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One of my daughter's favourite stories is the tale about the three blind men and the elephant, or, as she recalls it, the three wise men and the elephant. The story goes that each of the men grasps hold of a different part of the elephant - an ear, a trunk, a tusk - and each insists, in all the confidence of their limited but enthusiastic wisdom, that the elephant is what he holds in his hand.
Traversing the lucid and diverse collection of essays in Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice, I was struck by the ways in which, as a collection that aims to speak of and for an emergent discipline, what fascinates me most is that even those of us who are, as it were, inside the elephant, have wildly divergent narratives to tell about what the academic discipline of creative writing is, what its purposes might be, what a theory of creative writing might look like, or who such a theory is/should be for.
For ten years, TEXT has been an active bed of discussion for creative writing academics and researchers, particularly for those working within Australia. This collection of essays is something of a celebration of the journal's ongoing contribution to the field of creative writing within the academy.
In the introduction, the collection's editors - Nigel Krauth and Tess Brady (the current and one-time editors of TEXT) - suggest that the collection "celebrates the breadth and elaborate colour range offered by writing research" (16). They suggest that the book "prepares a way for creative writers, teachers of creative writing and for readers, to understand the frameworks within which creative writing takes place in the early twenty-first century" (18). The introduction includes a useful and concise summary of some of the major threads of debate and dialogue within TEXT over the last ten years. The editors argue that there have been a range of approaches to scholarly writing about creative writing over the years, as represented in TEXT, including: pedagogical, cultural studies, methodological, and aesthetic approaches. The editors go on to gesture towards some of the ways in which these threads occlude or belie other concerns, of writers and researchers, that "writing deals with", including approaches based in "psychology, biology, philosophy, ecology, architecture, ethnicity studies, psychoanalysis, sculpture, writing technique, and so on" (16).
The introduction, like many of the essays in the rest of the book, is celebratory and inclusive - playful and hopeful. It also, as do many of the essays, argues forward rather than backward - towards a future sense of creative writing as a coherent, elastic and rigorous set of practices and theories that are set to take (a) place in the emergent twenty-first century.
The book is divided into five sections: The Writer-Reader Space, The Writer-Teacher Space, The Intimate Space, The Writing Space, and The Imagined Space.
The first section - The Writer-Reader Space - contains essays by Paul Dawson, Anne Surma, McKenzie Wark, Donna Lee Brien, and Thom Swiss and Maria Damon. As the sub-title suggests, these essays largely explore the ways in which texts are read in the public sphere - as political, intellectual and moral/ethical objects - and the ways in which writers and academics engage with the process of negotiating or articulating the social authority of 'our' works. It is a marker of one of the most significant, small but monumental shifts that has enabled the creation and evolution of creative writing as a discipline - that we speak not in the voice of a critical discipline, but as practitioners - as the I who 'writes' rather than, or at least as well as, the I who 'reads'.
Certainly these first few essays are at pains to articulate some of the negotiations that are made both culturally and individually between the self who writes, the self who teaches, and the self who reads and is read. These essays are outward-looking - pursuing questions about how both the academic and the more general public worlds into which our work enters perceive us, how we participate in that perception, and how we should present ourselves. This question of how we should proceed is central here - as it is throughout the collection. As a nascent discipline, what strikes me are the ways in which many of these essays are arguing for a particular way in which creative writing - and creative writing theory - should develop. Where our energy should be directed. For Dawson, this is expressed in his belief that there is "an institutional need for a theory of writing ... which combines a traditional 'writerly' interest in literary practice with the interdisciplinary scholarship of the New Humanities" (30).
Surma, on the other hand, is concerned with the ethical dimensions of writing texts - the ways in which texts often engage in "reducing human bodies to words" - for her, a significant and urgent aim of creative writing is the pursuit of an ethical process of writing, which she summarizes as "writing to and for others, rather than just to and for ourselves" (44).
Wark's essay interrogates his own experience as a 'public intellectual' - the conditions under which he "fell into" (49) this role, the ways in which the perception of, and possibilities for, this role have shifted over his time as a writer - through the flourishing of cultural studies and postmodern discourses in the public sphere, to their disparagement and falling away into "pretty boring ... pretty routine" (51). Wark explores the ways in which his experiences can be read as a kind of object lesson in the ways in which to forge a "politics of writing", a mission statement for the aspiring voices of the new spokespeople for the revolution, or at least for those wishing to agitate for social change through the active and thoughtful use of the word (54).
Brien's essay on literary scandals explores the ever-fascinating ways in which the rise of new forms of non-fiction, in particular the genre 'creative non-fiction', have both made possible and generated a range of contemporary literary scandals - particularly those surrounding James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), Glenn Boyer (I Married Wyatt Earp) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code). Brien explores the ways in which trust, truth and authenticity are negotiated within these texts. She writes in defence of the genre rather than against the fraudsters who have, perhaps opportunistically, exploited the popularity and "power of nonfictional techniques and devices" the genre allows (61).
