'... the rainbow bridge that should connect
the prose in us
Anticipating the coda 'only connect' with which he concluded his novel
Howard's End, EM Forster's rainbow bridge figures the multi-stranded
arc of human connection and offers a sparkling, colourful metaphor for
the plenitude of creative prose. For all its instability, its too-familiar
reification as a symbol of hope and inspiration, the rainbow bridge signals
the overlapping relationships that contribute to narrative production
and the multiple contexts within which a text is written and read.
Encounters with language, culture and place
This paper has been developed in response to a set of questions about
writing and the teaching of writing I have repeatedly heard expressed
by colleagues in universities and by fellow writers over many years. Indeed,
this paper itself is a set of questions concerned with writing and place.
They are not new or original questions, but the context in which I first
began to consider them - a remote regional university campus - provided
a new perspective on how they might be approached.
The Cradle Coast campus was set up in one of Australia's most educationally disadvantaged regions. Its landscape is characterised by a rugged coastline, fertile paddocks and hinterland mountains. Its primary produce is internationally celebrated. It has a vibrant visual arts community and links with the Tasmanian Writers Centre. There is a strong highly localised identity reinforced by geography. Economically vulnerable, however, the region has one of the lowest school retention rates in the country. Students routinely leave school at Grade 10 (DOTARS 2005). To address the education provision in the region, local government authorities and the University of Tasmania have invested significantly in the Cradle Coast campus. Although slowly expanding, only a narrow range of academic provision is yet available.
Creative writing was offered at UTAS Cradle Coast in 2006 and 2007 as a strategy of local engagement: providing students or prospective students with 'gateway' experiences of university. To achieve this it was necessary to find some kind of ontological meeting point between the student and the university. The program sought to make a connection by exercising familiar and localised sources of story and text. At the same time, as a teacher I wanted to connect students with new experiences and literary resources, knowledge and ideas that most had never encountered. I found that I could not achieve this, however, unless I first interrogated my assumptions and method of approach to teaching, including my own original discipline of English.
Some of the questions that confronted me were as follows. How relevant is the study of creative writing to the contemporary student in an increasingly vocational higher education market? Should we instead teach students journalism or public relations, so that they can develop useful skills for working life? How essential is the relationship between creative writing and literary or cultural analysis? Is the discipline of creative writing part of an ongoing dilution of academic curricula in the human sciences, or a means to meet the imperatives of a modern university economy, including by attracting student enrolments, as Dawson (2005: 134) has observed? Are we enabling students by facilitating their creative engagement with language and discourse, or are students alienated by the pedagogical and intellectual elitism wrought by a promulgation of the Great Writer mystique, as Fleisher and Amato (2002) have claimed? Or might creative writing be a way to connect students with story - the stories of the places where they live - and even help them to find their own stories to tell, a gateway to historical and cultural understanding?
Studies such as those by Dawson (2005), Harper (2006), Brophy (2003), Bennett (2001) and the editors and contributors to TEXT have sought to address the rise of creative writing as an academic field from a historical and cultural perspective. As Dawson observes, for example, English has never been a static discipline, but one that is perennially rearticulated and reformed within new social and cultural contexts, including as a series of reactions to successive academic orthodoxies within the arts and humanities (Dawson 2005: 121-58). Academic constructions of the author have been equally in flux, ranging from storyteller to great artist to public commentator to professional gun for hire. The discipline of creative writing has, however, flourished in Australian universities where creative writing is now considered not merely a companion study to the more scholarly work of literary history and criticism, but as 'a mode of literary research within the academy' (Dawson 1999) in its own right.
For students enrolling in creative writing for the first time at university, however, issues such as its instantiation as an academic discipline, or the death and rebirth of the author, have little apparent relevance. Indeed, my experience of teaching creative writing at Australian regional campuses suggests, unsurprisingly, that students attend creative writing programs for a variety of creative and practical reasons. Some enrol because they think creative writing will be an easy course they can do to fill their program load. Some have a story that's necessary for them to tell - whether that's to do with personal experience, or an idea that won't be silenced. Others attend courses for skills development, because they are struggling to write fluently for study or at work. Some approach it as recreation, to meet other people or as distraction from the everyday. There are students who approach creative writing as a Deleuzian 'line of flight' (1987: 10), a way of breaking and moving towards other plateaus of being and understanding. Others still attend because they are already writing professionally, as journalists, critics, novelists, poets, publicists, or bureaucrats, but want to extend further than they feel they can go by themselves.
