TEXT Review

Thinking about writing and research

review by Donna Lee Brien



Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research
Paul Carter
Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, 2004
ISBN 1-522-85124-X
216pp. Pb AU$44.95


Paul Carter is well known as the author of a series of important interventions into our understanding of history, space and culture including The Road to Botany Bay (1987), Living in a New Country (1992), The Lie of the Land (1996) and Repressed Spaces (2002). Currently a Professorial Research Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building, and Planning at the University of Melbourne, Carter is an acclaimed artist whose main works have been public, collaboratively produced works of art. His latest book, Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research, published last year, takes this artistic practice as a basis to make an equally significant contribution to one of our discipline's most enduring discussions - the status of creative practice as research and, moreover, as the subtitle suggests, how such research practice can be conceptualised and theorised.

Carter begins:

Material thinking occurs in the making of works of art. It happens when the artist dares to ask the simple but far-reaching questions What matters? What is the material of thought? To ask these questions is to embark on an intellectual adventure peculiar to the making process. Critics and theorists interested in communicating ideas about things cannot emulate it. They remain outsiders, interpreters on the sidelines, usually trying to make sense of a creative process afterwards, purely on the basis of its outcome. They lack access to the process and, more fundamentally, they lack the vocabulary to explicate its intellectual character. For their part, film-makers, choreographers, installation artists and designers feel equally tongue-tied: knowing that what they make is an invention that cannot easily be put into words, they find their creative research dumbed-down…their social and cultural function dangerously dematerialises. (xi)

I like Carter's use of the term 'creative research', although, as he identifies, it is tautological - for 'as a method of materialising ideas, research is unavoidably creative' (7). In the context of creative writing, we know that writers have always engaged in some form of research as an integral component of their creative practice for, in its most simple terms, as Hoffman states: 'the writer has to know a great deal more than he [sic] actually puts into words if what he writes is to ring true' (Hoffman 1996: 1). Hemingway expressed this in Death in the Afternoon (1932) in what has become known as his 'iceberg theory':

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. (Hemingway 1932: 192)

There is (or should be) no debate about the fact that writers read a vast array of books and other media texts, observe, eavesdrop, visit places, and utilise all their senses to mine the reality around them to inform their writing. But, as many in the creative arts disciplines nowadays have to ask, writers are interrogating whether their creative activity is scholarly in itself (in action and/or outputs) and, therefore, able to be classified as research in the way this term is currently used in the institutional setting.

The relatively recent recognition of creative writing as a viable academic discipline in Australia has prompted a number of writers (and especially those within the academy) to interrogate and conceptualise their practice in such terms. At first, I found this a relatively stimulating activity but, more recently, struggling to come to grips with the newest elaboration of the Research Quality Framework and the latest current round of bureaucratic demands that I justify just how the various work I do - even the most scholarly - is research, Carter's work is a breath of fresh air. Among all the stony-faced 'please explain' requests, Carter compellingly reminds us not only that the artist's primary work is to create art, but that, in the process of doing this, artists actually can't help but reflect upon how their ideas have become art and what exactly it is that they are learning during the creative process.

Carter clearly identifies research in the creative arts with creative practice, stating that 'creative research is, in itself, an act of reflection and invention' (191). This is a combination, moreover, which, at its best, produces knowledge that establishes fertile ground for future invention (8). Carter's argument is premised on an idea that writers are familiar with: that while critics and theorists can only describe or rationalise the creative process based on its final outcome (the work), makers of that work of art can productively reflect on the creative thinking that created such works (xi). In Carter's terms, 'creative research' integrates this usually unarticulated knowledge with the craft 'wisdom' of the artist (xii) to retrieve the 'intellectual work that usually goes missing in translation' when making art (xiii).

What Material Thinking does so lucidly (and inspiringly) is to capture and illustrate, through a series of case studies of works Carter was intimately involved in as a creator, how this creative research thinking can be described in a text that is not only informative and instructive, but also a pleasure to read.

While specifically writing about the visual, plastic and largely non-verbal arts, Carter's persuasive argument also holds for the many creative writers who perceive a tension between the forms of their creative practice (writing) and the scholarly expression of that practice as research (when writing scholarly books, journal articles, theses or other exegetical artefacts). Although dealing with how a series of collaborations result in exhibitions, performance works or video pieces, there is much that Carter discusses that is of direct relevance to those of us who work artistically to produce our artworks in writing. This is because, besides providing a series of models for all creative practitioners (and, perhaps, most especially postgraduate students struggling with the idea of their exegetical work or writers/academics wrestling with grant, job and promotion applications), Carter injects an energetic vitality back into the exercise of thinking about creative work in terms of research and research practice. On reflection, what was most energising for me in reading Material Thinking was Carter's liberating (and liberal) use of the words 'art' and 'artist', for this enabled me to once again conceptualise writing and writers in such terms, rather than as a bureaucratically auditable product.

That said, the significance of Carter's work runs far deeper than its use as a tool in the current policy and institutional environment. In Wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity Synthesized (2003), Sternberg contends that the analytical and quantitative abilities measured by IQ tests are not a true measure of intelligence. This is not revelatory to those who question the validity of such reductive examinations, but what is more stirring in Sternberg's analysis is the concentration of his argument on the idea that the kind of intelligence required by twenty-first century societies must include creative ability. Dacey and Lennon are even more pressing, arguing that as the world changes from being based on knowledge to information-processing, creative thinking is crucial to our survival as a species (Dacey & Lennon 1998: 226). Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein elaborate this persuasive view:

as more and more information becomes available, we understand and use less and less of it. If society cannot find ways to make integrated understanding accessible to large numbers of people, then the information revolution is not only useless but a threat to humane civilisation. (Root-Bernstein 1999: 29)

Enhancing creative ways of thinking, and finding ways to describe this thinking so that it can be disseminated and shared with the community at large, thus not only provides a compelling rationale for pursuing scholarship in the creative arts, but also supplies a good working summary of the core concerns of the new kind of research as it is practiced and generated by artists. Moreover, such conceptualisation keeps the creative impulse itself - which allows for movement beyond merely amalgamating information toward the productive imagining of new ways of reformulating existing problems and generating new ways of understanding - at the centre of this research.

The original, creative innovation which results from such practice - in Margaret A. Boden's terms, not 'mere newness' but 'genuine originality' (Boden 2004: 39) - can, as Carter so lucidly outlines, clearly be argued to form a valuable contribution to the resourceful and generative intelligence our world desperately needs. This removes the exegesis and other writing about the arts from the 'pigeon-holing obsession' (xiii) of critics to a much broader, and important, social context.

Carter, of course, understands this, and indeed defines the purpose of his book as:

to put into words the distinctive character of creative research, to show how the process of material thinking enables us to think differently about our human situation, and, by displaying in a tangible but non-reductive form its inevitable complexity, to demonstrate the great role works of art can play in the ethical project of becoming (collectively and individually) oneself in a particular place. Nor is this in the least a solipsistic benefit. To understand how identities form, how relationships with others are actively invented (and therefore susceptible to reinvention) is essential knowledge if societies are to sustain themselves. (xii)

This is to only begin to discuss a few strands in Carter's multifaceted work. Another review could focus on how fascinatingly the descriptions of the six collaborative art making processes are built up and intertwined, how intelligently the many images complement the text, and how attractive and well-edited this book is as a cultural product. Carter's case studies and framing arguments are excellently referenced with descriptive endnotes and a far-ranging bibliography that provides writers-as-researchers with many useful sources for further consideration.

For these reasons, as well as for the pure pleasure of reading this excellent book, Paul Carter's Material Thinking is an essential text for all those engaged in the creative arts, whether in, or outside, the academic context.



Boden, Margaret A. (2004) The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge. Return to text

Carter, Paul. (1987) The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History. London: Faber & Faber.

Carter, Paul. (1992) Living in a New Country: History, Travelling and Language. London: Faber & Faber.

Carter, Paul. (1996) The Lie of the Land. London: Faber & Faber.

Carter, Paul. (2002) Repressed Spaces: the Poetics of Agoraphobia. London: Reaktion Press.

Dacey, John S. and Kathleen H. Lennon. (1998) Understanding Creativity: the Interplay of Biological, Psychological, and Social Factors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Return to text

Hemingway, Ernest. (1932) Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribners. Return to text

Hoffmann, Ann. (1996) Research for Writers. 5th ed. London: Black. Return to text

Root-Bernstein, Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein. (1999) Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Return to text

Sternberg, Robert J. (2003) Wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity Synthesized. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Return to text


Dr Donna Lee Brien is a Senior Lecturer in Writing, Editing and Publishing in the School of English, Communication and Theatre at the University of New England, Australia. Widely published in the areas of writing pedagogy and praxis, creative nonfiction and collaborative practice in the arts, her biography John Power 1881-1943 (Sydney: MCA, 1991) is the standard work on this expatriate artist and benefactor. Donna is also the co-author of The Girl's Guide to Real Estate: How to Enjoy Investing in Property (2002); and The Girl's Guide to Work and Life: How to Create the Life you Want (2004) (both with Dr Tess Brady, Sydney: Allen & Unwin). Founding Editor of dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing (2000-2004) and Assistant Editor of Imago: New Writing (1999-2003), Donna is currently an Associate Editor of New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing (UK) and the President of the Australian Association of Writing Programs.



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Vol 9 No 2 October 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb