TEXT Review

Against the domestication of the mind

review by Jennifer Webb


Explorations in Creative Writing
Kevin Brophy
Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2003
ISBN 0-522-85056-1
Pb 256pp, AU$34.95


Section 1: Looking at Kevin

Kevin Brophy writes on page 1 that this is a book that is about 'how writing gets done'. Here are some rules of writing that can be extracted from its pages:

a. remember that anything can be said (a la Derrida) - struggle against the domestication of the mind (p98)
b. jot down your thoughts before they escape too far into the past (p27)
c. find satisfactory beginnings and endings (p10)
d. if you want to learn how to use standard punctuation, read lots of fiction (p33)
e. remember that characters will get out of control (p22)
f. you too should be only barely in control; let the story explode (p73)
g. be prepared to be bored, and to neglect yourself and others, as you lay down word after word, sentence after sentence, like a bricklayer (p77)
h. read and write with the ear (you know what I mean) (p28)
i. begin with the personal, with the emotional: that is, with the specific (p190)
j. think like a medieval person - in metaphor; believe in the actuality of connection and reflection (p45)
k. think like a savage - like a bricoleur, not an engineer; make your work out of fragments, out of what comes to hand, out of the second-hand (p91)
l. find yourself a good couch; keep it; sleep on it often (p60)
m. when you're writing a story always ask yourself: 'what if it really did happen?' (p71)
n. Dostoevsky's The Idiot is manual enough for any writer (p207)

Pretty good advice. But this isn't a book about rules; it's a book that seeks 'the intensification of the world', a 'tentative and uncertain thing' that suggests ways of doing without attempting to convince, or prove. Which means it's a bit circumlocutory, it's a book you can pick up and put down, one you can read from beginning to end like a novel, or dip into like a collection of poems.

It is also often deeply personal. 'I am still not sure if I have said too much or too little in what follows', he says on page 8. Too much, I'd say, when it comes to the narratives that circulate around his children. If he were my dad, I'd be seriously peeved. The stories are touching, and instructive; but because they're about real-life young people, people I've met, there's just too much information.

He says perhaps too little when it comes to writing other than the narrative, the free verse poem, the metaphorically grounded; when it comes to approaches that are not built upon the twinning we find in medieval thinking. Language poetry, cyberwriting, graphic novels: do the issues he discusses so lyrically resonate in these forms?

He says perhaps too little about Bakhtin's notion of the novelisation of poems: that 'tendency to drag all other genres into a zone of contact with contemporary reality' (42). I wonder about how valid Bakhtin's ideas may be now, half a century later. I wonder whether it couldn't be argued that epics had begun to disappear before the novel took the throne of writing. I wish that, having raised it, he'd got into it a bit more vigorously.

And I wish he'd given sources for his quotes. Harvard style: author/year/page.

Other than those quibbles, this book is like Baby Bear: neither too much nor too little, but just right. He is a sentence-thinker, Kevin, one who knows the morphology of a sentence, can identify its spine, its breath, the way ripples move through it, how 'it wriggles out into its life' (30). He knows the relation between word and thing, word and meaning, word and sentence. Knows that a writer is a word-chooser (65), picking through the selection on offer in the dictionary, dropping one word after another into the sentence, and listening like a piano-tuner for the resulting tone.

He's generous: he lays down anecdotes like gifts. Think of these: people purring; the meekness of elephants; chimpanzees climbing a hill to watch the sunset; couches that stay with you all your life. These are things to write about.

It may indeed be a book that is 'suspended upon ambiguities' (86) and often contradictory, but is good to think with, is sensually crafted, is prepared to go with the realm of affect, not simply logic. It is written in the voice of a poet who lingers over the texture of each word and phrase, the shape of each sentence. It is pleasurable to read.

Read it.

And having read it, go back to your writing.

Section 2: According to Kevin, writing is:

An architectural act (Hart Crane) performed by a
Bricoleur. Letters black as priests move across the page. It's
Craft as much as art; it's science too: poetry as
Deliberate researches in the dark.
Experiences in time and timing; escape hatches,
Fragments reorganized in space: this is writing.
Games with serious import, invitations to a dance,
History's crises fragmented - then reframed;
Imaginary gardens, with real toads in them (Marianne Moore).
Juxtaposing the surface and the depths, writers juggle thought in this
Kinetic art - or do I mean kenotic? Both. Writers build
Lab reports, experiment with language; their poems are
Machines made with words (William Carlos Williams), minor constellations
Not about illustration, but about illumination.
Oblique at best, gestures more than statements, writing is the
Point at which meaning collapses. What
Quandaries, what uncanny aspects must writers invoke to make their
Raids on the inarticulate (TS Eliot).
Strange creatures of the imagination, uncertainly surreal,
Terdiman's 'inescapably anticanonical' cohabit with tradition in a
Universe called Bookish, the paradoxical place where
Voice and breath, vision and viscera, meet. Sometimes
Whining with exaggerated feeling (Peacock), sometimes intoxicating,
eXploration of the unspeakable, experiments with ecstasy, Whitman's
YAWP; it's always on the edge of control, it's driven, a
Zygote striving to become a child. It's all the evidence we need.

Jen Webb
University of Canberra
September 2004


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Vol 8 No 2 October 2004
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady