Relationships, resistance, AWP

This year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference vibrated with emotional content, resistance, persistence, and truths through facts and lived experiences–a host of perspectives and a sense of excitement enhanced by the host city: Washington, D.C., where the recent transition to a new government administration has been controversial, particularly among citizens who value social justice, education, the environment, and the arts. Some citizens feel that they are themselves outsiders, outliers, critical observers of the social norm, square pegs, immigrants, misfits, name your descriptor here:_______.

Maybe no surprise, but many of those who are not-quite-the-social-norm also happen to be writers.Adversaries 1

About 15,000 writers, teachers of writing, publishers of writing, promoters of writing, and lovers of writing showed up in D.C.; and I’m guessing a very large percentage of us feel we have, in one way or another, a little trouble “fitting in” with society and social expectations. We happen to write, also. What gives good writing its jazz is that there are zillions of fascinating, off-beat, marvelously creative perspectives a human being can write on just about anything.

One sense that came through to me as I listened to authors and teachers is that writing is almost automatically resistance. Resistance usually connotes against, as against a “negative” behavior, objective, rule, law, or person, for example. We can resist silence, though, and silence on its own is not negative; it is only something to resist in relation to an event or law that might be better spoken about. We write in relation to, and often that looks like against. But it isn’t that black and white (of course). Even when the ink is near-black and the page is near-white and the resistance feels like “writer’s block”–resisting the very act of revealing, speaking, communication.

Relation makes resistance and writing happen. Relationships make community and communication develop. Relationships connect the virtual world, and relationships link the long-dead writer to the living reader in a quiet room or on a crowded train.

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This past week, thousands of (largely introverted) writers convened in a convention center in the nation’s Capitol; several square blocks hummed with interconnections that spanned far beyond those city streets, those bland conventional multi-storied buildings…into the social world and social media, into the range of the arts, the hearts of fellow human beings. The crowds could be overwhelming, but the energy was palpable and exciting (even to this introvert, who did need to retreat from the throngs now and then–thank goodness for “quiet lounges” and hotel rooms).

Did I mention the slightly off-the-cuff passion and stirring intensity of Azar Nafisi‘s speech, and the resonant coincidence of how relevant it was to have a naturalized American citizen, born and educated in Iran, as a keynote speaker? [The decision to have her speak was made over a year in advance of the conference.] Did I mention the honest and often amusing conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, who is a dynamic one-person cultural ambassador, much as Nafisi is? What about poet Terrance Hayes‘ brilliant alliterative rhythmic sonnets that were sometimes-brutal take-downs of a president whose motives and values he mightily questions? Did I mention Rita Dove‘s transcendent reading? My discovery of a hugely famous Pakistani writer, Intizar Husain? Marvelous writing on The Body Electric, in three excellent essays–why, yes, I could say more, but I’m tired now and “still processing,” and post-conference life resumes…

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Given some long-running, almost chronic adversity the beloveds and I are facing, before I close I want to give a thumbs-up to Emily McDowell. Emily McDowell’s line of Empathy Cards are really worth looking at when you have no words.

Sometimes, there isn’t a card for that.

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Crowds & Power

I am reading Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960 translated into English by Carol Stewart). About a quarter of the way into the book, I realized how oddly apropos this particular text is to this particular moment–the November 8 election here in the US.

The book I teach in my freshman composition class, Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent, synthesizes with the election season and with Canetti. Pack behavior, herd behavior, individuality and individuals, crowds, rituals, outliers and dissenting voices and the hero and the martyr…anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers who study group behavior note the paradox of wanting to be acknowledged as an individual and wanting to be comforted by the press of the accepting crowd.

I hate crowds, but they are indeed compelling. I experienced the crush and sway and direction and growing of crowds as a much younger person, in city life, on subways, at large demonstrations and, most frequently, at the phenomenon of the rock concert (for other people, it might be the phenomenon of the sports arena).

A crowd is equal. A crowd is dense. A crowd wants to grow and has direction. Yes, watch the behavior of the people in “the pit” at a Bruce Springsteen concert, for example, where the rock star becomes one with his fans, and equal, amid the density and the cheering and the hands-on excitement of the crowd. Aside from our religious rituals, we have other ways of expressing our need to be close together, we humans.

Here’s a crowd-surfing moment with Bruce Springsteen, Paris, 2016.

The power aspect–that is what relates to the presidential campaigning. But I feel too exhausted by the media mayhem to want to draw those parallels to Canetti at this time.

Believe me, though–they are there.

Here is Maria Popova (of Brainpickings) on Crowds and Power. A fine overview. Canetti’s insights also complement the work of such diverse scholars as René Girard and Daniel Kahneman. Much here to contemplate, as I contemplate the weirdness of the present moment.

Autodidact as adult student: Goddard & me

In a previous post, I mentioned my peculiar undergraduate experiences at alternative institutes of higher education (The New School) and how being a book-loving autodidact influenced, perhaps even configured, my approach to education. My favored learning strategies led me to a non-traditional graduate school program, as well. Reflecting upon my higher education, I realize that every institution I attended chose alternatives to standard pedagogy–and I am grateful that such colleges exist. The world needs outliers.

A kind of heaven.

The New School’s pedagogy for the “Freshman Year Program” was seminar-based. That worked very well for me. Classes were small, discussion-centered, predicated on the reading of significant original texts–no textbooks. The professor was not a lecturer but a participant-coach and mentor.

The program was only a year long, however, so I had to transfer. There were a number of experimental college programs in the 1960s and 1970s; without the miracle of internet searching, however, they were not easy to locate. I did not find out about St. John’s College, Reed, or Evergreen, for example. I stumbled instead upon Thomas Jefferson College (now defunct) in Michigan.

I completed my undergraduate studies without ever seeing a syllabus. Yet I read more books than the majority of my standard-pedagogy-educated peers and discussed classic and contemporary texts, science and history and literature, in depth with my peers and with scholars. I wrote a lot and did hands-on projects, independent studies, experiments and interviews. TJC drew criticism for its ‘flakiness’ and ‘lack of oversight,’ (some of which, I can attest, was deserved); however, the former college president “described TJC as perhaps too far from the mainstream, but attracting excellent students, noting that ‘Thomas Jefferson College…was sending a larger percentage to graduate school than the College of Arts and Sciences.'” Yes, but in my case it took awhile to get there.

Much water under the proverbial bridge: suffice it to say that in 2000, I returned to college to pursue a masters degree…and I wanted to learn in the kind of environment that suited my style. There were other factors then, as well: two children, for example, and responsibilities I had not encountered as an undergrad. On the other hand, by 2000 I was an adult and more motivated and disciplined than I could ever have been at age 19.

I chose Goddard College for a number of reasons, foremost its small seminar-style instruction, its mix of workshops and instruction, its focus on readings, annotations, mentoring, and community-building among students and faculty–reaching outward into the world at large. The low-residency format only works if the student is independent and self-directed, which–as a returning, “adult” student–I certainly was. I appreciated the school’s more interdisciplinary approach to the creative writing program. We didn’t have to face off, pegging ourselves as poets or fiction writers. And creative non-fiction was taken seriously as a genre to develop voice, style, and depth…it could be studied and parsed. That endeavor of interdisciplinary arts education is true of a few institutions now but was rather new among MFA programs in the late 1990s.

Another college without core requirements, without syllabi, without standard formats. But, like New School and TJC, Goddard offers excellent professors dedicated to students’ intellectual enrichment and personal transformation, small-group discussions, and narrative evaluations. I knew how to balance life’s responsibilities when I enrolled, and I knew what kind of teaching I’d respond best to. How did I learn that? See above. Suits my philosophical, bookwormish, autodidactic approach to–well, practically everything!