review by Inez Baranay


Kevin Brophy
Creativity: Psychoanalysis, Surrealism and Creative Writing
Melbourne University Press, 1998
ISBN 0 522 84786 2


Can creative writing be taught? While the question is still being asked, creative writing is taught. It is a well-established subject in schools, universities and community workshops. And if it is taught, why, it is therefore learned. Is it similarly asked whether mathematics or music, history or woodwork can be taught? (It probably should be.)

I became a writer when the idea of learning writing at a school, learning it formally, as a subject, in a classroom, with a teacher, for marks, simply did not exist. It would have seemed preposterous. It's an idea that has taken some getting used to. I confess that I am glad I never had the choice to make - whether to become the writer I always knew I was by doing a course. I quite see the point of all these courses and classes, of course I do, or I wouldn't be teaching in them, and finding that the real writers, starting out, also go to them, it's their way of being able to write and talk about writing and hear about writing from people who've been at it for longer, who also learn a thing or two from this engagement. The culture has changed. People go to workshops and courses rather than cafes and informal writers' meetings. If the products of writers are studied so should the processes be; if the texts of writers have something to teach us then so do the people who created them. (No longer is it be possible for an academic to object to the appointment of a writer with "are we to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?")

The very term creative writing has always sounded odd to me. Tautological. People are not taught creative music or creative sculpture. Yes, I do see, we are not talking of learning writing as children learn to form letters then words; we are not talking of putting together reports or lists or instructions. We mean the writing employing imagination and art, craft and technique; we mean stories and the artful use of language. We need the term. (A term "with a use rather than a meaning".)

But there is still something that makes the idea of teaching creative writing a prickly, uneasy one and I think the something is this: it is the mystery and mysteriousness of it all, of the way writing gets done. It's the obsessiveness and vocational call of it, the way that if you must write nothing can stop you and that you really only learn by doing. It is the way there are all these rules and then there are no rules. The way you must be both disciplined and flexible, to know where you're going but then to go where it takes you. It's the way dreams and magic and superstition and co-incidence have so much to do with it, and fear and danger; the way it troubles your life, the way trance and daydream and distraction will produce the necessary flash of insight but not when you try to make it.

I have been asked to schools to talk about writing and might, for example, talk about the process of writing as discovery, and the kids say "but the teacher said we have to always know the ending before we start". There is almost nothing that can be said about writing that is always true. Kevin Brophy offers a parable of a particular journey he took in Melbourne - a destination with a set arrival time; he had marked his way on a map. But then he looked at another map, and the trip become one of a sudden decision to take a different route, of unexpected road conditions, confusing signs and necessary detours. "...[I]t was not the maps which advised me on what route to take. They multiplied my choices."

Kevin Brophy's Creativity is immensely satisfying - dense with ideas and lively and fluid in style, the work of a writer whose credentials are both in the creative and intellectual fields, and who is ideally placed to subject the idea and construct of creativity and creative writing to a rigorous and learned discussion. I expect this book to become required reading for everyone involved in creative writing, and that it will inspire a good deal of response and discussion, setting a new standard for the understanding of a subject whose definitions and boundaries are still being decided and can be contentious.

Creative writing is explored as one point of a triangle; the others are psychoanalysis and surrealism. It is the pivotal role of the unconscious that links the three, and the complex historical and philosophical relationships between them.

If the application of scientific method were essential to a claim to be a science, psychoanalysis could have no such claim to make. Science, however, is variously defined, and the claim to science marked the assertion of legitimacy by psychoanalysis and marked, most importantly, its competitive need to prove its supremacy over art, particularly literature.

Brophy's extensive review of the treatment of art and artists by psychoanalysis are informed by his insistence on the political strategy behind its claims: Freud's strategy to displace the authority of literature as the field in which knowledge and wisdom about humankind is found. According to the psychoanalysts cited here, authors do not know what they are doing and readers do not understand what they are responding to; the power of works of art such as Hamlet were not understood until Freud arrived to explain them to us. While literature has provided evidence for psychoanalytic theory, the theory has claimed that authors arrive at insights and effects unknowingly.

I am not sure that Freud and the Freudians quite succeeded in making literature unable to be understood without reference to psychoanalysis, but its intervention and influence in this century's discourse on art is obvious.

Misogyny, as well as the central place of the unconscious, might be the strongest link between psychoanalysis and surrealism. For the surrealists, the unconscious was a technique for the production of texts. Surrealism took up psychoanalysis as starting point for a new, even more experimental and unprecedented discourse. And surrealists could only save their art "by leaving psychoanalysis at a loss for words".

Brophy's extensive reviews of the construction, practice and theories of psychoanalysis and surrealism, of the key events, conflicts and developments of these arts, their influence on our ideas on creativity - what it is, in what terms it is understood -, can be read as a background briefing for the section called "Creative Writing and the Institutions of Education".

Here I find named and examined the area of my uneasiness with the current sunny view of creativity as an enriching, therapeutic and containable endeavour to be promoted and overseen by government grants givers, writers centres and educational institutions. Where is the acknowledgment of its darkness, its danger, its sickness, its "empathy with perversion"?

Pleasure, though, also is a factor in the disturbances around the presence of creative writing in universities.

Creative writing courses, and the writing of poetry, are peculiarly popular in these days of the Ec.Rat. and apparently are proliferating. There are important issues for the academy to address. Some of these identified by Brophy: What is the purpose of students' creative writing? Who should teach it, and how? How can it be assessed? What is the relation of writing to reading, of art to theory, of creative writing to the production of literature? Can creative writing be legitimately recognised and assessed as research?

The complaints of anti-intellectual complacency. The counter complaints of the complacency of the champions of a counter-canon of trendy theory. The concerns about the generation of university-taught writers, the power of their connections, the limitations of their models. The enfeeblement of poetry by poetry schools. "Real" creativity not possible in these contexts. Brophy reveals criticisms such as these to be based on prejudices and misinformation.

Why do the accepted boundaries of research exclude creative areas from funding support? What is required for educational and funding institutions to change so as to include creative research, creative higher degrees? What are the implications for the freedom of expression and for intellectual property rights? How can a creative endeavour, with its potential for radical change, its refusal to be tied to acceptable versions of truth, with its tendency to play with the unsayable and impossible - how can this exist in the context of institutions and assessments?

Brophy expands, teases and quarrels with these issues, offering ways of finding one's way among them, enlarging one's understanding of what needs to be considered, and refusing to end with any illusion of certainty or safety.


Inez Baranay's most recent book, a queer sex-and-shopping novel, is Sheila Power: an entertainment. She teaches Creative Writing at Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus and the University of the Sunshine Coast.


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Vol 2 No 2 October 1998
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady