Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

In “The Grim Reader” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 10), Kevin Nance discusses a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts documenting the decline of reading in America. The article contains a quote from Donna Seaman, associate editor of Booklist, who shrewdly observes that while interest in reading is diminishing, interest in writing seems to be on the rise. According to Seaman, “Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read.” How can this apparent contradiction be explained? If the traditional view of the writer is one who loves literature, has been inspired by literature to take up the craft of writing, then why do we have a burgeoning population of writers that seems to have little interest in reading?

Later in “The Grim Reader,” Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, argues that while reading, overall, may be declining in popularity, interest in reading poetry is surviving, even growing. In the words of Swenson, “Yes, the larger trends are disheartening, but [regarding] poetry, I can find my thread of optimism.” Do you agree that poetry may be one genre for which the audience is expanding? If so, how would you explain this surge?

Dan Barden, author of “Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes” (page 83), takes up the much-argued question of whether or not creative writing can really be taught. His response? There is “no way to teach creative writing,” at least not through the current methodology of writing workshops. Do you agree with Barden that workshops “don’t work,” and that there is “something rotten at the core of most of them”? In your view, what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of writing workshops, and what examples can you offer in terms of good and bad experiences in the workshop environment?

If one considers both Barden’s essay and Nance’s piece together—the “Rant” against workshops and the report on declining reading—is there some connection to be made, some conclusion to be drawn, about how we educate young writers? How do the strategies and practices of the writing-workshop approach impact not only the students’ writing but also their reading? Should we, and could we, change the way we teach writing in order to foster more interest in reading?

In the “Q & A” with Quang Bao (page 19), Jean Hartig describes Bao’s contributions to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop as well as his commitment to Asian American literature. In the “Writers Retreat” section (page 64), Kathryn Trueblood reports on “western” festivals and retreats that are particularly supportive to western-based writers. Additionally, Kevin Larimer mentions in “Small Press Points” (page 16) that A Midsummer’s Night Press is devoting two books in coming months for anthologizing, specifically, gay and lesbian writing. What are the potential advantages for writers in belonging to, or connecting with, groups such as these?—groups dedicated to supporting writers of particular backgrounds or interests? Are there, conversely, any potential disadvantages? What has been your experience in connecting with like-writers in various writing communities?

In “The Rilke Trail” (page 21), Paul Graham writes of his admiration for Rainer Maria Rilke and chronicles his journey to a place where Rilke once lived and worked. Imagine planning a pilgrimage to see the birthplace or writing locale of one of your favorite authors. Which writer would you choose? Where would you go? And what would you hope to see and experience once there?

In “DailyLit Sends E-mail Worth Reading” (page 15), Kevin Canfield reports on the new Web site DailyLit, created by Susan Danziger and Albert Wenger, which offers readers “free delivery of over four hundred books” from the public domain as well as newer works for a small fee—all through serialized e-mail installments. The article also mentions other Web-based and digitally-based publication mechanisms. As the distribution and publication of contemporary writing changes, how do you think the writing itself may change? Will writers alter and adjust their work to fit a particular distribution? Will they write one way or one thing for traditional print publishing, but another way, another thing, for digital release?

Mark Doty writes in “Bride in Beige: A Poet’s Approach to Memoir” (page 33) that a poet’s memoir is essentially “after truth” but does not depend on an exact reporting of facts and details. Do you think that when writers are crafting a memoir, they are obligated to be as accurate as possible in their work? In your own nonfiction writing, have you ever chosen to alter or blur a few facts? If so, what was your reason for doing so?

In “Spring Essence” (page 47), new works from several established writers are featured. Some of these works are grounded in imagery from the natural world: “This” by Jorie Graham, “Small Bodies” by Mary Oliver, and “The Bather” by Charles Simic. What do these three poems share in terms of imagery and theme? And how do they differ in their use, their extrapolation, of the natural world?

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff is interviewed by Joe Woodward in “The Gun on the Table” (page 38). Woodward describes Wolff as writing with “the exacting precision of a bombmaker” and of “detonating his characters’ lives in the time it takes to read a paragraph.” Consider those comments while reading the excerpt from “That Room” (page 41), one of Wolff’s new stories. What aspects of “That Room” echo with the threat of “detonation” Woodward describes?

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