TEXT review

Creative Writing is...?

review by John Weldon



Graeme Harper
On Creative Writing
New Writing Viewpoints 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1-84769-257-3 (hbk)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84769-256-6 (pbk)
Pb 125pp AUD19.95


Perhaps it would be better to start this review off by saying what this book is not: it is not a guide to creative writing. There are none of the hints, workshop exercises or insights that readers might expect from a book written by a Professor of Creative Writing and titled On Creative Writing. I’ll say it again: there is no advice whatsoever, in this book, on how to string words, phrases and sentences together such that they appeal to the reader or publisher.

Instead, Harper sets out to uncover what creative writing actually is. What do we mean when we talk about creative writing as an activity? What do we mean when we refer to something as a piece of creative writing? What do we understand, or intend, when we use/utter/refer to the phrase creative writing in any context whatsoever?

By avoiding the ‘how to’ and concentrating on the ‘what is it?’ side of creative writing Harper removes his enquiry entirely from the romantic and esoteric aspects of the art leaving him free to explore, in a quite academic and empirical  fashion, what it means to engage in the actual process itself.  (At times he’s almost Socratic, as in dialectic, and he certainly verges on the Brechtian too. Chapter titles such as, “All works of Creative Writing are Disseminated?” remind the reader very much of scene titles from The Caucasian Chalk Circle, or Mother Courage and her Children.)

Not that Harper would use the word ‘process’ to describe an engagement with creative writing. Harper makes , “...a concerted effort...to avoid using the word ‘process’ when referring to creative writing, in favour of talking about acts and actions and activities.” (60) Harper views process as a linear and therefore limiting term to use in describing an activity that is so inherently non-linear, so dependent on an ever-in-flux, difficult to direct, partnership between intellect and instinct. Process for him, implies that there is a start and a finish to all works of creative writing, that each work is somehow discrete and containable and that the enterprise is necessarily outcome driven. We are limited in our understanding of the art, he argues, when we view it purely as a means of production.

The process approach to creative writing, according to Harper, was driven by the rise of consumerism in the 20th century and the consequent dominance of an economic system based on the exchange of goods and services, which inevitably lead to a commodification of creative writing and to the valuing of the end product (book, poem, play etc) of the activity above all else.

Harper counters this focus on the end game, By suggesting that creative writing consists of  ‘acts, actions and activities’ (60) which may or may not result in a published/publishable piece of work, reminding us that much of even the most successful (in terms of numbers of commodities shifted) creative writer’s work remains unseen and unrecognised. By refusing to privilege any one activity or action above the other, refusing to acknowledge the publishable item as the only legitimate outcome of these activities he attempts to disabuse of our commodity-focussed understanding of creative writing. He also raises the interesting notion that, as we only  (in the main) archive and collect finished works, and then only those which attain a certain literary measure, that we necessarily ignore the vast majority of creative writing, both published and unpublished, rendering  any sort of cultural/literary creative writing collections inherently elitist, marginal or, at best, incomplete.

This book is an engaging attempt to explore a field of artistic enterprise from an angle that is very much often ignored. It is refreshing to see act/process/mysterious game (call it what you will) that we term Creative Writing discussed in such a thorough and rigorous manner.  Much of what Harper says might already be intuitively known by creative writers: not all creative writing results in finished works, not all works communicate, not all works meet the intentions they are begun with, and so on, but it is interesting and enlightening to see the implicit made explicit:

Creative Writing involves behaviour patterns and human dispositions, perceptions and memories. It is both working and works, not separated, and nor placed in a hierarchy determined by external forces but a continuity derived from the simple equation: to be a creative writer means undertaking Creative Writing. (115)

Only one thing let’s this book down and that is the presentation. It is so uncreative, so unamenable, dry and academic looking. The pages are crammed with type, the margins are small, it looks cheap, but it isn’t (in terms of content). As such it doesn’t invite you to pick up, which is a shame as the book, contains much for the student, practitioner and critic of creative writing alike.


John Weldon is a freelance writer and lecturer in Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University.


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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb