I've been spending the last week and a bit putting together the proceedings of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs proceedings from the first, hopefully annual conference, held at the University of Calgary and the Banff Centre for the Arts last October. (See blog posts on October 13, 15, and 21.) Reading like an editor has its down sides. Do you know how many different ways there are to do a "Works Cited" page--many of them wrong? Or how inconsistently an individual writer can use dashes? Or how often you need to check facts: is "Greenwoods Bookshoppe" really a shoppe, and is there a missing apostrophe there? (It really is an Edmonton shoppe, and there is an apostrophe at the end of Greenwoods'.) Why does "Throw Mama off the Train" list a writer and not the author of a screenplay? (I don't have an answer for that one.) A change in the MLA style guide means that you no longer need the date you accessed a web site or the web address for your "Works Cited" page. So I've done a lot of deleting of very tiny print. But just as a fine writer knows that the credibility of her or his voice is bolstered by careful attention to detail, so do conscientious editors know that if a proceedings looks professional and consistent, it's likely to be taken more seriously. In turn, the papers, which authors gave a lot of thought to, are likely to be taken more seriously. So here it is: it's my job. So I just do it--and take a certain amount of not-quite-perverse satisfaction.
But reading like an editor has more up sides than down sides. Normally, I read quite a lot of strong fiction and poetry; sometimes I get an opportunity to help an author make a work even stronger. Sometimes I get to deliver a useful, encouraging rejection. All of this makes our collective stories stronger, our collective use of language more precise, playful, and inventive.
In the editing the proceedings, though, I felt like a student all over again. I learned so much from all the presenters. Over the next couple of posts, I'd like to share these with some of you; maybe you in turn will share some of your insights and experiences in comments.
Here are two of the inspiring, over-arching observations and beliefs. First, creative writing classes, whether they're taught in prisons, mental health drop-in centres, colleges, neighbourhood centres, or universities, are thriving (despite the disbelief of administrators and the difficulty they have understanding the value of these classes). People want to write. Some of them will simply explore their experiences, their world-views, their culture and society, their imaginations through the written word; others will strive to be published writers. But who can argue with either goal? If art is a way of helping a culture think through its dilemmas and challenges, its joys and delights, then both kinds of writers are engaging in that work in their own way.
Second, the people who attended the conference are doing a thoughtful, inventive, compassionate job mentoring their students. My mantra as a teacher has always been "Find out where your students are and take them farther." Preconceptions about where that "farther" should be only lead to frustration and a sense of failure. But look at how much more articulate Greg Hollingshead is: "Creative writing teaching is like any teaching: eventually you learn that there is what the student needs to understand but there is also when the student will be ready to understand it. It's this second consideration that separates the good teachers from the bad and that makes good teaching more like psychotherapy, in a way, in that it's all about sensing what the student is ready to know. This is particularly true of creative writing teaching, because the student is very likely to have an emotional investment in what is being discussed. Bad writing is a set of strategies for containing, distancing, walling off that emotion, for rendering it safe for the author. A large part of teaching writing is communicating to a writer the hard fact that emotion is going to need to be re-experienced if it is ever to be experienced by the reader--which should be the primary reason for the story, or the poem, being written in the first place." I might want to add to Hollingshead's sense of what bad writing is; I often find that it's an unthought-about formula (often generic) for pretending you're writing without thinking about writing. But other than that, Hollingshead's sense of what we try to accomplish when we teach writing is unerring.
Hollingshead got his experience teaching at the University of Alberta. Lenore Rowntree, in contrast, teaches creative writing in a Vancouver drop-in centre for people with mental illness. In some ways, what she has to say isn't that different from what Hollingshead wrote: "The level of expression may not be as uniformly high as you have experienced with other groups, but don't become disheartened. The completion of two or three sentences in an hour-long session is a big success for some. Occasionally a really good poem or story will be written in a very few minutes and then destroyed. Try to record at least the idea of it for future use. Other times a poignant piece is written and then given to you to keep--the writer may have nowhere to keep it or may not yet be ready to live with his or her own words. If it feels right, accept the piece and have it ready in a file for a later time. Remember that you may be the only one in the room with access to a computer and a printer. A typed poem or story is often much appreciated."
Another, inevitable theme was the way the internet is changing how we connect with readers. I'll write about that later this week. And I'll make sure you have the web address when the whole proceedings goes online.
And your stories? What does writing help us do?