TEXT review

Writing, Creativity and Environments

review by Donna Lee Brien



Ceri Sullivan and Graeme Harper, eds
Authors at Work: The Creative Environment
Essays and Studies Collection, vol 62, 2009 (ISSN 0071-1357)
The English Association, UK/DS Brewer, Cambridge
ISBN 978-1-84384-195-1
Hb, 192pp, UK£30


Creativity, and how best to foster and develop it, lies at the heart of the workings of creative arts disciplines in higher education in many countries, including in the discipline of writing. More broadly, many higher education institutions worldwide are committed to an idea of creativity and instilling this in their students. In this way, creativity is often listed among the generic graduate attributes that students from all disciplines will gain during their tertiary-level studies. Yet, how exactly to achieve this remains a topic of lively discussion and debate. In this atmosphere, studies of creativity as both a mode of working and a state of mind are adding much needed information for teachers and program administrators to consider.

Authors at Work: The Creative Environment is a beautifully presented hard backed volume that publishes in book form an issue of a British serial, Essays and Studies, (and thus comes complete with both ISSN and ISBN). The volume comprises a series of essays which could be broadly characterised as literary criticism about writers' working methods and the environments in which they complete this work, interspersed with interviews with living writers and other figures who make up what the editors characterise in the title and throughout as 'the creative environment' that surrounds and supports writers. It is clear from these essays and interviews that this creative environment is one that writers nurture through their creativity and that, in turn, fosters them in their creative endeavours. In such a framing rhetoric, both authorial processes and the products thus produced are considered alongside musings on the authors themselves as that creative producer. This framing comes, as discussed in co-editor Ceri Sullivan's informed and interesting introductory essay, from an understanding of writing as a creative industry whereby creativity, cultural capital, entrepreneurship and the art and artefacts thus produced are signs of innovation and potential generators of various forms of profit. They are also inextricably linked.

In this discussion, the volume presents what the editors posit are three alternate, but complementary, points of view - that of poets and other writers (as creative literary producers), academic critics (as creative commentators), and those involved in the wider literary creative world as represented by such creative industry organisational structures and institutions as the British Library, the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, the town of Stratford-on-Avon and London's Globe Theatre. Taken together, this volume's contributors ask a useful and pertinent question for writers, writing students and their teachers, as well as critics and scholars of writing - that is, 'how imaginative texts can be set alongside evidence of a specific writer's environment, to reveal more of the creative process' (Sullivan 1-2).

In editing this volume, Ceri Sullivan reflects upon various sources including Richard Florida and Charles Landry on creative cities, to pose that the 'ideal creative environment, then, allows focused research and relaxed, diverse experiences' (4) and to stress that the material nature of the creative environment is important, for 'all features of the external world can inspire, both the ideal and material' (18). For co-editor Graeme Harper, it is the human factor which is of primary concern in the creation and maintenance of a creative environment: 'Human actions, human understandings, human time, and human place: these are the things we're exploring' (174). This twin focus, of the literary artist and the environment that fosters his or her creativity (whether this be physical space or human energy) is explored in the essays and interviews in this volume, which are presented to form a kind of 'virtual literary festival' (12). In this symposium-like space, authors (both those living artists who are able to speak for themselves, and of the past whose views are re-animated by critics) ponder the questions almost always asked of creative writers at literary festivals: about their working processes, how they manage the competing demands on their time and energies, and the ways they (and, therefore, the audience/readers can) develop creative ideas and their creativity more generally.

Authors at Work: The Creative Environment includes essays on the writing habits of a series of renowned authors: WH Auden's working processes by Sam Smith; Margaret Oliphant by Elisabeth Jay; Anthony Trollope by N John Hall; Charlotte and Emily Bronte by Stevie Davies; John Milton by Peter C Herman; and Ben Jonson by Michelle O'Callaghan and Adam Smyth. In this series the authors insightfully present a great deal of information that is of interest. These essays are also confidently and skilfully written, and well edited and presented, and as such would be useful additions to learning materials for writing students of all kinds. Sam Smith, for instance, reveals that where poets sit when they write is not only an important consideration regarding their writing process, but can enter the content of the resulting poem as well. Auden's writing schedule is also considered, as are the various addictions some authors maintain throughout their careers. Nineteenth century author Oliphant wrote over a period in which the world changed greatly, expressed as, 'extraordinary transformations to the world she wrote in, about, and for' (49). Interestingly, Elisabeth Jay posits that Oliphant's upbringing ensured that she needed little but 'a source of light and a supply of ink' (53) to write, and with an 'absence of ritualistic procedures, talismanic objects, or specially contrived places' could, therefore, and did write 'whenever she found herself' (54), an aspect of authorial practice prescient of contemporary laptop-at-café-table culture. Trollope's prodigious output (some seventy books) is discussed by N John Hall in relation to writing habits that were surprisingly inconstant, with Hall's essay stepping readers through the various 'systems' Trollope developed throughout his career. This is fascinating in terms of its information, but also in relation to the sources utilised in order to compile this information. Stevie Davies considers Charlotte and Emily Brontë as children and how their games, reading and early writings are indicative of the way their creativity later manifested itself and developed. Peter C Herman's essay frames the composition of Paradise Lost in terms of Milton's physical circumstances - and how his personal blindness and reliance on his daughters, and the political confusion of his time, became embedded in this great work. Michelle O'Callaghan and Adam Smyth find Ben Jonson an unusual author in that he left extensive records of his creative practices of the act of inscription, of where and how he wrote, and on the nature of creativity.

These essays are interspersed with a series of interviews: with poet Andrew Motion; Jamie Andrews, the Head of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library (which holds some 150 million items including archives of authors of all genres of writing but also those of critics, publishers and agents); Robert Sheppard, poet and blogger; and Peter Florence, founder of the Hay Festival in the book-lovers paradise of Hay-on-Wye. Continuing Harper's ongoing series of interviews in the UK-based journal New Writing, the interviews included here struck me as part of a growing repository of oral history already transcribed, and as such, an important source of data for researchers and scholars, as much as writers. In this, they can be mined for information and insight for use in various personal, pedagogic and research contexts. Andrew Motion muses on the implications of having an official, public role as a writer, including the pressures of the title of 'Poet Laureate'. On environments in particular, Motion offers: 'I feel my poems must be part of life. But if it turns out life is too busy, then I have to make deliberate efforts to create a kind of artificial environment for them to begin' (40). Jamie Andrews discusses the challenges the digital age has brought to the collection and preservation of manuscripts, and the sometimes conflicting value of individual items in terms of 'economic value', 'research value' and 'national value' (70), especially when so much of British literary heritage has been purchased by, and is held in, libraries and other collections in the USA. This very interesting interview also considers various aspects of the work of manuscript libraries including collecting, cataloguing, exhibition, assessing heritage value and dealing with copyright issues around these texts.

The transcribed conversation between Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Courses and Research at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Kate Rumbold, researcher into the contemporary cultural value of Shakespeare, offers much of interest. Having visited the theme-park-like town of Stratford-on-Avon and attended productions at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, I enjoyed 'listening into' this discussion, and considering how these two sites both differ in their portrayal of Shakespeare and their presentation of his work. While Stratford focuses on the idea of Shakespeare as the lone genius, The Globe situates the author in his milieu 'as part of a conversation that was going on in London at the time about the theatre industry' (147). In this, each has its own particular challenges to meet. In order to attract visitors to the author's birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon and the various Shakespeare institutions located there have to make the area worthy of its status as a place of pilgrimage, whereas those working in London have to deal with problems around the perceived inauthenticity of the historical reconstruction of this long-gone theatre. Despite these differences, what both have in common is an idea of 'Shakespeare' as a brand that sells product such as entrance fees, theatre tickets and souvenirs, most of the latter of which have little relation to Shakespeare's literary oeuvre beyond a famous phrase reproduced on a mug, tee-shirt, jigsaw or bar of soap. Both sites also have to deal with client audiences who are demanding more participation and interactivity in their interactions with what can be characterised as 'the Shakespeare experience'.

I read this book for pleasure and information, to be entertained as well as enlightened, and recommend it most highly to readers with an interest in writers, writing, creativity and literary cultures.



Donna Lee Brien is Associate Professor of Creative Industries and Head of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Central Queensland University. Widely published in the areas of writing pedagogy and praxis, creative nonfiction and collaborative practice in the arts, Donna has an MA and PhD in creative writing. Her biography John Power 1881-1943 (Sydney: MCA, 1991) is the standard work on this expatriate artist and benefactor, and Donna is also the co-author of The Girl's Guide to Real Estate: How to Enjoy Investing in Property, 2002; and The Girl's Guide to Work and Life: How to Create the Life you Want, 2004 (both with Dr Tess Brady, Allen & Unwin). Founding Editor of dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing (2000-2004) and Assistant Editor of Imago: New Writing (1999-2003), Donna is an Associate Editor of New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing (UK), Special Issues Editor of TEXT: The Journal of Writing and Writing Courses and on the board of readers for Writing Macao. She is the Immediate Past President of the Australian Association of Writing Programs, and a member of the Executive Committee. Donna was awarded a Carrick Institute Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning in creative and professional writing in 2006, and has just completed work on an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) funded project, The Australian Postgraduate Writing Network, under the project leadership of Professor Jen Webb. Donna is currently a chief investigator on the ALTC funded Create.Ed initiative, to set up a network of leaders in teaching and learning in the creative arts in Australian universities (funded 2009-2010).


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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb