TEXT review

Rich stuff

review by Marion May Campbell


Jeri Kroll and Graeme Harper (eds)
Research Methods in Creative Writing
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke UK 2013
ISBN 9870230242678
Pb 232pp AUD23.51


In more traditional academic cultures the epistemological status of creative arts practice has been the object of suspicion, if not derision, perhaps because of the persistence of the myth that the creative artist is dumb, in the sense that she cannot speak for herself, but must be spoken for by those from more analytically oriented disciplines. I use the generic feminine here because creative practice has often been feminised, relative to the power that Theory has wielded. However, as most would agree, theory was already decapitalised and pluralised before Lyotard’s (1983) celebrated report on postmodernity, witnessing the demise of the grand narratives. From the late 1980s onwards, with the accelerated growth of creative arts across campuses in the Anglosphere, we have witnessed the increasing power of arts practitioners to contest the theoretical divide between praxis and theory, between technē and knowledge [1]. Of course the frequently innovative force of this defence has been catalysed by the demands of national research bodies for creative arts academics to articulate their claims to new knowledge production, if they want to keep their jobs.

At the recent Creative Ecologies workshop convened by the Writing and Society Research Centre University of Western Sydney, the driving question, fraught but highly productive, was of the relationship of critical reflection to creative practice, and how best research ‘outcomes’ might be articulated with the creative work. Amongst higher degree candidates in Creative Writing, considerable anxiety seems to be generated by perceptions that the notorious ‘exegetical component’ of the thesis be a reflection on the making of the ‘creative artefact’, as it is quaintly known in many creative arts departments. Countering this expectation, some speakers [2] suggested that we ditch the notion of the exegesis and think critical and theoretical dissertation in dialogic relation with practice. Ideally this would see a single research question driving both components of the thesis, thus guaranteeing the dialogue and securing a firm articulation between the two.

It is to this debate which Research Methods in Creative Writing delivers a timely and most valuable contribution, addressed as it is both to scholars and students in the field – stimulating, often provocative and, throughout, eminently accessible. The editors Jeri Kroll and Graeme Harper, highly regarded writers and scholars in creative practice-led research (see Harper 2012, Harper & Kroll 2008), have done a splendid job in the conceptual design of the work and in their lucid, elegant introduction and conclusion. Each chapter, elicited from internationally selected researchers, offers a cogent abstract and, as a bonus, provides exercises and experiments, whereby readers might extend and deepen in praxis their understanding of the multifaceted potential of practice-led research.

Kroll and Harper argue that all the researchers invoke the synergy between the creative, the practical and the critical, ‘healing [the] rifts’ between ‘practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user’ (2). The productive epistemic shift is away from the angst-inducing critical and hermeneutic analysis of the work towards how it is working. Kroll and Coles, in their respective contributions, argue that it is more productive to look at the larger cultural context in which the work hopes to be an intervention, rather than simply focus on the work itself. The most productive move is a poetics which might enable students to integrate skills and technique.

British poet Kim Lasky (14-33) makes some terrific bibliographic suggestions for students and teachers alike for heightening the awareness of the traditions on which their writing draws, and she suggests that paradoxically the failed experiment can make a strong contribution to knowledge. She identifies as exemplary, work like that of Joan Retallack, or Rachel Blau DuPlessis, governed by an aesthetic that joins elements, activating a dialogue between poetics and practice. She promotes as an exercise for students the value of the manifesto, a genre which certainly ignites the fuse of poetic desire as it enacts the elements of a poetics.

Donna Lee Brien (34-55) covers some fascinating questions regarding creative non-fiction and shows how creativity is the engine: beyond fact-finding there is the accreting and synthesising power of the imagination, with subjective hermeneutics always at work. She argues that every act of writing is a potential disturbance of the field of generic expectations and that this is also an act of knowledge production, once how it works is retrospectively identified. Non-fiction writers might be, to a small degree, mirrors for factual capture but they also can be seen as warped and warping captivators, as subjective refractors. Brien cites Norman Mailer’s provocative dictum that –

writers are ‘the philosophers who are there to make sense of those concentrated if frozen fantasies we call facts. Someday, may it be, we will say, those old fantasies we used to call facts until we learned to unpack them’. (50)

Margaret MacRobert’s contribution concerns an empirical study about creative process in a group of South African women writers and finds that the creative work involves many ‘embedded sub-processes’ (4), none of which advances in a linear fashion; she invokes the entanglement of the world of the writer with the world she is creating in the text, a relation difficult to unravel and explain, as one impends on the other and as the making transforms the maker. MacRobert suggests that the ‘Aha!’ moment (66) when things crystallise in writing, or come to a point of resonant reconfiguration, has usually been prepared by a vertiginous ‘recursion of sub-processes’ (64) and might well be sparked from a slow psychic fuse coursing through the decades. So much is in retroactivity that one can never say where the writing begins. However, it is often technique, structural and poetic, that applies the pressure for the ‘Aha!’ encounter of elements.

In ‘New Modes of Creative Research’ (78-101) Kerry Spenser takes scientific method a step further in performing statistical modelling around readers’ expectations and tastes in terms of marketing young adult fiction and allowing this to shape her creative project. While some might find such a pragmatic orientation abhorrent, such methods may effectively identify how to deliver a potent social message while affording pleasure to younger readers.

Co-editor Jeri Kroll performs a neat turn here, using a certain scientificity of metaphor – in ‘The Writing Laboratory and its Methodology’ (102-132) – to return us to questions of poetics. She brings a refreshing breadth of vision to illuminate creative research, citing diverse sources from the philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Davies, to material thinking theorist and artist, Paul Carter (107) and feminist theorist and poet, Adrienne Rich (106). Writing is always ‘Re-vision’ as Rich famously wrote (Rich 1972) and, as Carter says,

If research involves finding something that was not there before, it might be obvious that it involves imagination. If it is claimed that what is found was always there and merely lost, still an act of creative remembering occurs. (107)

Kroll productively promotes an aesthetics that is improvisational, mobile, and in the Deleuzo-Guattarian sense, rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) – able at once to capture the ‘focal’ along with the ‘exotic’, unexpected encounter. Such a synergetic concern underpins Graeme Harper’s call in ‘The Generations of Creative Writing Research’ (133-154) for a holistic view of doing creative writing within the multifarious realm of human creativity. He compellingly typifies creative writing as a dynamic interplay of ‘events’.

The conceptual narrative enacted by the book's structure primes the reader for Catherine Coles’ contribution on intertextuality, ‘Forward, Wayward: the Writer in The World’s Text at Large’ (155-174). The American poet and scholar exhibits a protean curiosity and pleasure in serendipitous cultural finds reminiscent of E Annie Proulx and demonstrates the power of multifaceted research, such as looking, for the generation of poems, into the Renaissance trading of images, or into myths, artworks and biological facts concerning sheep, for instance. Words themselves, she writes, are marvellous modes of travel –

They are so grubby, words, carrying with them every meaning they’ve ever rubbed against, travelling in a dust storm of usages and implications, like Pigpen from the Peanuts comics. Artists talk to each other across time and space, saying, Look at the way I curl this tail, this wing. Look at what I took and look at what I made. Becoming, together, immortal. (159)

She celebrates the productivity of digression, and of intercourse with artists, architects and writers past, suggesting that the most valuable lesson is the ‘dreaming passion’ in contemplating great artworks. She refreshingly affirms, against the essentialist romance of finding ‘one’s own voice’, that our voices are made of myriad other voices. The more open to other voices, the more ‘singular’ one’s ‘own voice' is likely to sound. This fittingly segues into Dominique Hecq’s wonderful chapter, ‘Creative Writing and Theory: Theory without Credentials’ (175-200) on the uses of theory after the putative ‘Death of Theory’ and the interaction that diverse theories can have with our creative process. Hecq’s particular focus here is on the facilitations of psychoanalysis, Lacanian, Cixousian, Irigarayan and beyond these, on her own fertile engagement with it, for creative practice.

Hecq formulates her pedagogy as enacting a ‘philosophy of ethical desire’ (183). She provides a marvellous allegory of the way creative production can speak back to theory: how in tracking, in Out of Bounds, her poetic persona’s mute rush from traumatic violation, she took her to the limits of silence and then, by polyglot punning and the musical suggestiveness of sound, she was able to sing her subject back in from the violating ‘scopic’ domain of the phallic mother-father to the auditory. It is ironically through the silence of metaphor (188-194), and I would add, the ‘noise’ of the portemanteau, that the unspeakable truth can be ‘heard’.

In his essay on ‘Transcultural Writing and Research’ (201-221), Graeme Mort reflects on the contemporary boom in Creative Writing and, in particular, on the success of the virtual delivery of rich Creative Writing dialogues from Lancaster University amongst a multicultural and geographically dispersed cohort of doctoral and masters candidates. He concludes that,

[j]ust as creative writing is a dialogical art form engaging readers to realise or ‘complete’ its texts, so, as a research discipline, it is dialogic in uniting actual textual production with abstract hypotheses or ‘theories’ of creativity in order to fully realise or complete that process. (207)

But, most importantly, Mort celebrates the workshop whereby writing is critically and artistically re-inflected through its encounters with sociocultural alterity (209). I'm not quite sure, however, how Mort’s metaphor of writing as 'integument' between self and other quite works, since the outer casing of the seed might well inhibit germination or cross-fertilisation.

When I complained to a friend of the ‘stuff life throws at us, like review deadlines’, she reminded me that I’d once taken a shot at such a lazy use of the word stuff and challenged me to use it in this review. With their openness to play, to serendipitous finds, to random encounters, the most inspiring of these essays remind me that all stuff is grist to the creative mill, and that any writer should check out etymology if she is to find her way through the ‘duststorm of usages and applications’ invoked by Katherine Coles (159) –

Origin Middle English (denoting material for making clothes): shortening of Old French estoffe ‘material, furniture’, estoffer ‘equip, furnish’, from Greek stuphein ‘draw together’. (Harper, D 2001-2003)

So, despite the joke behind my friend’s challenge, stuff turns out to be quite cogent here, as this collection is about the drawing together of threads: suggesting creativity as psyches in concert talking the work of writing, of intersubjective entwinement, of furnishing together critical and creative material. What is certain is that Research Methods in Creative Writing offers very rich stuff: identifying, often exhilaratingly, an impressive range of productive methods to draw together critical and creative practice in writing.



Works Cited

Rich, Adrienne 1972 'When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision', College English 34, 1, Women, Writing and Teaching, National Council of Teachers of English, 18-30 http://www.jstor.org/stable/375215 (accessed 11 September 2008) return to text



Marion May Campbell is Associate Professor in Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University, Melbourne. Her most recent work of fiction, konkretion, appeared with UWAP earlier in 2013. Her critical work Poetic Revolutionaries: Intertextuality & Subversion will be soon appearing with Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste