Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Today we are pleased to feature Sandy Chmiel's interview with MFA faculty member Anthony D'Aries, author of the memoir The Language of Men, which received the PEN/New England Discovery Award. Anthony teaches our Mentorship Lab courses and the two-semester professional track in teaching creative writing. An expert teacher, Anthony is also a pioneer in developing writing workshops for underserved populations.  

What are some characteristics you try to encourage in emerging writers?
Early in the semester, I like to share a quote by David Mura: “We write to become the person who can finish the work.” I want to emphasize that all writers are constantly evolving. We often don’t know what we’re writing about in the beginning or how we’ll write it, which can cause a lot of doubt and uncertainty. The trick is to not let that doubt paralyze you.  Each draft is a discovery draft.

A good writer is a good observer. I encourage writers to keep their senses open, to pay attention to the world around them, especially during “routine” or “boring” moments in their day: a commute, a long meeting, a waiting room. These are all great opportunities to observe body language or dialogue, those subtle details that will ring true for the reader.

How important do you feel it is for writers to have their own life experiences from which to draw?

We all have life experiences that can serve as powerful material. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a kayak trip around the world, but it could be. I think each of us has a story to tell. Sometimes students, particularly in memoir or personal essay workshops, feel like they need to have lived a tragic life in order to earn the right to write about it. In moments like this, I share a quote by Scott Russell Sanders: “I am not competing for a trophy in tragedy.” A compelling essay can emerge from a tragic event as much as it can from a quiet, “average” moment. The last thing I want my students to do is prematurely dismiss an essay because they think it isn’t “worth” writing about.

That being said, I think it’s good for us to get outside our comfort zones, to find ways to shift our perspective. This may be something as simple as changing our daily routine, taking a different route to work or exploring a part of our town we’ve never experienced before – or something larger: volunteering or traveling. 

What is the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer, and why is it important?
One of my goals is to help students understand the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. As readers, we let the narrative lead us. If the writing is working, we no longer see the words but live the writer’s story. When we read as writers, we see words as the raw material of literature; we question how the author built the text so that we may build our own.

If I’m working with students in an undergraduate intro. creative writing workshop, I’ll begin by asking them which words or phrases stood out or feel important. It might be an unexpected verb or a surprising metaphor. Then we’ll move into a deeper discussion of how this verb choice or metaphor contributes to the piece.

In a graduate course, many students are sort of reading in both ways at the same time:       experiencing and examining the text simultaneously. This can be great for revising their own work. I’ll often assign individual pieces to students that I think will help them address a particular craft issue in their own work. I find that these examples are much more useful to students than a craft article.

How are you preparing your students to be interns in non-traditional environments?
I recently co-chaired the PEN/New England Writing and Trauma Conference at Regis College, which was an incredible opportunity for students. The event brought together over 100 writers, social workers, and psychologists, to discuss the relationship between writing and healing. Many of the panelists, including myself, had taught writing workshops in a wide variety of settings: colleges, universities, prisons, shelters, nursing homes, hospitals. We all taught our workshops in different ways: some focused on oral histories, others on one specific genre. But each workshop emphasized the importance of a supportive, welcoming community where writers could share their work safely. Events like this are a great professional development opportunity for students interested in teaching workshops in community-based settings.

When I’m working with a student interested in teaching writing in a non-academic setting, we spend a lot of time discussing techniques for establishing a safe workshop environment. For example, students might begin each workshop with a check-in writing exercise, a short prompt designed to “take the pulse” of the room. 
"Write down one thing that has gone well since the last workshop. One thing that hasn’t gone so well. One goal for the next workshop." Sometimes these answers relate to their writing, sometimes not. Workshop participants share their answers in class. This can help set the tone for the day’s workshop.

I also encourage students to spend the first couple of weeks of the workshop having participants generate new material. Regardless of the experience level of the participants, it’s important to give everyone time and space to create new work. Also, for workshops in prisons or shelters, the classroom is often one of the few quiet, calm places for the participants – it’s important to honor that.

You teach a college course in writing as community service and have also taught writing in correctional facilities.  Why is that important to you?
There are so many populations in our communities that are underserved, that do not have access to educational programs. I think those of us who are lucky enough to have positive and full educational experiences have a responsibility to create opportunities for underserved populations. When a population is marginalized, like prisoners or the homeless, their voices are silenced. Writing and literature can create opportunities for marginalized populations to express themselves, to combat stereotypes by sharing their stories. Whether they’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, they are sharing their observations, their perspective. Their voices are being heard.

How do your teaching and writing influence each other?
The more I’ve taught, the more I’ve realized that the advice I’ve received from my teachers is often rooted in their own struggles as writers. I don’t like to focus too much on myself when I’m teaching, but I do think it can be encouraging for my students to know that I too have struggled (and continue to struggle) with aspects of my work. This connects back to the David Mura quote earlier, that we are all learning how to write our current project.

I encourage my students to be patient, to not focus on what their work should be but what it is. Where is the current draft leading them? What aspects of the draft surprised them? In turn, my students help to remind me why I began writing in the first place: a curiosity for words and a desire to communicate with the larger world.

What else would you like to share?
Recent news: I was selected as the Fort Lyon’s Writer-in-Residence. More info here: https://lighthousewriters.org/content/fort-lyon-writer-residence  Thanks so much!