Critical Fictional Voices: An Approach to Integrating Theory into Creative Writing

The following is the draft version of my paper on a proposal for writing exercises to help integrate, reflect, appropriate, translate critical, cultural, gender and/or literary theory into their creative writing practice.  It is, by necessity, semi-formal paper, so if you’re not a fan of pseudo academic writing, just skip down to the heading “The Problems” and read on from there.

If you see yourself as an ‘independent student’, not formally studying or enrolled in a Creative Writing course at an institution but would still be interested in having a go at this, please let me know in the comments and perhaps I can point you to some critical material that might feed into a deeper or more contextual approach to your current creative writing practice to help you get started.

Critical Fictional Voices:
An Approach to Integrating Theory into Creative Writing

In his 2003 article for the journal TEXT, Paul Dawson challenged Creative Writing departments:

“…to accommodate the insights of critical theory, identity politics and cultural studies, and the critiques of literature which these offer, while still retaining the central pedagogical aim of Creative Writing, which is to teach students how to develop their writing skills in order to produce literary works.” [1. Dawson, Paul. “Towards a New Poetics in Creative Writing Pedagogy.” TEXT: JOURNAL OF WRITING AND WRITING COURSES 7.1 (2003) ]

The multiplicity of considered views on the extent to which critical, cultural or literary theory should play a part in the exegesis of a research by practice degree in creative writing must be acknowledged; whether there should be a separate exegesis at all, and on how integrated into the creative project that critical frame should be. [2. Bourke, Nike, and Philip Neilsen. “The Problem of the Exegesis in Creative Writing Higher Degrees.” TEXT: JOURNAL OF WRITING AND WRITING COURSES Special Issue 3 (2004)] These issues inform a vibrant, ongoing dialectic on what might constitute a PhD in creative writing. It is beyond the scope of this paper to add to this debate. It will attempt, however, address a few of the consequences of the general status quo, which currently often results in the expectation for a student perform two very different roles simultaneously and to write in two very distinct voices and genres simultaneously. Further, it will offer an outline of a student practice, which may, perhaps, go some small way to bridging what some have identified as a schism.

Background

While taking my Masters in writing, which required a final piece of creative writing, I experienced difficulty integrating the literary, critical and cultural theory into my creative work. I noticed this same struggle experienced by students I teach in a Narrative for Multimedia course, which demands a final creative project.

When I embarked on the PhD in Creative Writing course Roehampton, I began to experience the same problems again. I had very firm ideas of the works and theories that would inform both the critical and creative portions of my project. However, the integration of those roles has been tough. Integrating theory into the fabric of the creative work in a way that results in commercially viable genre fiction is even more of a challenge.

Although Edmonds argues that publication is not the only outcome of creative writing courses, and celebrates the number of students who have succeeded in getting their works published [3. Edmonds, P. “Respectable or Risqué: Creative Writing Programs in the Marketplace.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses 8.1 (2004) ],   in 2009, Boyd put the Australian rate of commercial publication for the creative elements of creative writing doctorates at 45%.[4. Boyd, N. “Describing the Creative Writing Thesis: a Census of Creative Writing Doctorates, 1993-2008.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses 13.1 (2009)] Although this may seem like a high rate of publication, it might be worth considering, for the 55% who do not achieve commercial publication, why that is and if, perhaps the academic stress on theory might play some part.

The Problems

From my own reflective practice both as a student and a lecturer, I encountered the following challenges:

Roles: studenthood vs. writerhood

Much has been written about how we identify and orient ourselves within the communities of practice in which we find ourselves, and the various roles we take on.[5. Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.] From an early age, we learn what is expected of us as students and how this role should be performed.  Models of how to be a successful student are offered to us at every turn with penalties for non-conformity. Often, the experience of studenthood is a communal one; learning from peers in classroom environments, actively guided in our performance by parents, teachers, administrators, and educational institutions.

Being a writer is a different matter.  Although we diligently examine writing written by others, these afford us only forensic clues as to how to perform the role. Some writers have written autobiographies, or spoken of their praxis, or produced books on how to produce good writing but, on the whole, models on how to perform ‘writerhood’ are few and far between, often romanticized, or the product of literary lore.[6. Harper, Graeme. “Creative Habitats and the Creative Domain.” New Writing 7.1 (2010): 1–4.]  Learning to be a creative writer is something most of us do, for the most part, on our own.

The Creative Writing PhD is one that requires a student to be both writer and student simultaneously.  Rather than performing these roles in parallel, perhaps a greater integration of these roles is possible and achievable through practices designed to encourage a more hybrid role?

Genre: academic vs. creative fiction writing

As Kroll has stated, “At some point in the process of research questions need to be asked, if not fully answered, and those findings communicated to the intellectual and artistic community.” [7. Kroll, J. “The Exegesis and the Gentle Reader/Writer.” Journal of the Australian Association of Writing Special Issue No. 3 (2004) ]

Students within Creative Writing programs are, in most cases, asked to produce a thesis consisting of two distinct genres of writing. While the critical or exegetical portion of their work must address itself to the academy and follow the conventions appropriate to that genre, the creative work – if publication is to be achieved – must address itself to the audience of whatever literary genre the writer has chosen to work within; the work needs address itself fluently to the conventions of that genre and satisfy, to some extent at least, the expectation of their readers.

Reflecting on how the poets Keats, Rilke and Engle discussed their writing processes, Hetherington concludes they each illustrate “a clear distinction between the transmission of knowledge through the analytic and descriptive writing sanctioned by universities and its transmission through artistic or creative means.”[8. Hetherington, Paul. “Some (post-romantic) Reflections on Creative Writing and the Exegesis.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses Special Issue No. 8 (2010): 1–12.]

Does this imply that this ‘siloing’ of approach is inevitable, unavoidable? Must we resign ourselves to this schism?

Voice: authenticity vs. perceived expectations

Closely related to genre, but more specific to the writer-student is the question of authenticity of voice.  The academic writing has historically eschewed the use of a subjective writing voice.[9.Hyland, Ken. “Options of Identity in Academic Writing.” ELT Journal 56.October (2002): 351–358.] Although in more recent times, there has been resistance to the impersonal voice, and robust arguments have been made to challenge it, the pressure to present critical responses in this voice that differs so radically from a creative writing voice might easily have the effect of discouraging what may be a vibrant and fertile opportunity to infuse the creative writing element with a greater degree of critical thought and reflection.

It occurs to me that any of the above-mentioned conflicts might provide certain writers with very exciting challenges which, in turn, serve to feed their imagination, creative potential and enrich the works themselves.  However, any or all of these areas of tension could just as easily lead a student to compartmentalize both their thinking and their writing in ways that undermine their full potential.

A Proposal for Practice

The exercise I am proposing does not seek to address all of the challenges described above but attempts to reorient the student in terms of the way he or she formulates responses to new critical and theoretical learning. This proposal is workable for student-writers working alone, in online groups, or in face-to-face classroom environments.

My admittedly limited experience has been that graduate courses in Creative Writing introduce students to literary and critical theory through some form of research methods class. Theory is introduced and examined often in ways that do not pin the learning to the student’s own creative work. Either the theories are explored in isolation, or in the context of other works of literature. Student responses to this learning are often required to be in similarly objective modes.

In practice, students are often asked to read theoretical works and produce proofs that they have understood them. This practice could be modified to require students to respond to their acquisition of new critical and theoretical understandings in purely creative ways, encouraging a processing of that new learning through the production of creative work.

The exercises involve assigning the reading of particular texts and, perhaps if helpful, ancillary texts that help elucidate the original, and then requiring the student to produce a piece of creative writing in response.  This creative response should contain elements of whatever learning they’ve gleaned the reading. In essence, the exercise asks students to translate elements of the original text into their own creative language.

If practiced as a solitary exercise, a short reflective summary of what ideas have been ‘translated’ and how they appear in the new text should be made.

As a group exercise, either online or in the classroom, the reading and creative response would be the same, but instead of producing reflective summaries of their own pieces, students could be asked to read the works of their peers and comment on them – not as critiques – but in an attempt to identify where the ideas contained in the reading emerge in the creative work.  Not only do the ensuing discussions underscore the original learning, but identify contextual applications, distillations, and lateral approaches to the ideas under discussion.

An added benefit offered by these exercises may be to hone student’s skill with regard to levels of implicitness or explicitness when it comes to incorporating theoretical ideas through their creative work.

Conclusion

In researching material for this paper, I found very little in the way of practical methods or guidance on how to integrate critical theory, identity politics, cultural studies or even literary theory into creative writing practices. Much more might be explored in this area.

Creative writing students come to their studies from many backgrounds. Some have already some form commercial publication.  Especially now that genre fiction writing has gained more academic recognition, genre fiction writers are increasingly being accepted into creative writing programs. For them, it is not so much the craft of writing that needs to be honed. They may come to their academic studies with a desire to acquire a deeper understanding of where their writing sits in the political, cultural and theoretical landscape, and to allow that to enrich their creative research and inform their craft, while still ensuring that the resultant creative product’s tone speaks to the market for which it was intended.

For independent writers interested in learning more about some of the theoretical frameworks used to take a more critical approach to your own creative writing there are a few links to sites which might interest you:

Purdue: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism
Also from Perdue, a wonderful beginner’s intro to Critical Theory
University of Hawaii: Critical Theory Reading Guides
Washington State University: Critical Theory

 

Yale has a wonderful complete video course online at iTunes, offered by Paul Fry

Also, here, for instance, is a nice paper on how critical theory might tempt you to consider how you write about spaces / places / landscapes in your work from a different perspective: http://aawp.org.au/files/Lobb_1.pdf

If you’re teaching a creative writing course and consider implementing some of these exercises, I’d really love to know how it worked out.

5 Thoughts on “Critical Fictional Voices: An Approach to Integrating Theory into Creative Writing

  1. RG: As an M.A. student being asked right now to write the exegesis for an artefact which I began writing at the start of this enterprise, I can relate to the issues you discuss here. Certainly, Critical Theories were presented to me just as you describe, with lots of reading about the theories and then a weekly exercise evidencing that I understood the theories. I was surprised when the major assignment was “a piece of writing” and I have to admit it hadn’t occurred to me until now that this was a wasted opportunity to explore those theories fresh in my mind in a piece of creative writing, though just how I would have done that I am not sure. (Thank you for the links which I’ll explore when I get through the sky high reading material currently in front of me.)

    My artifact relates to a woman’s search for meaning and how that meaning is found through a combination of spiritualism and power exchange experiences. Certain theories are relevant to the story – existentialism, for example, and the feminist perspective on objectification has particularly interested me since the main character looks for a spiritual experience where she is ego-less – but I struggle to understand how I can “incorporate” theories into the writing, as opposed to talk about the theories that have relevance to the story. Of course, I bring my own experiences to the story, aware that radical feminists may well be offended by the story and/or that they may well feel that I have been indoctrinated by the patriarchal society in which I have been conditioned and don’t know my true mind. But, at the end of the day, I must tell the story (mustn’t i?), aware of the theories that inform the writing but nonetheless telling the story through the eyes and mind of my protagonist. I understand how to be aware of the theories (in the exegesis) but not aware of how to incorporate them into the writing.

    Your post is most appreciated. You raise the issue in a fresh way, it seems to me as so many articles espouse the exegesis and believe it to inform the writing, and the writing inform the exegesis. However, the question remains ‘how does one incorporate the theories into the writing’?

    • Firstly, wow, your project sounds very interesting. And I can see how a number of different theorists and ideas could well open out the subject for you.

      I do think, finally, that incorporating theory into creative work is a matter of acclimatization. Of repetition in the act of translation, distillation, etc.

      But I also got a very good clue as to how to ‘harvest’ theoretical inspiration for creative work from an installation artist. He was walking around with a Badiou text and I said – hey, tell me about Badiou. He said, I really can’t. I just sort of skim through his words, and then a phrase, an idea will attract me. I appropriate it and run with it, and let it sort of infuse what I’m doing with sometimes just a fragment of idea.

      I think one thing that happens when creative writers encounter theory is that we tend to believe we must uptake ALL of it. Understand it thoroughly. I remember getting caught in this awful spiral of reading Heidegger, then realizing how much Husserl influenced him, then before him, Hegel. For some reason, I believed that I was not really understanding the whole context of his thoughts without going back to the source. Which probably is great if you want a PhD in Philosophy, but a terrible trap when your aim is to produce a creative work.

      I think we have to be prepared to uptake theory in the same way we allow our creative work to be influenced by the world around us – in glancing blows.

      • RG: Well, that was incredibly helpful because I think that is what I and my fellow students have been trying to do, thinking of ourselves as walking, talking encyclopedias on a variety of Cultural Theories, when in fact the average creative writer’s brain doesn’t work like that at all, but simply latches on to what interests it at any particular moment in time. It so makes sense that the creative writer is more likely to take on what he or she reads in some intangible way, some sense of Knowing that gets embedded in the brain or soul. You may enjoy knowing that I managed to creep that thought into my weekly module, just now submitted. It’s a moment of whimsy in a period of time now dedicated to satisfying ‘the Academy’ that my writing about kink and sex will add to Knowledge. ha!

        • Which is fine when satisfying the academy & the creative research can be the same thing. When it isn’t, it’s not so good. The object is to produce new knowledge not jump through hoops for parrots

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