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Current Issue 

No. 75: NAWE Conference Collection 2017 (Part 2)

Editorial by Paul Munden

This edition offers a further selection of articles relating to workshops and presentations at last year’s NAWE Conference in York, and once again the variety is remarkable. The annual conference is not themed; it caters for the full diversity of members and their interests. The topics explored here are therefore highly diverse, but it is interesting to see shared ideas emerge. What comes to the fore here is a focus on empathy, and its central role in what working as a writer is about. 

Derek Neale, in his column as Chair of NAWE’s Higher Education Committee, sets the tone, saying of students that “creative writing study enables them to imagine the lives, emotional rhythms, hardships and consciousness of their characters”. Julie MacLusky says something similar in her article on “Engaging the disaffected”, describing how “field trips to historical sites can encourage student writers to creatively engage with material and lives outside of their personal experience”.

Few would quibble with these assertions, but things quickly become a little more controversial. Sylvia Hehir, in reference to the writing of her own young adult novel, asks: “how far can a writer stray from their own lived experience?” and “how can a writer avoid tokenism or cultural appropriation when writing for inclusion?”. These are important questions around which furious debate has raged, Lionel Shriver’s speech at the 2016 Queensland Poetry Festival being probably the most extreme example. Shriver stated: “I hope that the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad”. Outrage followed. This was of course exacerbated by the Australian context, where “presuming” to write an Aboriginal character or story without the necessary cultural background is fraught. I recently attended a symposium at the University of Canberra that focused on Indigenous Australian Story, and the “issue” was inevitably discussed. There was difference of opinion, but one idea prevailed, namely that a writer should be genuinely “authorative” in tackling any subject. That’s a version of Hamlet’s “the readiness is all”. And for published literary works the argument makes sense. 

What, though, is the implication for writers learning their craft, or for those instructing them? This is where Sylvia Hehir’s reflections are so valuable, shared here with other NAWE members; “aiming for success” she is nevertheless prepared to be “risking failure”. This willingness to get things wrong, of which Sir Ken Robinson would be proud, is what underpins much creative facilitation – as evidenced in other articles in this edition. Good writing develops from a combination of bravery and humility, and effective teaching – or arts leadership – involves a similar mix. Derek Neale quotes choreographer Crystal Pite (2017):

I have to be a leader and I have to be a creator. Being a leader means I have to know what I’m doing, I need to walk into the studio and know; I need to be able to be clear, decisive and sure. And being a creator is really the opposite of that. I need to be in a state of not knowing and allow myself to meander and to play.

Liz Lefroy’s article here makes another, acute observation about “not-knowing”:

I named myself a poet when I became able to invite readers in to share my not-knowing, and to bring their understanding with them. I became a poet when I realized that often my readers know more about my poems than I do. 

Those of us who have been writing poetry for some years may think we have a pretty good idea about how a poem is made, but articles in this edition may usefully challenge us. Andrea Holland’s comments about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and the DNA?Time poem by Sue Dymoke and Pietro Roversi offer marvellous incentives to think differently, to explore new territory with due diligence – and encourage others to do the same.

 

References

Pite, C. (2017) BBC Frontrow 25 July, Radio 4, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zxdwx
[Accessed 1 June 2017].

Shriver, L. (2016) Fiction and Identity Politics. The Guardian, at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad [Accessed 20 June 2018]




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