TEXT review

Writer, know thyself – poetics and psychoanalysis

review by Jeri Kroll


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:41Jk2uhJxgL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
Dominique Hecq
Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing
Multilingual Matters, Bristol, UK 2015
ISBN 139781783093229 (hdk)
ISBN 139781783093212 (pbk)
Pb 246 pp USD169.95


Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing, by Dominique Hecq, dedicated to her ‘postgraduate students, past and present’, is a meticulously researched monograph that explains a range of literary and psychoanalytical theories that can ground the critical essay or exegesis of creative theses. In fact, while reading I emailed a new doctoral candidate to recommend the opening chapters. Hecq explains in the book’s ‘Afterword’ that the inspiration came paradoxically from dissatisfaction. After writing her chapter ‘Creative Writing and Theory’ for my edited collection, Research Methods in Creative Writing (Kroll & Harper 2013), she realised there was more she needed to say to help reluctant postgraduates to overcome their aversion to theory. Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing succeeds admirably in this objective by tackling the questions of why and how theory can help students to understand their research.

The opening chapters are persuasive. Hecq provides readers with an explanation of ‘poetics’ as a concept, taking account of its extensive history beginning with Aristotle’s seminal work, The Poetics, which was the first foray into a theory of literature, and demonstrates how they might apply the principles of poetics to their own projects by grasping what the term means today. Poetics, she believes, can complement self-reflexivity, since together they ground creative writing research, which is ‘first and foremost an “experiential knowing” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980: 19), whereby affects and emotions interact with rational processes’ (23). In addition, Hecq unpacks what critics mean by theory and Theory with a capital T. These sections are useful for doctoral candidates as well as sound refreshers for supervisors.

It is worth clarifying that a large part of the book is devoted to psychoanalytical theory in addition to poetics, but Hecq explains the reason for this focus: ‘The word “subject” [creative writing] refers here to what is being studied in the discipline of creative writing as well as who is involved in the act of writing … taking into account the importance of the subjectivity of the writer’ (1). Hecq employs Lacanian theory in both teaching and research, concerned as she is with how its tenets facilitate a comprehension of the writing process and ‘the self’ that writes. She admits that this focus seems at odds with the objectivity demanded of conventional research and results in epistemological challenges, in particular for candidates who face developing a workable creative writing theory to fit doctoral projects.

Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing functions as Hecq’s answers to this dilemma. She acknowledges the power of the unconscious in creativity, and maintains ‘that the subjectivity of the researcher is a strength’ (2), underpinning as it does the ways in which practitioners read texts and manipulate language. Hecq summarises the development of concepts of the ‘I,’ the self that writes and ‘performs’ as a cultural being, which explains her preference for psychoanalytic theory allied with postcolonial and cultural theory, since they develop postmodernism’s concept of ‘the other’ and accept its belief that the self ‘lives in a mode of discontinuity and instability’ (3).

Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing is roughly divided into two parts, the first devoted to the subject of creative writing and possible theoretical approaches and the second unpacking Hecq’s methodology in case studies, where she can ‘gradually apply and perform some of the ideas and concepts…’ (7). A varied internal and external chapter structure in both sections reflects the practice-led research loop. Hecq analyses prevailing critical terminology, which, due to its debt to other creative arts disciplines, does not always accord with the way arts practitioners perform. She prefers ‘creative writing research’ to ‘practice-led research’ (27).

Postgraduates will find key definitions useful in articulating their practice, including ‘the other’, ‘exposition’, ‘paratext’, ‘metaphor’ (as generator of new knowledge), and a range of psychoanalytical concepts. An important section elaborates on the familiar idea of theory as a ‘toolbox’, which also should help reluctant postgraduates to accept the impossibility of writing without a theory. Related subjects include the ‘false dichotomy between theory and practice’ (9); the difference between theory and literary criticism; the writer as reader and reader response theories; the benefits of ‘integrating cross-disciplinary knowledges’ (30), rather than restricting a project to one; the notion of a canon; the relationship between craft and knowledge; and a history of psychoanalytic theory, including definitions of the unconscious (85). Her comments about the unconscious are instructive and point to why it might provide methodologies amenable to creative writing research, since both construct ‘knowledge in a dynamic way through … a continuous process’ (69). For the creative writing researcher, ‘thoughts are organised more consciously according to what I have called a methodology of “active consciousness” (Hecq 2013a: 175), whereby new knowledge emerges in three steps: inductive, deductive and retroactive’ (69).

The second half of Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing allows readers to observe theory in action. Hecq explains:

I would like to select postcolonial theory, a theory drawn from linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism, characterised by resistance, activism and future thinking (Ashcroft 2001), as a case study: firstly because of its historical and ideological affinities with psychoanalysis that is, as a counter-discourse; secondly because its conceptual tools can be adapted to other social contexts and methodological frameworks; and thirdly because in postcolonial countries theory can have a practical – and political – impact. (74)

After noting how this theory has influenced work in Australian universities, in particular by allowing postgraduates to articulate the problematic relationship of a dominant culture to ‘the other’ (including Aboriginals and migrants), she offers case studies, choosing two Seamus Heaney poems, ‘Alphabet’ and ‘Out of the Bag,’ for ‘dialectical reading’ (90). She then turns to her own poetry and prose, mapping a ‘personal journey’, while also exploring Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the main Hecq’s discussions focus on style, which she argues is conditioned by Lacan’s ‘dynamic unconscious’ (85). The intention is to help doctoral candidates to recognise what factors, internal and external, inform their own style.

One of the book’s drawbacks is that it does not sufficiently acknowledge that some creative writing researchers pursue alternative fruitful pathways, in particular those dictated by conventional methods, such as historical research, without feeling constrained by them. Hecq conceptualises creative writing research as primarily an exploratory endeavour, driven by a method akin to what cognitive psychologists and writing theorists call ‘process writing’ (as opposed to program writing). This ‘“problem finding style” (Lamott 1994: 22)’ suggests that a project begins ‘with only a question mark, an image, a phrase or even a mere rhythm rather than a plan, and the work emerges from the improvisational act of writing and revising – or not’ (73). As genetic critics and cognitive psychologists have noted, this approach applies more to poets than novelists and, in fact, most writers employ both process and program writing, as Hecq concedes.

Another drawback is that the extended discussions of psychoanalytical theory, while justified in terms of the book’s overall plan, might cause problems for some. Hecq in fact admits that she could lose readers (86), while also lamenting that she privileges male theorists at the expense of influential female thinkers, in particular Hélène Cixous, whose concept of écriture féminine points out the male-female dichotomies in Western civilisation that transcend the notion of gender (111). A section called ‘Cherchez la Femme: Cixous, Kristeva, Irigaray’ (108) is not, she believes, sufficient, thus another project might be in the pipeline. Towards the book’s end a question she poses (and she knows she is not the first to ask it) reinforces this need, and speaks as well to Hecq’s current novel-in-progress about the loss of a child: ‘Is it possible for women writers – particularly poets – to embrace a female subject matter in their writing and still be taken seriously as writers within the “masculine universal” sphere of literature?’ (198). To contextualise this observation she ‘trace[s] a brief history of metaphors of autogenesis as pertaining not only to the act of creating but also … to how poetry is critically received and canonised’ (199). This survey underlines the idea of the female muse facilitating male creators giving birth to themselves, but where does this leave women writers? Aware of this conundrum, Hecq suggests that the writing of this book itself has taught her what still needs to be done.

In sum, postgraduate researchers (and their supervisors) whose orientation is towards exploring process will find much to appreciate in Towards a Poetics of Creative Writing. In fact, Hecq’s contention early in the book that ‘creative writing is an experiential form of practice involving an intertextuality which is first and foremost intratextual, that is, played out from within’ (15), distills her critical orientation and explains the dominance of psychoanalysis. Readers do not need to accept every argument put forth in this skilfully written book in order to benefit from the issues each chapter raises about the conscious and unconscious dynamics that influence what and how they write.


Works cited



Professor Jeri Kroll is Dean of Graduate Research at Flinders University. The author of six poetry collections, young adult novels and children’s books, her most recent publications are Research Methods in Creative Writing (Kroll & Harper 2013), Workshopping the Heart: New and Selected Poems (2013) and the verse novel Vanishing Point (2015).


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste