Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Art of Conversation: Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference

When I touched down in Toronto, I picked up my car and went straight to the Art Gallery of Toronto, which has not only its own remarkable collection but also a special exhibition from the Picasso Museum Paris which owns work that Picasso still held when he died. The seventeenth-century baroque mansion in which these works are housed needs renovation; in turn, they needed money to pay for the renovations and a safe place to keep the work while the renovations are undertaken.  So there have been a number of travelling exhibitions, including the one at the AGO.  There was method in my madness.  First, the AGO is closed Monday, so I couldn't end my Toronto time there.  But more importantly, I couldn't think of a twentieth-century artist more relentlessly creative than Picasso, more capable of calling our means of expression into question (paintings that are entirely blue?  Why not?) and then re-inventing it (again).  It seemed like a wonderful way to begin a weekend thinking about creativity.  The Picasso exhibition was organized both thematically and chronologically so that you could see the development of his style along with historical events.  The single painting I found most powerful was his "Massacre in Korea" (which you can find via Google Images); I had no idea this powerful commentary even existed.

But art galleries, for me, (as I've said far too many times) are also lessons in attention.  I've talked about how one is prompted to see the world more attentively, with more engagement, after being in an art gallery.  This time, though, that effect started up even before I got there, partly the effect of suddenly being elsewhere, partly the effect of getting ready to see.  Toronto streets are theatrical in a way that Regina streets just aren't.  I couldn't help trying to capture a bit of the theatre.  There's doubtless a story here, either about someone moving and wondering where the friend with the truck was, or someone getting rid of past selves the way a snake sheds its skin, or someone who perhaps needs to sell some things because....who knows?   It's that "who knows?" that makes it theatre.

I hadn't been to the AGO since Frank Gehry's renovations were completed, but you can see here that he also tries to get a conversation going with the street.  There is a point on the fourth floor where the easiest way to get upstairs is to go outside the building and come back in, and as you do you are invited to linger and admire the skyline, reflecting on the art that is stored inside and the art that's being made, daily, in people's lives.  Or the art that inspires an architect, or the art of chance that plunks a new building down on a skyline, making something entirely new.  For me, there was also a conversation between these very realistic views of Toronto and the work of Jack Chambers.  His paintings are realistic with a difference.  You can clearly tell that the subject is a young boy watching television or a fifties family at dinner, but the expression, the handling of paint, is tender without being sentimental.  The Chambers exhibition was the other highlight of the AGO for me, along with their significant Group of Seven holdings.

Interestingly, this theme of conversation also permeated the CCWWP Conference (which we've decided to call "cwip" for short).  It made it so clear that teaching creative writing is quite different from teaching, say, Jane Austen.  Darryl Whetter wants to talk to his students about beauty.  K.I. Press, who teaches at Red River Community College and has students from diverse and sometimes rather sheltered backgrounds, wants to talk with her students about material they'd find shocking instead of censoring it with content warnings.  Priscilla Uppal wants to talk to her students about the realities of the writing life.  Michael Trussler, who teaches with me at the University of Regina, wants to create classes that will be attractive to both creative and non-creative students, and finds that a useful subject is poetics.  They talk first about Aristotle's Poetics, and then look at twentieth-century issues for writers that Aristotle couldn't possibly have anticipated, issues like the trauma of the holocaust or the degradation of the environment, always asking the question WWAS (What would Aristotle say?).  Jack Wang didn't want to walk about how good or how poor a work of writing was.  He preferred to do two things.  One to analyze its constituent parts:  action, character, theme, setting, language.  The other was to react to multiple drafts so that you can begin your commentary by talking about the reading experience and subsequently begin to make suggestions.

Many of want to talk about ethics, as if teaching in the creative writing classroom also  involves us in more ethical issues than simply teaching literature--and indeed it does.  Robert McGill wanted to make sure that we read our students' creative work in two ways:  that we might note real-life stresses and strains, even signs of mental illness in student writing, but that we must also read the work as if it were completely invented, reading for craft, which is also to read respectfully.  Meaghan Strimas talked about the ethics of writing autobiographically and described the strategies one must use when "outing" one's family.  Make sure that the people you write about have a chance to read your work before you publish it.  Sometimes you might even conflate the (often supposedly autobiographical) speaker and your ostensible subject so that you share the limelight, the exposure, even the critique.

Jonas Williams bravely sought to distinguish between "know what" and "know-how," perhaps inadvertently revealing that when we get together, we cwips talk more about how to conduct our classes than what to teach in them.  First let me say that there were numerous concurrent sessions, sometimes as many as 6 or 7 occurring at the same time, so I missed a great deal, even though I didn't skip any sessions.  So this is just an impression.  

The exception was Catherine Bush, who read a very thoughtful paper called "Looking As A Writer:  Ethics and Attentiveness."  For Bush, looking is both ethical and aesthetic; indeed she goes so far as to suggest that the way  we look at the world is an integral part of our style.  In a cacophanous world, every act of attending is an act of choice--an ethical choice, perhaps.  We can choose to attend to the murder of Osama bin Laden or to the stories of the Canadian men who are Manhattan sky walkers.  Our choice implies a world view.

The substantive part of the conference ended with a talk by Tim O'Brien that I can't hope to summarize.  But it begin with a funny story about his son confessing that he peed into a mesh waste basket in the bathroom where his father had just installed carpet because he had two heads.  One of them said "Dad's not going to like this."  The other head said "Yeah, but it'll be such fun!"  For O'Brian, the writer has two heads, making the writing process a conversation between our own lives and our intellects and the daydreams of the others who are our characters.  Or it's a conversation between "reality," which doesn't sufficiently dramatize moral dilemmas, and the imagination which manages to seduce the reader, taking her or him beyond surrender to the reality of the story into participation in it.  Quoting Picasso (perhaps he had also been to the exhibition where this was on one of the panels), he brought me weekend full circle by reminding us that "Art is a lie that helps us realize the truth."

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