AWP, CHICAGO: Margaret Atwood’s books are works of art built though painstaking craft. The same can be said of the remarkable Auditorium Theatre at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the setting for her keynote address here at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference Thursday night.
The Auditorium Theatre is from another age, a gilded one. The theater opened in 1889, debuting the same year as a newspaper dedicated to wealth, The Wall Street Journal. Margaret Atwood told us she too is from another age. She shared that she was born in 1939, a time when the writing programs that make up the AWP’s membership didn’t exist.
“I feel a little bit like a voice from the tomb,” Atwood said, after admitting she has reached a point in her life when people ask, “Is she still alive?” She spoke before a packed hall of 3,500 AWP attendees in a red scarf, as if taking back the power of that color that symbolized bondage in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s cause for reflection on the past was the fact that when she was growing up, “they didn’t teach creative writing.”
While an undergraduate English major at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, Atwood said, the closest she could come to taking a course on writing was a zero-credit workshop where she was afforded the opportunity to read her poetry aloud to three other non-credit-earning students.
“I am in no way formally prepared to give a lecture on the craft of writing,” she told us. “I’ve never studied the craft of writing.”
But she has practiced the craft.
“I read and wrote, and read and wrote, and read and wrote, and ripped up, and crossed out, and started again,” she said. This simple process of craft—write, revise—has led to the production of magnificent novels and poems, ones whose legacies will outlive her, just as the glory of the Auditorium Theatre has outlasted its creator, Ferdinand Peck.
“Craft has to do with work,” Atwood said. “Art is what you make from craft.”
Creating art requires craftsmanship, and craftsmanship requires tools, she said. Atwood grew up around hand tools in the Canadian woods of her home. “You could make things, fix things, demolish things.” What is demolished can be used again in a new project, she said.
“You can do the same thing with writing,” she said. “Cut when necessary, but don’t throw anything out.” What is cut can find new life elsewhere.
Atwood then shared some tools writers can use:
- Key signature: “What is the tone of your work? Is it a major key? Is it a minor key?” Think of your key signature as a color, she said.
- Tempo. Bottom line? Vary it, or it will be monotonous.
- Voice. As yourself, who is speaking, to whom, and what does this speaker know that the reader does not?
- Plot vs. Structure. Plot is a linear sequence of events, structure is the order you tell it.
Writer’s blocks, Atwood said, often occur due to struggles with voice and structure. Change the narrator or tense to address voice, she said, and start at a different scene to wrestle with structure.
“If none of this works,” she said, “go to the movies.”
Given Atwood’s prodigious output of award-winning and emotionally stirring poetry and prose, I’m guessing she doesn’t see many movies. But Atwood’s breathtaking success begs a question, however.
AWP reached the 10,000-attendee mark for the first time this year. The organizers had to cut off registration, surprising many used to deciding whether to attend at the last minute. More than 3,300 of those attendees are MFA students. Those students’ attendance are subsidized by the dozens of MFA programs found on the opening pages of the 324-page conference program–the “major sponsors,” “benefactors,” “patrons,” “sponsors” and “contributors.” Are the AWP and its sponsors propagating a myth, that writers need to be taught?
Peck sought to build the Auditorium Theatre in a time of social unrest. A wealthy real estate mogul who demonstrated a soft side by co-founding the Illinois Humane Society, Peck was influenced by the Haymarket Square riots of 1886 to create an opera house that would embrace democratic ideals. He brought on board two men to make that happen.
Louis Sullivan–a Chicago architect who would later become famous for his work designing and building Chicago’s “White City” for its 1893 World’s Fair—focused on ensuring that every one of the opera house’s 3,500 seats would have a magnificent view. Dankmar Adler—a German immigrant who never completed formal schooling—designed an acoustic arrangement for sound distribution that experts have called “perfect.”
Was the audience that was enraptured by Margaret Atwood Thursday night as democratic as Peck would have wished? Not only does AWP tier its MFA donors in categories according to how much they pony up for the conference, Poets & Writers Magazine ranks the programs on their supposed quality. Could you quantify AWP attendees? You could divide those with an MFA from those without. Put those who teach over here, and those who wish they taught over there. Put those affiliated with top-ranked MFA programs ahead of those not as high in the rankings.
And what do you do with someone like me, who at last year’s AWP was a writer who not only had never attended an MFA program, he had never taken a college-level creative writing class?
The seating in the theater was first-come, first-serve. My friend Deborah and I arrived about an hour early, which meant we were only about ten rows from the stage. But Peck’s vision seemed to manifest Thursday night. Every AWP attendee in the hall could see Atwood—aided by a massive video screen over her head, a detail not conceived in the 19th Century. They could also equally hear Atwood—aided not just by acoustic perfection but ceiling-mounted speakers. By that measure, at least, a lie was put to the myth.
The design of the Auditorium Theatre required a large team of drafters, from all sorts of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. One of them was Frank Lloyd Wright, a young man a year removed from his parents’ divorce. Wright’s parents, when together, had struggled to make ends meet, and Wright himself, it is believed, never finished high school. Yet he learned the craft of architecture on the job at the Auditorium Theatre, and his career achievements are as well known to us today as those of Atwood.
It would be easy to employ nostalgia here, to say that not only did Atwood not need formal schooling in creative writing, it’s possible her success came as a result of that lack of training. Perhaps her muse was able to fully develop by her time spent reading and writing not being interrupted by pedagogues with their own agendas. AWP donors would push back against this notion, just as I’m sure the many architecture professors who teach courses on Frank Lloyd Wright would on students resisting their instruction.
It’s important to remember that Atwood chose to present the keynote to AWP. She shared her story, namely that she was not afforded the opportunities that exist for those to whom she was speaking. But if we wish to romanticize her experience, we mustt consider this. In the early 1960s, when Atwood was an undergraduate reading her poetry to three other students without earning credit, the Auditorium Theatre was in disrepair.
The decline had begun not too long after the opera house opened. The local symphony moved to a smaller venue in 1904, and the opera company did likewise in 1929. The only thing that spared the theatre from demolition in the 1930s was that the cost of tearing it down was more than the land was worth. During World War II the building in which the auditorium is housed—an aging hotel—became a storehouse for soldiers, and the auditorium stage was converted into a bowling alley. After the war’s end the building sat vacant.
However, through efforts by Roosevelt University and generous donors, the Auditorium Theatre underwent a $3-million renovation. It re-opened in 1967 and has been a part of Chicago’s cultural center ever since. It’s the home of the Joffrey Ballet, and there have been other on-stage delights, from Les Miserables to Bob Dylan.
The past is not necessarily superior to the present, even if some of Dylan’s best songs creatively dwarf some hits of today. Atwood, I believe, sees the merit in the many opportunities writers have to improve themselves through instruction.
“I feel a little bit like a voice from the tomb, or at least from the past,” Atwood had said at the beginning of her speech. But just before that, Atwood had said “Hello to all my Twitter pals.” If that isn’t embracing the now, I don’t know what is.
The tools of any craft used to produce art are there for anyone who wants them. They are not kept locked away in classrooms. The industrious ones—an Atwood or a Wright—can find them, and learn how to make use of them. But we don’t need to be taught to read and write and read and write.
I mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the draftsmen that worked on the design and construction of the Auditorium Theatre. I didn’t mention any others, because I don’t know any of their names. They’re not revealed on the auditorium’s official web site. To me, that is a reminder that art, ultimately, is an expression of democracy. Each of us is given a voice and a vote, and we do with those what we choose. So it is for any artist.