TEXT review

Communication and reflection are the keys

review by Sue Bond


Description: Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:TEXT REVIEWS:2013 APRIL ISSUE:book covers:Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing.pdf

Carl Vandermeulen
Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing
Multilingual Matters, Bristol UK, 2011
ISBN: 9781847694379
Pb 229pp GBP30.00


The core message of Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing is that teachers and students need to maintain communication in order for the teaching to be most effective, and the author gives numerous examples of how to do this throughout. The personal components of the teacher-student relationship cannot be neglected if students are to develop fully as writers.

Carl Vandermeulen is based at the University of Wisconsin and has taught writing, photography, and teacher education. His book is another in the series New Writing Viewpoints, edited by Graeme Harper, and aimed at teachers and researchers.

In the introduction Vandermeulen explains why he wrote Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing. He taught a poetry class that he thought would be successful, but failed miserably because there was a mismatch between his role as teacher and evaluator in that particular class, and his previous role as something quite different, an advisor and advocate. The clash of the personal with the impersonal produced a situation where not only the writing work suffered, but the relationships were strained. Vandermeulen advocates the advice of Tom C Hunley who teaches creative writing at Western Kentucky University, and whom he cites: that ‘introductory courses need to focus on fundamental – and personal – kinds of growth that enable the process of writing and of becoming a writer’ (x, which cites Hunley 2007).

The book is divided into nine chapters covering influences on teaching, workshops, reflection, writers’ groups, teacher response, authority, relationship problems, grading, and the identity of the writer. Part of Vandermeulen’s research for this text was a survey sent out to 150 creative writing teachers in the Midwestern states of America, asking them to reflect on their own teaching practices.

Vandermeulen draws on the experience of a key group of writing teachers: Patrick Bizzaro and William Stafford, Richard Hugo, Donald Murray, Wendy Bishop, Katharine Haake, Peter Elbow, Lad Tobin and Robert Brooke, all of whom he quotes throughout Negotiating. William Stafford, who died in 1993, was an award-winning poet who taught at Lewis and Clark College until his retirement. Hugo was also a well known poet and teacher who wrote the influential book on writing, The Triggering Town. Murray was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who, like Hugo, served in WWII and wrote of his experiences. Another poet, Bishop taught at Florida State University, particularly in rhetoric and composition. Bizzaro, Haake, Elbow, Tobin and Brooke all teach at tertiary level, Bizzaro also writing poetry and Brooke being Director of the Nebraska Writing Project.

In the first chapter Vandermeulen considers the influences on teaching – of the teacher’s experience as student and writer and reader, of colleagues, of students – and wonders why pedagogy is not afforded more value. He believes that ‘trying to teach without pedagogy is like trying to live without literature’ (9), that it ‘helps teachers to become spectators of their forms of participation in their students’ learning’ (9), and that it needs to be specific to creative writing. Regular assessment of and reflection upon the practices of both teachers and students are key themes in his book.

In the next chapter Vandermeulen proceeds to discuss in detail the role of the workshop for creative writing courses, including the benefits and drawbacks. The most interesting points made are that the reader-response model – responses of readers to a writer’s work – may be more useful than critiques, and that a dialogue between the writers and their readers is important. This adapts Lerman’s model for artists (Lerman & Borstel 2003), in which it is the artists themselves who ask questions of their responders in order to gain feedback rather than critique, and where each responder wants the artist to produce excellent work. Liz Lerman, a choreographer, calls her model the ‘critical response process’. The model places emphasis on collaboration and taking the progress of the work as seriously as the finished product.

The reflective process is given its own chapter, so important does the author consider it in the teaching of writing and the development of the writer. Kathleen Yancey is Professor of English at Florida State University and director of their graduate program in rhetoric and communication, and Vandermeulen uses her definition of reflection which emphasises it as dialectical (Yancey 1998), a dialogue between the writer and the teacher about what the work currently is and what the writer wants it to be (49). In this process, there is attention paid to the multiple selves of the developing writer: inner writing self, ideal or hero self, and guide self. The guide self, as the name suggests, guides or ‘negotiates between the writing self and the ideal self’ (58), where the ideal self is what drives the ‘quest for perfection that drives revision’ (58). The teacher can use various methods to help with this development, including the writer’s memo, encouraging regular writing, and providing stimulating writing exercises.

Vandermeulen appraises writers’ groups, and the techniques that are constructive for students, such as using reader-response rather than criticism or praise, and encouraging the long-term view by emphasising the development of students as writers rather than focusing purely on a single piece of work.

The next chapters address how teachers apply the aforementioned techniques in their practice. Vandermeulen particularly addresses problems between students and their teachers arising from conflict between the teacher as supporter and the teacher as figure of authority. There are concerns with both being too familiar and too distant and the balance can be difficult to achieve, particularly when assessment and a grade is required. His last chapter, ‘Constructing the Practice and Identity of “Writer”’ is useful for beginning writers as well as teachers, as it covers ‘the habit of art’, as he quotes from Flannery O’Connor (197). Journal keeping, work habits, recording our thinking about our writing, being observant, the need for solitude, constructive reflection, and specific research practices (e.g. reading as writers) are each discussed.

There is a cornucopia of information here for the teacher of creative writing, backed up by the experience of not only the author but also a large sample of teachers, albeit all American. A useful list of references is provided, but unfortunately no index. Negotiating is accessibly written without too much jargon; a true workbook for those wishing to improve their teaching and interaction with students as developing writers.


Works cited



Sue Bond is a writer with degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing, has reviewed for several publications, and is a former editor of the book review section of M/C Reviews: Culture and the Media. She is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Central Queensland University.


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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo