Creative Writing

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

Creative Writing

Is this it then? Is this creative writing? What is ’creative writing’ anyway, and what is a chapter on creative writing doing in a book on literature, criticism and theory? What is it that writing creates? And what is the difference between ’creative writing’ and ’literature’?

In what follows we would like to explore two general propositions: (1) ’Creative writing’ doesn’t appear from nowhere. It has a history and is closely bound up with both the contemporary university and the current state of English (both as a language and as a subject of study). In particular, the recent surge in the popularity of ’creative writing’ courses is intricately entwined with the history of the term ’literature’ and with recent developments in literary criticism and theory. (2) Despite appearances perhaps, ’creative writing’ often serves to delimit the liberating and exhilarating, but also fearful possibilities of language. In this, it shares something with the dictionary, which offers the following definition of ’creative’:

Specifically of literature and art, thus also of a writer or artist: inventive, imaginative; exhibiting imagination as well as intellect, and thus differentiated from the merely critical, ’academic’, journalistic, professional, mechanical, etc., in literary or artistic production. So creative writing, such writing. (OED, sense 1b)

Let us note first of all that the OED has no hesitation in identifying ’creative writing’ with ’literature’ and ’art’. The OED definition is predicated on the basis of a firm distinction between ’imagination’ and ’intellect’. Thus ’creative’ is differentiated from other sorts of writing (’the merely critical, “academic”, journalistic, professional, mechanical, etc.’). But how seriously can we take this distinction? Is there nothing ’creative’ about other sorts of writing?

Definitions, as we know, are never ’merely academic’: they are forms and conduits of power. We might note one further intriguing detail in this dictionary definition, namely the scare quotes around ’academic’. ’Creative writing’, this might suggest, is both ’academic’ and non-academic. As the deceptive simplicity of the OED definition is perhaps beginning to make clear, ’creative writing’ has a strange relation to the academy and to the academic. In fact, creative writing appears to have been institutionalized, in more than one sense of that word, since the incorporation of ’creative writing courses’ within educational institutions is inevitably a form of appropriation and control. As early as 1958 we find the Oxford Magazine (4 December, no. 164/2, cited in OED) declaring: ’In America established, or at any rate committed, writers have been absorbed, permanently or temporarily, into the apparatus of creative writing workshops.’ This ’apparatus’, establishing itself across British universities and elsewhere, has become increasingly powerful. Few practising writers (novelists and poets in particular) today can become commercially successful without becoming a part of this apparatus, however temporarily or unwillingly. But there is also a more radical way of construing this apparatus or ’creative writing machine’, namely as the means by which the dangerous and disruptive possibilities of language, and of ’writing’ in particular, are (apparently) contained, reduced, locked up. What does it mean that the unpredictable powers of creativity, of creative writing, are being incorporated into and assessed by the university? What is going on in the desire or apparent need to turn creative writing into an ’apparatus’, a useful tool or machine?

To begin to respond to such questions, we have first of all to reckon with the ways that the emergence of ’creative writing’ is linked to the history of the concept of literature. As the OED definition makes clear, ’creative writing’ is inseparable from the question of literature. It has been fashionable in recent years, especially in the field of cultural studies, to regard literature as one sort of discourse or cultural product among others, such as philosophical discourse, or a film, or a restaurant menu. But in this context, Bennett and Royle is nothing if not unfashionable. Our concern is with the idea that there is in fact something distinctive about literature, something not commensurable with other sorts of discourse. One reason for this is quite simple: literature in a sense does not exist. It has no essence. It is not a case of X being a literary text, and Y being non-literary. Literariness is more spectral and elusive. Any text conventionally considered as literary (Geoffrey Chaucer’s ’The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’, say) can be read as non-literary (for example, as an account of female sexuality in the Middle Ages); and conversely, any text conventionally considered as non-literary (a political speech, say) can be read as literary (for example, in terms of an enactment of the strange ways of language, the workings of metaphor and other rhetorical figures). As Jacques Derrida puts it: ’There is no literature without a suspended relation to meaning and reference’ (Derrida 1992a, 48). It is not that literature does not refer — for instance, we have to construe ’wife’ and ’Bath’ in relation to a world of ’meaning and reference’, we have to make some sort of sense of these two words. But literature has to do with a certain suspendedness of such referring, as well as a dependence on what is referred to.

To take another example: how should we read the phrase ’midnight’s children’, in the title of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel? We are impelled by a desire to go beyond suspense, for example in order to be able to state categorically and definitively that the words ’midnight’s children’ refer to the moment on the 14/15 August 1947 when India became independent and to the children who happened to be born just at that time. But the peculiar literariness of the title-phrase consists, at the same time, in the fact that it is enigmatic, resistant to any final stable determination. One could not, after all, even hope to exhaust the readings of the title without an exhaustive reading of the text to which that title refers. Strangely suggesting that children are of or belonging to a time (’midnight’ with its connotations of the witching hour, darkness and mystery, the peculiarly decisive, yet uncertain, spooky border between day and night), that there could be children of time but perhaps not space and that a book could itself somehow be these children, Rushdie’s title conjures the bizarre telepathic mass of fictional narrative opened up in its name. Midnight’s Children, after all, is not — or not only — social or political history: it is a novel, a work of literature or (notice how odd this might sound) creative writing.

As we argue elsewhere in this book (see the chapter entitled ’Mutant’), ’literature’ is a comparatively modern invention. The emergence of creative writing in the mid-twentieth century in the United States, and more recent institutional expansions in the UK and elsewhere, are part and parcel of the process whereby the question ’What is literature?’ or ’What is literariness?’ becomes a central topic in literary texts themselves, as well as in literary criticism and theory. It is in this context that we might situate the proliferation, in the twentieth century, of poems about poetry and novels about novels. We might recall here Wallace Stevens’s declaration in his great long poem The Man with the Blue Guitar (1938): ’Poetry is the subject of the poem, / From this the poem issues and / To this returns’ (Stevens 176); or Samuel Beckett’s characterization of the work of James Joyce: ’His writing is not about something; it is that something itself ’ (Beckett 1983, 27). Significantly also, in this context, the last decades of the twentieth century witnessed the appearance of the term ’metafiction’, to designate ’fiction about fiction’, ’self-conscious’ or ’self-reflexive fiction’ (a term dating from 1960, according to the OED). And the word ’postmodern’ is of course bound up with this increasingly explicit attention to the nature of the literary, to the literariness of the literary. But we should not oversimplify this. No doubt literary works have, to greater or lesser extents, always drawn attention to themselves, foregrounding their own strange nature: think of Shakespeare’s plays within plays, in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, or Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste, or Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Nevertheless it also seems clear that creative writing is itself a new and different kind of foregrounding. It is as if ’Creative Writing’ were calling out: ’Look at me, come and write literature here, come and experience the literary, it’ll be fun! This way to the creative writing class!’ This particular institutionalized flagging of literature could also be regarded as a flagging in the sense of ’becoming exhausted’ — and here we might think of Gilles Deleuze’s marvellous essay on ’the exhausted’ (in Deleuze 1998) as a way of understanding contemporary literature (especially in the wake of Samuel Beckett). In all sorts of ways, in fact, we might see literature (and therefore creative writing) as coming to an end, its very existence increasingly threatened for example by the ubiquities of visual, digital and text cultures (film, TV, DVD, texting, email, the internet, gaming). It is not without reason that J. Hillis Miller opens his book On Literature (2002) with the words: ’The end of literature is at hand. Literature’s time is almost up’ (Miller 2002, 1). But we do not necessarily want to link the rise of creative writing with the ’end of literature’. (As Hillis Miller’s book goes on to make clear, things are in fact more complex than his initial apocalyptic pronouncement might suggest.) Instead, we would like to conclude by proposing six ways in which creative writing offers new challenges and insights in relation to thinking about literature and literary studies.

· 1. ’Creative writing’ is not simply opposed to ’critical writing’. We might most readily understand this in terms of the notion of metalanguage. Metalanguage is language about language, a discourse that takes another discourse as its object. Literature might thus be viewed as the ’object-discourse’ for which literary criticism or theory functions as a metalanguage. But the logic of metalanguage is everywhere. It was already operating in our title phrase: ’Creative writing’, this chapter, is not in any simple or conventional sense an example of creative writing. ’Creative writing’ signifies rather that this is a chapter about creative writing. Wherever we encounter talking about talking, stories about stories, poems about poetry, statements (like this one) that refer to themselves, we are engaged in effects of metalanguage. But there is something odd about metalanguage, something that makes it a double-bind, that is to say at once necessary and impossible. A metalinguistic or metadiscursive text (for example, a work of literary criticism or theory) cannot proceed to take another text (a work of literature or creative writing) as its object without that ’object’ being at the same time, in this very gesture, part of the ’meta-text’. Metalanguage is never pure, it always entails a logic of being apart from and dependent on in its object-language. The acknowledgement that you cannot write about another text without either doing something to it or its doing something to your ’own’ writing (if only by virtue of your quoting it, and therefore quoting it out of context, in a new and different context) led Roland Barthes to his celebrated declaration: ’Let the commentary be itself a text’ (Barthes 1981, 44). Is Barthes a creative writer? The difficulty of responding to this question has to do, at least in part, with the ways in which his work unsettles, plays with and over the putative borders and distinctions between creative and critical writing. His texts (like those of Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous) call for new forms, styles and inventions both in literary criticism or theory and in literature or creative writing. This is not to suggest, however, that creative and critical writing are really just the same thing. Such is the other side of the double-bind: metalanguage is necessary, as well as impossible. Critical writing does not involve ’a suspended relation to meaning and reference’ in the way that literary or creative writing does.

· 2. One does not know, as one writes or as the writing comes, one cannot know if it is creative or not, if it will have been creative or not. Who will have been the judge of whether such and such a piece of writing is or is not ’creative’? Isn’t ’creative writing’ necessarily predicated on an experience of reading that is to come, like a promise? ’I promise to be creative,’ you might say. But unlike other kinds of promises, it may not be in your own power to determine whether or not you will be ’creative’. Following Cixous, we could say that the only ’creative writing’ worthy of the name entails the experience of what is beyond us, beyond our capabilities, impossible. She declares: ’The only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The book that hurts us (we who are writing), that makes us tremble, redden, bleed’ (Cixous 1993, 32).

· 3. Creative writing, if there is any, entails what Timothy Clark (in his study of the idea of inspiration) calls ’a crisis of subjectivity’ (Clark 1997). He suggests we might think about this in terms of the blank page facing the would-be writer. This ’blank page’ has been conceived in various ways. The seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne, for example, described it metaphorically, in terms of infancy: ’An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing’ (Traherne 1991, 187). Clark, on the other hand, describes the blank page as a ’virtual space’ that is ’neither in the psyche of the writer nor … outside it’: this ’space of composition’, as he calls it, ’skews distinctions of inner and outer’, of ’self and other’ (Clark 1997, 22, 27). Writing, creative writing, is transformative, performative in ways that cannot be calculated or foreseen. The writer does not simply precede the writing. The figure of ’the writer’ is in crucial respects always ’phantasmatic’, never simply ’empirical’ or given (see Clark 1997, 24—6). As Blanchot puts it: ’Writing is nothing if it does not involve the writer in a movement full of risks that will change him [or her] in one way or another’ (Blanchot 1995, 244). One of the things that makes creative writing, in the context of the university, so distinctive and potentially troublesome is that it entails an explicit engagement with these forms of the transformative and performative, the risky and incalculable.

· 4. If creative writing involves an openness to otherness, to what has traditionally been called ’inspiration’ or ’the muse’ or ’God’, it nevertheless also involves something singular, apparently unique, like a signature. It is something ’akin to style’, as Raymond Carver remarks in his brief but powerful essay ’On Writing’, ’but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he [or she] writes. It is his [or her] world and no other … [The writer] has some special way of looking at things and … gives expression to that way of looking’ (Carver 1986, 22). It is thus possible to read a phrase or sentence or two by, say, William Blake (’The Argument’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) or Emily Dickinson (Poem 214) or Franz Kafka (Aphorism 43 in The Collected Aphorisms), and recognize in this the sort of style or signature to which Carver is referring:

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;

Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

I taste a liquor never brewed—

From Tankards scooped in Pearl—

As yet the hounds are still playing in the courtyard, but their prey will not escape, however fast it may already be charging through the forest.

In each case it is a question of these lines, these phrases marking the distinctive ’style’ of a writer. No one but Blake could talk about Rintrah roaring or hungry clouds swagging on the deep; no one but Dickinson could achieve quite this combination of the wondrous, the visceral and the abstract; no one but Kafka offers quite this sense of inescapable claustrophobia and doom. We might here recall what Coleridge said of first encountering two lines from Wordsworth’s ’Winander Boy’: ’[H]ad I met these lines running wild in the deserts of Arabia, I should have instantly screamed out “Wordsworth!”’ (Coleridge 1956—71, 1: 453).

In an extraordinary essay entitled ’He Stuttered’, Gilles Deleuze describes this sort of signature or singularity in terms of the invention of a new kind of language, a kind of foreign language within a language. He writes:

[A] great writer is always like a foreigner in the language in which he expresses himself, even if this is his native tongue. At the limit, he draws his strength from a mute and unknown minority that belongs only to him. He is a foreigner in his own language: he does not mix another language with his own language, he carves out a nonpreexistent foreign language within his own language. He makes the language itself scream, stutter, stammer, or murmur. (Deleuze 1998, 109—10)

This foreign language is never purely the writer’s own, of course: it is always made up of words from elsewhere and might always turn out to have been the wrong language. Such is the anguish and uncertainty evoked by Roland Barthes when he writes, of himself, as if he were a character in a novel: ’Writing a certain text, he experiences a guilty emotion of jargon, as if he could not escape from a mad discourse no matter how individual he made his utterance: and what if all his life he had chosen the wrong language!’ (Barthes 1977c, 114—15).

· 5. Creative writing happens, if it happens, in a strange nursery. This is another way in which, as a course or subject, ’creative writing’ inhabits a quite disturbing and peculiar place within the university: the university is perhaps no longer to be understood as an adult venue, or even as a place in which you mature or ’grow up’. As Sigmund Freud remarks in ’Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ (1907): ’[E]very child at play behaves like a creative writer’ (Freud 1985f, 131). The greater the creative artist, in Freud’s view, the more he (or she) remains childlike. As he declares in another essay, on Leonardo da Vinci: ’[A]ll great [artists] are bound to retain some infantile part. Even as an adult [Leonardo] continued to play, and this was another reason why he often appeared uncanny and incomprehensible to his contemporaries’ (Freud 1985g, 220).

· 6. Creative writing, if there is any, is urgent despatch, with radically uncertain address. Paul Celan’s description of a poem as ’a message in a bottle’ (Celan 1986, 34; quoted in Clark 1997, 272) is apt here. A work of creative writing would be a sort of letter, perhaps a letter-bomb. Elizabeth Bowen says of her first experience of reading Rider Haggard’s strange novel She: ’After She … I was prepared to handle any book like a bomb’ (Bowen 1986, 250). If you are thinking of writing a novel, it is ’[n]ot a bad plan to think [it’s] going to be a letter’ (Forster 1976, 162), suggests E.M. Forster — but a letter being read, we might add, after you’re dead. Creative writing: keep it compact, think of that iceberg Ernest Hemingway talked about (seven-eighths of the text should be invisible: see Hemingway 2000, 1694), hurry up, it’s a matter of life and death, write now. As the Jewish proverb has it: ’Sleep faster! We need the pillows’ (quoted in Bloom 1994, 448).

Further reading

The Station Hill Blanchot Reader (1999) brings together an excellent selection of Maurice Blanchot’s fiction as well as of his remarkable meditations on the nature of writing, critical and creative. For two of Barthes’s most influential and provocative essays on the unstable or dissolving boundaries between literature, criticism and theory, see Barthes 1977c, 1981. For three collections of Hélène Cixous’s extraordinary essays on writing, see Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (1993), Stigmata: Escaping Texts (1998) and Volleys of Humanity (2011); for an excellent collection of interviews with her, on and around the subject of writing, see White Ink (2008). Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical (Deleuze 1998) contains numerous fascinating pieces, including Literature and Life’, ’He Stuttered’ and ’The Exhausted’. Timothy Clark’s The Theory of Inspiration (Clark 1997) offers a rich and stimulating historical and theoretical account of the nature of inspiration and literary composition, especially from the eighteenth century to the present. For an important broader account of creativity, especially engaging with more scientific perspectives, see Margaret A. Boden’s The Creative Mind (Boden 2004). On the concept and practice of metafiction, there is a good collection of essays entitled Metafiction, edited by Mark Currie (1995). On issues relating to literature, politics and the university, see Derrida’s brilliant essay on ’The University without Condition’ (Derrida 2002a) and, more specifically in the context of creative writing in the United States, Mark McGurl’s magisterial The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009). On the relationship between creative writing and psychoanalysis, see Freud’s ’Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ (Freud 1985f); and on Freud himself as a writer, see Mahony (1987), Edmundson (1990) and Young (1999). Finally, for an excellent anthology of essays and other writings in the field of creative and critical writing, see Benson and Connors, eds., Creative Criticism (2014).