In one way or another, students pursue creative writing - as Forster's coda reminds us - to connect: with story; with words, images, thoughts; with each other; and with their daily experiences and surroundings. This can happen for students in various ways: by coming to class, talking with other students or people at home, by reading, thinking about writing, writing in class and at home. Above all it occurs when students start to see, to observe everything around them, as writers, finding ways to 'read' both within and beyond what is most familiar. The perspective of the regional student writer is framed by locale: the pathways and habitations of home. Learning to look differently at familiar surroundings can surprise students for whom place is enmeshed with self-consciousness. Observation can heighten awareness of familiarity and belonging, but it can also generate ontological distance. This ambiguity between distance and connection fosters creative production. It creates a dialogue between experience and perception, foregrounds the subjectivity of the author/narrator, and raises questions as to where a story or a poem 'comes from' and in what situations it might later be heard or read.
Of course there is also disconnection: missed classes and assignment deadlines, self doubt, fractures along the lines of communication at home and in class. Attending university, in itself, can cause disjunction, where parents, co-workers or friends don't see its relevance for gaining a job or a settled life. This is a common pressure for creative writing students in remote regional areas, where role models are fewer, more proximate and less mediated by cosmopolitan discourses of identity and belonging, than may be the case for students at urban campuses (Green 2006-2008). At the same time, one of the most important experiences for creative writing students can be when they start to discover that what they learn in school or university is not separate from everyday life, and to find different angles from which to see, even to use, what they have always taken for granted. The practice of writing can therefore enable students to discover to test, even breach, familiar boundaries of attitude or knowledge. Introduction to the dynamics of reading literary texts can also encourage recognition of the power and capacity of language, as textual meanings are conceptualised, dismantled and transformed (Rimmon-Kenan 2002: 123-24).
A teacher of creative writing in a regional or remote rural context is unlikely to be able to assume, however, that students will have knowledge of literary texts, traditions and techniques. Fleisher and Amato (2002) have criticised the 'great writer' mystique they argue is perpetuated by university creative writing programs, particularly within the American academy. This perspective, however, presupposes that students and teachers are already culturally positioned in privileged ways, possessing a strong pre-existing knowledge of literary traditions and an appreciation, if not a reification, of creativity, writers and writing. Students and teachers of writing can, nevertheless, advance their work through an approach that emphasises immediacy and relationship and invites, rather than presupposes, a repertoire of textual knowledge and expertise.
This pedagogical strategy begins with reference to place and proceeds towards an understanding of the textual production of meaning and interpretation. Moreover, as Certeau suggests (1984: 126), our 'readings' are not confined to literary texts. The readings that generate meaning can include revisiting an ancestor's dwelling place, hidden tracks along a cliff, driving fast at night on an unsealed back road, listening to music or riding the swell of a wave before a storm. Through the narratives that emerge from these place-based 'readings', the contemporary regional student writer can offer a fresh discourse of authorship, one that paradoxically encapsulates multiplicity and transition, coherence and continuity, engaging readers and writers from urban cosmopolitan to remote rural settings.
Regionalism, culture and creative writing
A region is identified by notional and actual boundaries that, traditionally, mark out a community's proximity to the material conditions of survival: access to land, resources, industrial or manual production, climate, kinship, language and custom. Defining regions is problematic because so many variable factors and characteristics are at play. Recognising culture, including storytelling and writing, as a basis for regional identity, however, offers a way of expressing the connection between people and their environment (Trotter 2001: 336). More specifically, regional writing connotes the 'deep structure of local knowledge, where geographical and literary landscapes become imbued and interwoven with features of culture' (Pryse 1998: 19).
The significance of locale in relation to culture may appear weaker in the context of contemporary globalisation where production and consumption tend to reflect transnational homogeneity (Benyon & Dunkerley 2000: 22-27). As Trotter observes, however, while globalisation is sometimes seen as a threat to local culture, 'there is also a contradictory heterogenising effect that sees existing cultural forms reinforced alongside the generation of new hybrid forms' (2001: 336) with links to global centres of power that cross international borders. Rural regions of Australia are perhaps more likely to be recognised for their export production of raw minerals and primary resources than for their artisan produce or creative arts. Nevertheless, Australian governments have invested in regional cultural development, including writing and writers (DEWCA 2010), reflecting the view that regionalism is not a pre-existing and immutable condition, but that which must 'be self-consciously cultivated' in order to exercise the unique features of a locale (Frampton 1983).
Contemporary regionalism can be seen, therefore, as the expression of place through localised practices, affiliations and cultural forms. While the promotion of regional culture has been questioned as a strategy to serve the interests of global investors (Lovering 2004), it is elsewhere regarded as integral to the formation of regional identity and social wellbeing (Bennett & Carter 2001). Regional culture, including writing, may take a wide variety of forms, but can be defined broadly as that which recognises place as central to creative practice and production. This applies whether the context is a small farming township or a city-fringe industrial area.
Per Henningsgaard (2009) observes that regional writing has 'cultural value that is specific to a region, though not necessarily to the exclusion of national or international cultural value'. It can give expression to perspectives and to forms of writing that engage with, or resist, established literary traditions. As the expression of a dynamic relationship with place, regional writing can also seek to transform the meaning of place within and beyond a regional community culture. Pryse observes that the 'etymology of the word region reminds us that regions exist within, and are subordinated by, some other rule' (1998: 22). Writing from place may therefore encompass a deliberate attempt to reposition the discursive terms of centre and margin. Yet, while the discourse of regionalism may be regarded as a story that 'tirelessly marks out frontiers', a region can also be seen as an 'aggregate of heterogenous spaces' that arise from the interlocutory process of story-telling; '"recitations" of paths taken or countrysides traversed' (Certeau 1984: 126).
Regional writing therefore offers a crucial expression of identity expressed through locale, which may reveal 'a gap between dominant ideological and aesthetic interests and the interests and stories of persons who reside in the locale' (Pryse 1998: 24). Through the vibrant expression of place, however, regional writing can also be a bridge, or a door that opens, between one locality and another, between writers and readers, here and elsewhere. As Forster reminds us, this connection can be complex, multi-stranded, sometimes incomplete, but its purpose is always to reach beyond the limits of our fragmentary selves.
Homi Bhabha argues that whether we live in regions or cities, 'it is the trope of our times to locate the question of culture in the realm of the beyond' (Bhabha 1994: 1). At the same time, 'the established boundaries of nation state and ethnic identity are no longer fixed and immediately recognisable' (1994: 1). The notion of the 'beyond' alludes to a condition of desire for an unattainable otherness. Indeed, the discourse of regionalism hints at this duality with its embedded notions of 'here and elsewhere'. But the dualism that underlies the condition of this desire is increasingly complicated by the multiple locations we inhabit, both real and virtual, as our means of expression, identification and communication diversify.
Rural regions represent geographical distance and localised terms of
power and identity, but they are also sites of attachment, projection
and nostalgia, even regret. The longstanding trope of pastoral nostalgia
in English language writing is exemplified during the final chapter of
Howard's End amid a deliberately picturesque scene of grass being
cut in a country meadow. The distant horizon is stained with red dust
from the 'creeping' expanse of urban industrialisation, which prompts
Helen to say to her sister Margaret, 'Life's going to be melted down,
all over the world' (Forster 2000 : 290). In various ways, Forster's
novel negotiates the tensions between English rural regionalism and London's
literary cosmopolitanism. At its conclusion, Margaret hopes that the meadows
will survive the onslaught of modernity, while knowing that: 'the melting-pot
was being prepared for them' (2000 : 290). Her remark conveys a
lingering interlocution between the advance of the bourgeois metropolis
and the ebbing tide of rural regionalism as locus of intrinsic worth.
Whether we dwell in cities, coastal suburbs, rural bushland or country towns, our experience of culture is increasingly hybrid and provisional. Yet our stories are still the stories of relationship, with place as well as people. Regional writing in Australia, moreover, expresses the 'dialogic clashing of living discourses in society' (Dawson 2005: 210) which can influence, even rewrite, social relations, including the increasingly outdated dichotomy between a metropolis and its outposts (Soja 2000).
Regional writing can, however, capture the particularity of experience in non-urban settings, while broadly recruiting the narrative, emotive, semiotic and symbolic resources of the language and its literary traditions to the fullest possible extent. Works of contemporary fiction, such as Richard Flanagan's The sound of one hand clapping, Uwen Akpan's Say you're one of us, Arundhati Roy's The God of small things, Aravind Adiga's The white tiger or Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones exemplify the diversity among current narratives of place, region and time. In very different ways, they each reference local experience within a changing global context to which readers around the world can relate their own meanings and understandings of place. In Craig Silvey's novel Jasper Jones (2009), for instance, a thirteen-year-old boy tells a story of the death of a teenage girl. Its setting is a bush-fringed, xenophobic, 1960s Western Australian mining town, yet the narrative also invokes cultural references as diverse as To kill a mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn and Australian cricketer Doug Walters' test scores. Silvey's novel flirts with the literariness of other, more cosmopolitan, worlds: the motif of Elizabeth and Charlie's fantasy rendezvous at New York's Park Hotel. It also tells a story that vividly conveys the distinctive characteristics of a place and its culture, with all its pleasures and horrors.
If regional writing can be said both to express gaps and to configure linkages between localised and overarching narratives, it does this partly by showing the importance of access to the tools with which writers work. Language is the writer's medium and thus to be able to exercise the language, with its challenges and opportunities, is vital for a writer. Language is, of course, more than a tool. For a writer, the possibilities of language do not arise as a simple instrument of intention or thought but, often, as a process of recognition. If language is a 'system of signs' (Barthes 1967: 9), then writing is perhaps an heuristic enterprise, in which words gradually recognise and reveal the story by answering a simple set of inevitable questions: what happens, who speaks, to whom, when, where and why? Language is therefore at once a vessel that carries shared and personal meanings, an interrogative medium, a vice that determines and constrains the possibilities of significance, and a moving, iridescent bridge across which we glimpse understanding.
Regionalism entails specificity of place, but any writer must be able to move between and among the places, the significations of meaning that a story holds within its borders. Derrida's invocation of the passé-partout offers a way of exploring how the boundaries of meaning and context constantly blur, divide or overlap (Derrida 1987: 1-14). As the flat internal edging that surrounds a painting within its frame, the passé-partout is a reminder of the in-between territory, the inner and outer space that is neither one nor the other, but belongs to both. It differs from the metaphor of the bridge since its purpose is not to intersect opposing lines but to extend the border between picture and frame: 'a password to all doors' (Derrida 1987: 12). The passé-partout discerns the linking place between one and another and suggests the possibility of being able to see, separately or simultaneously, from all given positions.
Students learning to write in a regional context may resist or embrace the comforts and discomforts of locale as a source for writing, but their writing is nevertheless conditioned in various ways by their regional location and by the concomitant cultural frames they inhabit. As teachers of writing, we can develop skills in our students, encourage confidence, draw students out in various ways, guide them in expressing their perceptions and experiences, introduce them to readings, techniques, role models, sources and symbols. We can show students ways to connect event and ideas, see from another's point of view, and become adept at using different perspectives in the unfolding of a story or a poem. Point of view, however, can shift as the student starts to look with the eyes of a writer and becomes open to the possibility that there is more than one way to see, more than one perspective from which to write, and teach.
To address this point another way, here I depart from the argumentative thrust of this paper, to creatively address this challenge of capturing the dynamic simultaneity of 'here and elsewhere'. This exercise aims to offers another model for reflecting on the shifting and hybrid positions that the writer, and the teacher of writing, occupy.
Think of a door within its frame
Where are you? Are you one of these? Consider for a moment. What is your place? Where do you see from? Have I left you out? Are you in front of the door, waiting for it to open, or looking back at how you came?
One might belong at any time to one of these interstitial places and bring them to light as part of the work of writing. If, for a moment, you allow yourself to imagine that you are the frame, you might feel your solidity - your authorship or your didactic power. If you occupy the empty space of the open door, you might regard the edges of the frame as the outlines of a story, the shape of a task. If the door is partially open, this wedge of space might offer you a way of delimiting the possibilities of meaning, character, voice, and so on. And the handle? As a writer, one might only brush it in passing on the way through, or grasp it firmly with closure in mind.
If recognising the door - indeed stepping into the metaphor - presents a struggle, consider instead the words of Adrienne Rich, for whom a heavy wooden door is the symbol for a 'common language': 'something to hold onto with both hands / while slowly thrusting my forehead against the wood violent, arcane, common, burning out from the grain' (Rich 1984: iv). Here Rich is speaking of the barrier of gendered language, of discovering 'the power to escape the lengthening shadows' of a tradition of masculine poetics, to find a new voice, a vocabulary free of the corrections and adjustments needed for women to be able to write without implied denigration or self-loathing (Diehl 1980).