The final essay in this section - by Thom Swiss and Maria Damon - looks at the emerging field of electronic literature. The essay explores the ways in which a range of practices occurring outside the familiar, old-world print medium of language open up the possibility of a creative writing theory - a poesis - that is radically different to the one they argue has already become "standard operating procedure in the 'creative writing' world ... complete with yearly conventions, publications, and generally-agreed-upon curricular values and formats" (68). The essay is highly critical of "all the pieties and platitudes of Creative Writing as it has emerged as an institution rather than a lived practice," and is charged with a passion, enthusiasm and wit that is a welcome addition to such a rhetorically diverse set of approaches to the field (71).
Here alone, in the opening section of the book, are a diverse range of essays - varying wildly in focus, content, tone and, perhaps, in the nuances of audience and intent. The wonder, to me as a reader, is that none of this abundant disparity overwhelmingly detracts from the sense of excitement and challenge that the essays represent - both individually and as a collection. In each essay, there is something to be taken back to the desk or the classroom, eaten whole, or speared upon the table for dissection, analysis and review. As I have contemplated the collection - as I have dived into it at odd moments over the year or so since its publication - I am reminded of, and surprised afresh by, the refusal of creative writing as a discipline to be knowable, complete, and bounded.
As the collection goes on, each essay contributes something new - sometimes surprising, sometimes familiar, sometimes cool and analytical, sometimes brimming with passion or wit or dry humour. Inez Baranay's essay on her time teaching creative writing in India ('Freshening the mind: An account of teaching a three-week creative writing course in Chennai, India') is a wonderful essay that concretizes and particularizes the challenges of teaching across class, time, space and culture. The warmth and enthusiasm of Baranay's practice, her passion for the crafts of teaching and writing, are here laid out in prose that is at once clear and intelligent, reminding me - once again - of the tender, gracious, precious innocence of the emerging writer - no matter their age or race or class or gender.
Brian Dibble's article ('Disinterested Passion: Creative Writing and the Arts of Love and Teaching') is worlds away from Baranay's concrete, weathered, personal approach. In his eloquent and politely passionate essay, Dibble explores the ways in which Plato can inform our teaching practice - particularly in supervising research students. He cites Plato's notion of disinterested passion - of realizing that "giving a student the right answer, if one were capable of doing so, would forever deprive that student of the experience of truly learning it" (117).
I have distributed copies of these essays - and of many of the others contained in this collection - to a wide range of my colleagues who have not yet purchased the collection, and to my own graduate students - they are rich with opportunities for exploration, self-examination and discussion. And they continue to be nourishing resources for my own continuing practice as both writer and teacher - all of which sounds perversely narcissistic, and yet I am at pains here to say that one of the things I found most rewarding, most satisfying, about this modest collection - is the ferment of ideas it contains, the sense in which (while it cannot, I think, succeed in wholly mapping anything so abstruse and immaterial as a theory of creative writing) it is a wonderfully rich compost of materials out of which one cannot help but grow. It is - like compost - messy, unique, rich and useful!
The diversity of the collection makes me think as much about what is - by necessity - left out as about what is included. In nineteen articles and an introduction only so much can be said, only so many voices included. Whose are left out? What else is there to say? What might another collection, equally rude, equally diverse and erudite and passionately insistent, turn up? The dissonant voices that rise up in between the ones collected here are as much a part of it as those that are included. Reading it, I am also struck by the sense that the diversity gives - of a discipline too widely varied to be comprehensively commented upon. At least, not yet.
Reading the collection, I am by turns inspired, fascinated, appalled, concerned, wildly disagreeing, nodding, frothing with the desire to reply. This, I believe, might be the response of many in the field who have their own, peculiar and particular, grasp on the elephant - it might be yours. And this, I think, is the collection's greatest asset: that it is not, and cannot be, an absolute and comprehensive map of the field, but it does gesture outward, at least, towards the wild diversity and energy of creative writing.
Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice is an ambitious, timely attempt to mark a moment in the evolution of creative writing as a theoretical, academic domain. 'At last!' I thought when I first saw it, before I had cracked the spine, a book about the thing I cannot name or point to, the thing my peers, colleagues, friends and students want a map of - especially those working within it. A map of the territory.
It is and is not a map. That is, it is, I think, a map for getting lost.
I have two copies - one at home and one in my office - they are already dog-eared, well-thumbed. Their flaws are as charming, illuminating and educative as their successes - helping the reader to see where the discipline is and is not, charting a range of voices, each of which is wandering in their own wilderness, sometimes singing out to join in concert with another, or forming weird alliances, but more often discrete, persistent, passionately proselytising. The elephant the book describes is variously thin and thick, old and new, charged and decaying, ossified, dogmatic, ethereal and digital, theoretical and impressionistic, personal and public, ethical and abstract. It is both nothing like and precisely descriptive of the creative writing theory that exists in my own imagination.
Nike Bourke teaches in the creative writing and cultural studies discipline at Queensland University of Technology. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Griffith University. In 2000, Nike won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award for Best Emerging Queensland Author for her novel The Bone Flute which was released by UQP in 2001. Her childrenís book, What the Sky Knows, was published in May 2005 and was shortlisted for two separate categories in the 2006 Childrenís Book Council of Australia Awards. Her adult novel, The True Green of Hope, was released in August 2005. She has been a ghost writer for a long time, which isnít nearly as exciting and spooky as it sounds. She also writes reviews and articles for The Courier Mail and The Australian.
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Vol 11 No 2 October 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb