“It was like finding yourself in a great library as a young writer, and gazing around at the thousands of books in it, and wondering if you really have anything of value to add.”
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood [1. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam031/2001025135.pdf ]
Over on my writing blog, I posted a piece on what I believed were a writer’s obligations as a writer. Not their obligations to readers, or to publishers, or to posterity, or to society, but to themselves (in order that they keep faith with being a writer) and to the writing. It’s not posted here because it was an entirely subjective statement on my particular sense of a writer’s obligations.
While preparing a paper for an upcoming Research by Practice conference, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to consider how being a creative writer compares with being a student, and why and how the two are often at odds with each other or, at the very least, interfere. One of the fundamental premises used to argue for creative writing as a form of serious research that deserves recognition is that, as we commit the act of writing, we are performing research. It has been argued that ‘creative writing’ is not only the product of that research but, in some sense, also its methodology. But to argue this compellingly, the academy demands, like it does in other fields of research, that the process be described objectively and in detail. [2. Hetherington, Paul. “Some (post-romantic) Reflections on Creative Writing and the Exegesis.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses Special Issue No. 8 (2010) http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue8/Hetherington.pdf ] One of the most compelling reasons for the continuing demand for some form of short critical exegesis to accompany the larger creative work as part of the submitted thesis is because we’ve done a very bad job at describing the process.
As entertaining as Margaret Atwood’s book on writing was, I don’t think it succeeds in describing the process very well, nor does any other book or interview I have come across. But instead of listing their flaws, I think a comparison is in order.
When we begin attending school, as children, we being the process of learning what it is to be a student. Certainly, there are all sorts of idealized models of studenthood which strain reality, but our model of how to be a student is constantly reinforced both as external information and as lived experience for years. We are offered examples of what a ‘good student’ looks like by the media, by our parents, by teachers, both as a communal practice and a private one. We are guided, either gently or brutally into the role of studenthood. We can triangulate our understanding of it from peers, institutions, and familial expectations. If you don’t succeed at being a decent student – baring some obvious handicaps which might significantly and legitimately interfere – it is quite probably your own choice. It’s certainly not because you don’t have a clear understanding of what being a successful student looks like. To abuse Judith Butler unashamedly, performing studenthood is easy. It’s up there with motherhood, childhood, and genderhood in terms of having an overabundance of cultural guidelines for how to do it.
I would not want to claim that we have no models for how to be writers, they’re just not terribly good. We have some books on writing, a few autobiographies, some compelling interviews, etc. And of course, there is a wealth of literary lore of how famous writers were writers. Chief among them that you drink a great deal, write in the bathtub and have an adventurous sex life. Also, that you go on safari, turn up on the front lines of foreign wars, and are generally beastly to women.
But, for the most part, we try to understand what it means to be a writer forensically. We use the remains of dead writers – their books – as our primary source of evidence. We are still taught, despite all contradictory information, that if we just read enough, we’ll learn to be good writers.
In truth, I was lucky. My father was a writer. I saw his process at close quarters. I have some understanding of how he took his experience of the world around him, the literary exemplars he carried with him like talismans, his own inner emotional landscape, and distilled it, filtered it, carved and forced it out as writing. Moreover, he wasn’t a quiet man, like many writers are famed to be. He was perfectly amenable to explaining himself, pondering aloud, communicating the difficulties he experienced in the act of writing. And still, when he filled his bathtub, lay a plank across its edges, plonked his typewriter on top of it, he then closed the door. We had to take our pees at the cafe across the street and the fundamental mechanism by which he produced writing was beyond my reach.
Education of one sort or another can offer us training in the use of a writer’s tools: language, narrative structure, characterization, dialogue, plot, setting. But unless your aim to to produce the literary equivalent of an Ikea bookshelf, you are on your own.
Most of us learn to be writers – to attain writerhood – alone. Because of this, our ways are necessarily idiosyncratic, particular, almost useless as a guide to another. We resort to showing each other the fruits of our labours and, for our readers, this is an entirely appropriate interchange.
For fellow creative writing students and for the academics who assess our form of research, this is not enough. The academy currently structures its ways of knowing in a form that may very well be incompatible with the type of research in which creative writers engage. Our ‘proofs’ may always fall short of a positivist ideal.
This is undoubtedly a problem for the academy, but I would like to argue that this tension, this reaching towards an impossible goal, this attempt to force the round peg into the square hole, may be frustrating for administrators, but it is challenging, exhilarating and lushly fertile for writers. Like any apparently insoluble problem, it presents us with the opportunity to ponder it. Even the most die hard fans of rigorous scientific inquiry must agree – this has always led us to wonderful new places.
Perhaps it is more productive to live with the tension than to resolve it?