The common language suggested in this discussion, however, is one that allows a dialogue to form between place, perspective and culture. This dialogue neither dismisses nor reifies the places and cultures of remote regional Australia, but aims to recruit the multiple connections and disconnections of regionalism as a strategy, both for teaching and writing.
Creative writing and literary culture
Dawson has argued that 'the history of Creative Writing demands that it be seen as a flexible and continually developing set of pedagogical strategies for challenging and reinvigorating literary studies' (1999: 160). This alludes to the necessary role of a writer as both creator and critic. The academic study of literature entails, of course, more than attentiveness to linguistic craft. It includes the historicity of texts, their production as ideology, the way they produce or resist reading and understanding, their engagements with philosophy, language and ideas, examination of the conundrums of author and reader, character and voice, and so on. While creative writing students might be said to be 'making' rather than interpreting literature, the task of creation cannot be entirely separated from analysis and inquiry. Encouraging student writers to read and observe closely, to interrogate with critical and conceptual understanding, is essential to the development of skilled and informed writers in possession of a rich repertoire of literary expertise and technique. Moreover, the study of both writing and literature arguably contributes to a dynamic and vital society, enabling citizens to become thoughtful, socially aware, articulate and engaged in contributing to the changing shape of public culture.
Regional student writers can be at a disadvantage with respect to the material and ideological structures that support knowledge acquisition and cultural participation. At the same time, regional student writers can be said to have an 'epistemic advantage' which speaks to the conventions and narratives of cultural production. The regional perspective may offer, as Pryse suggests, a 'vantage-point' from which regional writing reflects distinctive voices with particular stories to tell (1998: 256). The notion of epistemic advantage does not overlook discrimination, isolation, vulnerability or material disadvantage. It does, however, point to the network of specific connections with home, town, land, horizon, occupation, family, culture and belief (Leydesdorff & Cook 2006). This network is not confined within the boundaries of locale but extends the idea of home through multiple linkages: lines of flight which are: detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification' (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 12). These connections are made, increasingly, through time invested in transient micro-spaces: screens, desks, offices, sheds, cars, bedrooms, libraries, shopping malls, buses, trains. 'Home' is now where we write on a Facebook page, as much as it is a site of habitation.
In the regional context, however, belonging tends to be expressed through memes that convey connection between place and identity: localised nuances of hair style, listening to music, reading magazines, driving, fishing, surfing, drinking, writing song lyrics or poetry. Students carry these memes with them to creative writing classes where they can be recruited in various ways. Through words, stories, memories, experiences, conversations, play, observations and texts, students encounter what could be called 'wakefulness'. This is a term borrowed from the educationalist Kerry Howells (2006). While no catchphrase can appropriately capture the repertoire of expertise that teachers of writing bring to their work, 'wakefulness' as an approach that listens to the causes of student disengagement and recognises writing as a vehicle for possibility and creativity. Students are encouraged to stay alert, learn to notice, direct their awareness, employ their senses and discover the terrains of place and language, in and beyond their own context. Importantly, students put awareness to work as readers as well as writers, potentially enabling them to see differently, within and beyond their present cultural scope. This approach could also be regarded as a form of defamiliarisation. In the context of a small regional community where people already know each other and their locale, the first experience of writing together can be surprising (Green 2006-2008). Recognition shifts, as experiences of a known terrain are conveyed in different ways, from different points of view.
Creative writing pedagogy necessarily benefits from ongoing reflexivity; however, the cultural and geographical positioning of both pedagogues and students must be considered as a key factor in the ongoing practice of writing and teaching. The experience of teaching writing within a regional context indicates that locale has a significant impact on how writing can be practiced and taught. This discussion has therefore explored regional writing as an expression of connection and disconnection with place and perspective. Specifically, the pedagogical practice on which this discussion draws has sought to reposition regional student writers as authors and interpreters of place. The teaching of creative writing is central to the production of a vibrant literary culture and to public engagement in the activities of reading and writing. This paper concludes that the recruitment of locale as a source of dialogue with discourse can lead to a creative and critical connectivity: reconceptualising regional locale as a site of possibility, rather than as a dichotomy between here and elsewhere.
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Keywords: creative writing; regionalism; cultural studies
Dr Stephanie Green is author of the short fiction collection: Too much too soon (Pandanus Books, 2006). She has also published poetry, essays and literary criticism in journals and magazines. A teacher of writing and former publisher, she currently lectures at Griffith University, Gold Coast campus.
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Vol 14 No 1 April 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb