TEXT Review

Experimentation and theory pay off for writers

review by Komninos Zervos



The writing experiment: Strategies for innovative creative writing
Hazel Smith
Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005
ISBN 1-741140-15-3
304pp, Pb AU$39.95

I have read the book, it's great for providing ideas for experimentation and placing the writing thus produced in a theoretical context without prescribing what is good, or bad, writing. It is intended for students of university creative writing programs but from my experiences teaching creative writing in schools, as well as at university, I believe it is not beyond year 10, 11 or 12 high school students. It is certainly a much-needed resource for their teachers, who often find it difficult to introduce their students to the concepts of contemporary literary and cultural theory with practical examples of the art that their students can relate to.

I am doing belly-dance classes at the moment and I didn't start to have fun with it until I knew the standard shimmies, body movements, steps and turns. Then I could extend, re-combine, re-invent and experiment for myself. We all need some knowledge of the bricks before we start building.

Hazel Smith claims that creative writing interconnects intellectual and creative exploration and her book aims to demystify the creative writing process. It is not a 'painting by numbers' approach to creative writing, but it is a step-by-step writing manual. It is not based on pre-conceived forms. Hazel refers to word systems rather than structure or genre, with open-ended strategies with diverse outcomes. Writing can be worked out and skills can be learnt, experimentation is fundamental to creativity, and she encourages writers to make their own experiments. It helps if you can visualize yourself as a writer first. Without being evangelistic about what is good writing Hazel stresses that experimental texts are polysemic, having many meanings and interpretations, and there is a considerable difference between real life and text life. Everything written is a fiction, and texts are composed of other texts.

It is emphasized that writers do not have 'one unique voice' but many voices, and writing is often a means of becoming a more informed reader. In doing so she does not deny an inspirational kind of writing but shows us that a disciplined writing is no less valuable. In 1985 I stopped doing every other job in my life. Making poetry my art and my means of financial survival I was probably the first Australian full-time professional performance poet with a wife, family and mortgage (since Henry Lawson). If I sat around waiting for the inspirational poem, I wasn't very productive. If I set myself tasks, if I made myself productive, then I was a whole lot more creative, even if some of the things I wrote never made it past the work-in-progress stage.

Another great benefit of this book is that it acknowledges that writing has many forms and utilizes various inscription technologies: print, performance and the multimedia interconnected Internet. She identifies that spoken word poetry has its own qualities: dynamics, pitch, accentuation, rhythmic delivery, and tempo. Internet texts are characterized by a different use of space, of topography utilizing images, language, sound, a plurality not possible on the page, with multi-linear or non-sequential pathways through the text, including animations, split screens, hyper-linking, interactivity and encouraging scanning of surfaces with the mouse, and reading in directions other than left to right. It is a simultaneous absorption of multiple and fragmented texts.

There is an Internet website to accompany the book,

Hazel's chapters on narrative and narratology and narrative strategies stress that our past is constantly being transformed by the present and the relationship between past and present is fluid. Her chapters on postmodern writing emphasize that it established frictions in breaking traditional narrative structures, projecting character then challenging it. Hazel states that there is always a tension between what we are feeling and the language we use to express it. In postmodern writing subjectivity is de-centred, fragmented and multiple. The I that writes is not the I that is written. There is not one centred self and that all texts are political. The contemporary image focuses on the taboo subjects like areas of disgust, secrecy or fear or the modern social condition, and on urban/technical issues. This kind of writing employs devices like metonymy, games/formulas, homonym and working within constraints, mostly self-imposed formulas.

One thing that worries me about this does not have to do with Hazel's reading of postmodern writing, which I think is very accurate, but rather the value of postmodernism as a vibrant theory if it can be so easily defined.

Finally here are a couple of poems that I constructed using some of Hazel's exercises:

Word Pool Exercise (Choose 15-20 strong words)

  Workers Buses  
Welfare Recipients
Road works   Pastries  
  Sipping Urban Banks
School kids      


pension day on scarborough

welfare recipients
sipping the morning
bank breezes
like coffee buses
like pigeons to a bakery
as urban as workers
bitumen crumbles like pastry
road works
coffee banks
school-kids rushing for buses
future welfare recipients?

sound run

breasts broken spoken speech screech
scrawny morning awning
horn-blower rower crower omen chromed home ho ho ho
whoa why try demystify kisses
bliss bleeding sincere chin
chunder scum scallops trollops
troughs and bollocks

Komninos Zervos, Poet, Convenor, CyberStudies major, School of Arts, Griffith University


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Vol 9 No 1 April 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady