What If? Lidia Yuknavitch on Her Philosophy of Teaching
“What is a writer in these times? How do we share the space of writing and making art?”
Change is afoot. We can see it in the climate roaring back at us, the plants and animals moving from background to foreground during the beginning of Covid. Institutions are fracturing, old systems are stretching beyond their breaking points, nations and money tables are overturning, social shearing pervades our epoch.
And yet making art pulses on, beating not beaten, underground, in the fissures, on the edges all over the world.
What is a writer in these times? How do we share the space of writing and making art?
For thirty-five years I was a writer housed inside academia, meaning I learned and then taught inside universities and colleges. Make no mistake, even though I flunked out of college twice along the way, eventually I punched through. I loved graduate school. I loved reading the books and pretending like I had slumber parties with dead authors. Dead authors get me.
I had several different jobs—part-time, full-time, tenured, the whole shebang. I like to think I was useful. I know I was uncomfortable inside academia even though I felt lucky and privileged to have jobs. And yet as an arts activist and experimental writer, I often felt like I was “teaching” with my hands tied behind my back and a mouth full of fish. Like legions of others, I tried many experiments in the classroom to break down static forms and reroute creativity. I experienced both delight and exhaustion trying to help students keep their pilot lights lit as well as ask “what if“ as an open question. Sometimes I got through. Sometimes not. Teaching is not for wimps. Teaching is labor, and many teachers are activists.
I came to teaching in the first place because I wanted to be a writer, and teaching was a way to support myself and others, but also because I believed in the labor. My goal as a teacher was to try to be useful, but also to agitate the edges of ideas—important mentors to me were Ken Kesey and Kathy Acker. I didn’t fit in very well. Misfits often need to keep an escape route available to exist at all. To hold open a “what if” space, sometimes intentionally, sometimes self-destructively (which is its own creativity edge).
I chose to leave academia when the desire to work with other writers and artists outside of institutional lines outweighed my fears about leaving the security of a job with health insurance and a steady paycheck. I also felt like my soul might die if I had to attend one more committee meeting where men figured out clever ways to silence and undercut women and queer people, or if I had to help produce one more spreadsheet or strategic plan or evaluation matrix that never went anywhere while brilliant colleagues and programs, as well as certain kinds of students, were systematically obliterated. I have many teaching colleagues who are fighting the good fight as I write this, and I feel both solidarity as well as heartache when I listen to their concerns. Most of them love teaching. I loved teaching. Teaching can be more than one thing.
I started a writing center, not a school, more like a shoal. Corporeal Writing was born from a shift in the definitions of what writing might mean. My creative labor today has become helping other people find their own edges, their own lines of flight, fissure, portal, becoming. I was interested in writing in community, which is different than “group work” or a “writing group.” Corporeal Writing was born from a willingness to imagine writers as a plurality and writing as a network of potentialities, reinvigorating the rooms we enter together.
There is no use in thinking about how to be a writer in a binary way. Institutional learning and practice work well for some people. Some writers grow and thrive there. And I am not co-signing onto our current wave of idiotic fascistic attacks on critical thinking, higher education, critical race theory, that ever-morphing thing we call feminism(S), queer theory, or any other weaponized movement against imagination and creative will.
Rather, we need more alternatives at the edges. Writing can serve/question/change social existence and ideas about being. Poems bear witness. Stories reassemble reality, asking always What if? What IF…?
Writers today are looking out at the world and wondering how to navigate the ground between their own creative pulse and a world in speedy dissolution and reformation. Here are some ideas I’ve come to as someone who has stepped away from teaching and toward more open forms of creative collaboration:
• Not everyone who feels the joy and struggle of being a writer can afford an MFA or higher degree in the arts, or score an agent, or punch through into the publishing industry. Also, some people get spit out when they don’t make their “numbers.”
• Many people are interested in working with accomplished writers, but have no access or huge obstacles to access.
• The publishing industry and educational institutions are undergoing plate tectonics.
• Institutional learning tends to serve the institution as well as the market. As much as if not worse than ever.
What I am interested in is a collaboration realm where writing in community shivers the edge of self and social. What if we wrote and made art together in a room without a conclusion?
What if we gathered our collective creative energy and took turns carrying it for and with each other? What kind of de-institutionalized body current could we create if we just gathered as people who love writing, or who can’t keep a lid on their own creativity, people who lead with heart and guts? How might our poetics and storytelling change?
What if we let go of a standardized model of “writer” or “body” in favor of forming new assemblages? De-gendered by binaries, but not gender-erased? Gender multiple?
What if writing was plural, not focused on the rise of the individual? What if writing could be collective? Collaborative? Socially vital? A life practice? What new forms and practices might emerge?
Whatever Corporeal Writing is or becomes, it is in this open-endedness, these lines of flight, these escape routes, this gathering of de-institutionalized desires let loose in a room or in virtual space. Pluralized. Many-bodied. Creating hybrid and innovative forms at the edges of inherited traditions.
Writing and writer as communal creaturing.
What I believe in is holding open the “what if” space. The holding open, the carrying, the hand-to-hand heart-to-heart guts-to-guts transfer of ideas and imagination creates its own economy, energy, aesthetic. The individual’s success or failure is not as important as the shared kinetic energy that emerges from making art together. Globally.
Do writers still get published in this alternate universe? Yes. Daily.
Is that the only reason to write collaboratively in community? No.
If writing into the “what if” tickles something inside you, you’re not alone.
Corporeal Writing has launched a year-long virtual creative lab (in 2024). Affectionately called Mushroom School, it seeks to build a community mycelial network that endeavors to expand, explode, and unfold creative writing practice. This is an experiment in learning and unlearning together, an emergent space where we may explore, what happens when we write together through frames of difference?
Special Guest Visiting Instructors: Bayo Akomolafe, Dominique Christina, Renee Gladman, Terese Marie Mailhot, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and Sophie Strand.
Mushroom School will include monthly workshops led by Corporeal Writing staff Lidia Yuknavitch, Janice Lee, Anya Pearson, and Brigid Yuknavitch; weekly cohorts will be facilitated by Domi Shoemaker, Leigh Hopkins, Daniel Elder, Katie Guinn, and Ella de Castro Barron.