrid poetics and the graphic novel into their classrooms. We re-visit politics, sex, violence and bigotry in the workshop and we talk about topics such as rigor and grading, previously considered outside the realm of courses so "subjective" as creative writing.
Finally, we find ourselves increasingly talking about social justice and social action, about the ways in which writers can give back to the world and to the readers of their work, often creating more of those readers in the process. John Warner suggested in a recent Inside Higher Ed blogpost that he hadn't made many appearances at AWP over the years because the conference he remembered was a rather solipsistic "boozy, self-hug, followed by some thunderous mutual backslapping ending in sloppy wet kisses." What if, Warner suggested, all of that energy was instead spent giving back to the community and growing readers?
Although I myself have criticized the navel-gazing of the creative writing academic community in the past, I must admit that in recent years and especially this year, I have noticed the conference taking a more pronounced outward turn. Several sessions centered on teaching creative writing in prisons, for example, while others talked about teaching creative writing to bilingual students and a number of panels looked at the best ways to engage youth, at-risk and underserved populations. Still others advocated social justice and service learning and one examined the best ways to help veterans transition from the military to the academic world of colleges and universities. While I agree with Mr. Warner that the 10,000 writers at the conference could do a lot of good by spending half a day in every public school classroom in Chicago, as this year's program shows, a large number of writers actually have already been doing a lot of good in their communities lately and they want to talk about it, encouraging their colleagues to do the same. And if every audience member at these panels takes that enthusiasm back to their communities in the form of sustained programs that last more than a half a day, the aptly described "supernova of art" Warner hopes for has already exploded out of the 2012 conference. So while I still think some kind of service in the community that hosts the conference is a great idea (another convention I attend, the Conference on College Composition and Communication has in the past asked attendees to bring favorite books or university-imprinted notebooks and writing supplies to donate to youth in host cities, and I would love to see that kind of thing happen here), I have been encouraged by what seems to be a growing trend toward this kind of literary citizenship. Let's hope it continues.