An interview with the Attic's
founder, director, and writer-in-residence
August 21, 2008
David Biespiel started the Attic in an empty attic space on Hawthorne Boulevard in 1999. His first class had six students. Today over 500 students take classes, receive private editorial consultations, and participate workshops every year. In the following interview about the origins and evolution of Portland's unique literary studio, Biespiel reveals how the vision and mission of the Attic remains focused on the development of the creativity, imagination, and wisdom of each participant who enters the room.
1. Before you answer a mundane question like how did the Attic begin, will you answer this: Can creative writing be taught?
Certainly. Then again, I don't know...maybe not. The question is so much about the instruction, the instructor, isn't it? And not so much about the student, the aspiring writer. That seems unfair, & not quite adequete. So I put it to you this way. Yes, writing can be taught for this reason: When the pupil is ready the master will appear. At a more practical level, well, there are decent writerly suggestions that our teachers know well & intimately that would be worthwhile for you to listen to & add to your tool kit for composition. Sometimes, it's nuts & bolts business--editing, shaping, crafting, encouraging a full engagement with the medium & your genre. Other times, it's asking you to give more: write more deeply, think more clearly, feel more passionately about your experiences & how you transform those into your writing. I mean: Write as if you have just this one chance to Say the Thing. That's what it means to "find your voice." I feel that one teaches writing, to some degree, by modeling & asking for an attitude of ambitiousness--& by this I mean to be ambitious at the phrase by phrase level in your writing, the word by word level in your writing. (Who would want to write with the opposite sort of ambition anyway? That would be, what, petty ambition?) In other words, we teach an attitude about caring for the art of language as it exists in your writing. There's some Big Duty for the Writer in that description, I fear, but there's great pleasure, too, in trying to make something that's complex & difficult. And to share it with readers. Or, at least, so I've been told. The pleasure part, I mean...I'm kidding, of course, but sometimes you just have to sit down & write. Sometimes that is truly how one teaches creative writing--by saying those words...Just sit down & write.
2. How did the Attic start?
I was in need of a place to work outside of my house is the main reason. An office. A studio. Too often, for me at least, my writing projects would distract me from living my life at home. In other cities I"ve lived I'd had studio space to work in. So, mostly, I just needed a quiet place to write. Solitude is an essential ingredient for a writer. At least, for me. Not isolation, not quarantine, not disconnection, but solitude. Once in that space, I began to invite students up for scheduled classes. Some of those students really didn't need my instruction, so I invited them to teach a class in the space. I'd thought to call the whole thing something high-falutin like The Atheneum. But when I was fixing up the space--& I assure you it was an attic in every sense of the word, I mean the weather inside was identical to the weather outside--when I was fixing up the space for human beings with higher standards than my own (I just needed a place to write, mind you), I began referring to the space, naturally enough, as "the attic." As in, "I'm going over to the attic." It was a sign. It was just too much of an attic, I'm afraid. That original space was on Hawthorne Boulevard, like this one. And incredibly funky. I wrote Wild Civility there so it means a good deal to me. Our current place--we've been here five or six years or more--resembles an old apartment, I think, & must have been inhabited some forty years ago by someone somebody called Aunt Flora or Uncle Leo. A crooked hallway, lots of light, special in a different sort of way from the orginal loft.
3. The Attic is referred to as a literary studio. Is it a school? A kind of center where people can drop in?
It's a studio in the sense that it's a place where literary life exists--as opposed to a "center" which to me suggest an institution. As an institute, the Attic is a fluid environment. For example, unlike a typical literary center or school, we don't run a reading series with national writers coming in to present their new books. That's a perfectly good thing--I've run a reading series in the past, when I lived in Washington, DC--& there's an unquantifiable amount of that in Portland. In the beginning of the Attic's history, that studio life was simply me at work at my desk, chipping away at writing, & then the classes convening at night. Students could get a sense of a working writer, in that regard. Now the studio is a fuller universe: the Attic Rooms have writers working regularly on their various writing projects; Poetry Northwest is a thriving venue for both poetry & prose, & the editorial & publication staff work here; the Attic for Teachers program is off the ground; & we now coordinate private manuscript consultations & critique. Meanwhile, the workshop is still the central locus. That red room, with all the sounds of Hawthorne sailing up against the windows, those armchairs where so many writers have convened & hashed out what matters, is where writers meet to work as...you know, how shall I put it, as writers. So the Attic is a crossroads of enormous literary activity--though it's not open for drop-in visitations or that sort of thing. All sorts of excellent pieces of writing get started & finished here. That's what it means to be a literary studio.
4. Is there an Attic method?
You must be kidding. A method? No. No method. The teachers here teach in a way that's best for their students, in a way that suits their personalities as writers. It's diverse. We don't write down the bones, & we don't write with our toes. Whatever that means! We don't track students into beginning, intermediate, or advanced classes. I know that other places, other organizations thrive on a creative method or succeed by putting students into advancing categories. That's fine. Those are tried-and-true ways to manage instruction. And other writing programs & teachers develop particular metaphors for thinking about creative energy & literary composition. I have no opposition to it. I would agree that writers need to find the advice that's best-suited to them & their capacity to learn & develop. From time to time, the teachers at the Attic revisit the subject of methodizing our approach--we've even considered a non-academic MFA program. We'll see. The teachers here have taught successfully for a long time. It's good to grow as a teacher, & we're focused on that, but also good to stay with the horse that brung you, as we say in the county in Texas I'm from. In the meantime, I see the matter this way: Given that students who study here are adults with complex, interesting lives, careers, sometimes families, I think it's best for both the inexperienced & the experienced writer to sit in the same room. The questions that each asks of the workshop--while often in juxtaposition--are questions that both the beginner & the advanced writer can do well to think about more thoroughly. Most writers who come here want to succeed & to grow as writers. For some, the Attic provides validation--in their home life they may not be getting support for writing. For others, the Attic provides accountability. When you have to bring in pieces of writing regularly, it motivates you to stay on the horse. These aren't mutually exclusive, of course. And still other writers come here for un-quantifiable sorts of reason. I don't know, maybe "staying on the horse" is our method! Yes, here it is: "At the Attic, if you want to write, our method is this...stay on the horse. Keep riding. Um...I mean, writing." It's a simplistic method, I know.
5. So what about the MFA? Good thing? Bad thing?
Depends on the writer. Really, the MFA is a means. To what end, I couldn't tell you. But "to MFA or not to MFA" is not, in any case, the question. The question, as I see it, is what do you want to make? If you want to make poems, make them. If you want to make novels, do that. There are always possibilities. And a writer will find a way. The MFA could be that way, then again maybe not. Depends on the writer. That said, I know some outstanding MFA instructors, outstanding ones. And we've helped students who come through the Attic get accepted into MFA programs. I teach in the low-residency MFA at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Here in Portland, too, there are other places to take writing classes that have wonderful instructors. The MFA is one option. Writing, without an MFA, is another option.
6. What's your best advice for a writer?
Don't listen to me would be my advice...
7. No really. One thing?
All right...read. Immerse yourself in reading the kind of writing you're doing. Writing screenplays? Read them, & watch movies. Constantly. Writing a memoir, read them. Writing poems, read them--& not just the latest National Book Award finalists or whatever is fadish--the Bread Crumb Prize Winner for Best Decolotage Ficton. Follow the trail: If you like writer X, see who writer X read, then read that writer. And so on. There you have it, one thing: Read. The ratio between what you read & what you write will be enormously imbalanced. More reading compared to less writing. And yet--let me contradict myself--write more, too.
