TEXT review


A decidedly human event

review by Dallas J Baker

 

inside-creative-writing.jpg

Graeme Harper (ed)
Inside Creative Writing: Interviews with Contemporary Writers
Palgrave MacMillan, London 2012
ISBN 9780230212176
Pb 213pp AUD29.95

 

Inside Creative Writing: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, by Graeme Harper, features interviews with high profile writers, including Philip Pullman, Nadine Gordimer, Kate Grenville, Robert Pinsky and Ian Banks about their writing practices and processes. Designed as a resource for other creative writers, the book encompasses subjects ranging from motivation to creativity, planning, and the various stages of writing itself.

Inside Creative Writing deviates from a number of other texts about writing by seeking answers to key questions about writing as a practice. Rather than looking at ‘the completed works of creative writers’ (1) to understand writing practice, Harper investigates the acts and processes that writers employ as they engage in their craft. Harper justifies this by arguing that ‘creative writing does not begin with these works: creative writing does not begin where it ends’ (1).

Harper explains that Inside Creative Writing is about the ‘human activity of creative writing’ (1) and the knowledge that informs and sustains this human activity. Harper’s approach is simple: ask a range of writers, both established and emerging, the same questions about their writing practice and the ways that they approach or support their work. These questions are diverse in their scope: the authors first reflect on their earliest motivations for wanting to write; the final question asks how they feel about the future of writing in our rapidly changing social and technological environment.

At the heart of many of the questions however is the underlying importance of creativity. How to understand and discuss creativity emerges as a key thread to Harper’s book. Many of the questions attempt to elucidate what creativity means in the context of a writing life: is it an inborn talent or a learned behaviour? Does it rely on certain behaviours or acts more than on others? How does one sustain creativity and/or enhance it?

Surprisingly, there is a significant coherence between the answers to these and other questions among the selected authors. Although the authors use varying ways to describe their views on writing and creativity, on close reading there is much agreement from one writer to another. To my mind, this points to the now general agreement among professional (non-academic) creative writers on many practice related questions. After all, professional authors are asked to discuss their practice ad infinitum in television interviews and at writers’ festivals. The result is that a discourse has emerged which is based on their own private writing experience reinforced by their peer’s private writing experience. I wonder, however, whether or not the personal experience of writers is enough to provide real critical insight into the practice of writing.

Having said that, for the most part, Inside Creative Writing does provide a lot of very useful, articulate and fresh information. The book offers valuable insights into how successful writers work and reveals that certain commonalities among these writers’ processes may be components in that success. Much of the value of this book lies in Harper’s astute analysis and handling of the interview material. His understanding of the domain of creative writing means that the answers of the writers are organised and contextualised in a way that brings out the subtleties and richness in the responses. In this sense, Harper brings to the discussion the level of critical rigour needed to understand the complexity of writing behaviour.

Inside Creative Writing does however point to the need for more evidence-based research into writing practice and creativity that goes beyond personal or professional accounts. This is not a criticism of Harper’s book per se, but rather a criticism of the methodological approaches dominant in the discipline. Creative writing needs to address these debates with not only theoretical and creative responses. It is my opinion that the discipline needs to embrace more rigorous, evidence-based approaches as well. This is highlighted by the discussion on creativity in Inside Creative Writing. This discussion shows that many of the authors interviewed have not looked very deeply into creativity and hold largely unexamined views on the subject. This is the weakness inherent in relying principally on subjective assessments rather than evidence of a more rigorous kind. Take these responses about creativity from Ian Banks and Jack Epps Jr. as an example:

‘As usual in such matters, it’s partly something you’re born with and something you can choose to develop as a skill.’ – Ian Banks (55)

‘I think creativity comes from letting go and not thinking.... Young writers should rely on their instincts. You can build instincts by watching the right movies, reading a ton of screenplays, but eventually you have to believe in your instincts and trust them.’ – Jack Epps Jr. (57)

Here we see both Banks and Epps agreeing that creativity is an inborn quality that can then be developed. This seems to me to fly in the face of current evidence-based research on creativity (Sawyer 2006). This evidence-based research suggests that creativity is a wholly learned capability (Baker 2011). Creativity is not an inborn talent or some kind of genius (Baker 2011) that merely needs to be honed. It’s an acquired skill. The evidence also maintains that creativity is not a solitary endeavour but a highly social one that is far more outward than inward looking (Sawyer 2006). Many of the authors imply exactly the opposite. I interpret this as indicating that the consensus of professional (non-academic) authors is based on some unexamined assumptions. Clearly there are limits to relying on practitioners like Banks and Epps, intelligent and extremely skilled writers though they are, to understand creativity. This is not to say that non-academic writers cannot understand creativity, just that to understand creativity, writers, and especially academic writers, need to look beyond their own personal experience. For these reasons, I would have liked Harper to interview some noted academics from both the creative writing discipline and creativity research.

On the whole, Inside Creative Writing is a valuable resource that provides an insightful discussion on core topics in the Creative Writing discipline. Harper is always at the leading edge of thinking within the discipline and his comments and analysis of the interview responses are erudite, insightful and, yes, creative. It is also an exceedingly well-written and articulate work. Inside Creative Writing should therefore be on the must read list of any academic or student in the discipline.

 

Works cited

 

 

 

Dr Dallas J Baker is an academic teaching and researching in creative writing and cultural studies in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University. He is also a writer with creative work published in a number of journals and anthologies. His book, America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South was published in 2011.

 

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TEXT
Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
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General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
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