7. Read more and write more?
Yes. Look, I'm not in favor of saying that writers should do or shouldn't do a thing. Saying "read more" & "write more" is pretty self-evident. It's no great advice really. Just stating the obvious. But I will say this: I think we writers don't devote enough time to writing things that will never exist in publication. I'm not saying we don't have multiple drafts cluttering up the kitchen. But we don't do what musicians do or, say, painters do. We don't practice. We don't do side-work. Here's what I mean: You're faced with some difficult part of story or poem or creative essay. Often you just keep hammering away at it, draft after draft, wrestling it like Jacob with the angel until morning comes. Faced with a difficult passage, a complicated run of notes, a musician will slow down, play each one at half speed, or three or four times in a row before plunking onto the next note, stretch out the experience to build the muscle memory into place, immerse oneself in the music & its nuances. Not going to perform it that way, of course, but it's similar for a writer in the early stages with your piece not ready for publication either & just trying to sort out the difficult sections. A painter will struggle with a portrait. So the painter will do side-work, drawings of the nose, a different angle into the eyes, a close bit of detail work. The painter is finding the shapes, studying the problem, testing possibilities, being open to the process of discovery. Meanwhile, our writer is shouldering the whole piece as usual, draft after draft, start to finish. Writers could be better at learning to give up something in order to get something later. We could do well to take a passage & rework it from multiple angles, even if only a part of what you made can be brought back in--or all of it, or none of it--as a way to saturate yourself in the particulars. Fail, in order to succeed. We should be more comfortable with failing-within-the-process-toward-achievement. Now I don't mean becoming comfortable with failing, with mediocrity, with lowering your standards, but willing to determine what's needed in the compositional process.
8. How do you know a poem, a story, a creative essay, etc., is done?
No idea. If we knew the answer to that here, we'd turn it into a pill & sell it. I can only say this about when something is done: I know it when I see it. For my own writing, I'm looking to see if the parts are greater than the whole.
9. What's it like for you to teach at the Attic?
I've been privileged to work with very good writers. The conversation in the workshop room is often fascinating & keen. At the same time, the writing is often so drenching-wet new that it's a special responsibility to care for it on behalf of the writer who turns it in. I'm one person who has, at one time or another & in one context or another, taught at nearly every possible setting you can create for a teacher, excepting nursery school & penitentiaries. I've taught elementary-aged students, junior & senior high, community college, university undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral students, adult students, senior citizens. (I've even developed & coached national champions in springboard & platform diving, like what you see in the Olympics.) Still, I don't have a philosophy, I admit that. But I do think that it's helpful to meet students where they are, then immediately facilitate moving to the next level, & to see the possibilities beyond that, too.
10. Is this what the workshops are like at the Attic?
Perhaps. I think a poor workshop would be one that is over-fixated on the little thing, on trying to get this one piece or story or poem to be a square inch better than it was thirty minutes ago. That kind of minutia is OK for some part of the time, but I think it's better to think of the large canvas of being a writer. We can all propose this correction or that suggestion about, say, a single line of poetry or a scene in a story or memoir. But sometimes what's needed is not picking the dirt out of the pepper but a wide-ranging discussion that addresses questions like, "What is a line?" "How do lines work?" Or, in fiction, "What's the relation between action & consequence in a scene?" For us, here at the Attic, what often matters more with your writing is not the actual piece you bring in for feedback & support & suggestions, but the one in the future that you haven't written yet, the one you'll work on when you're no longer in the room with this community of writers, when you've gone back to your desk, as go back you must, to write. We try to teach discovery, faith in the imagination, fearlessness about failure--plus we provide four-square critique & improvements for individual pieces, direction for your subject, training for finding your voice, & also, when needed, publication ideas. But most important, we hope when you leave here or after a period of study when you take several workshops--as many of our students do--that you'll write a little more confidently than before because you've been in an innovative & supportive environment where you've been thinking well about both practical & philosophical questions related to your imagination & writing habits. For me, as just one teacher, that's what it means to try to inspire students. That's what we're trying to do here. Inspire your confidence in yourself so you can write the thing you need to write. And for many, many writers over the years--I'm fortunate to say--we've been a haven for just that sort of experience.
*** Bonus question. Got to ask: Does everyone who studies at the Attic go on to publish their work?
Bonus? For whom? OK, I'll answer it. Everyone who comes here gets to sit in one of these comfortable chairs & have your writing listened to closely. The future is difficult to see. Come up here, focus on your writing, & see what happens.