review by Susan Taylor Suchy
According to Michael Dean Clark, Trent Hergenrader and Joseph Rein, the editors of Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy, while recent creative writing scholarship examines the purpose and effectiveness of teaching models and methods, it is yet to examine the impact of digital technology on the discipline. The editors seek to remedy this gap.
The book’s main aims are to help teachers of creative writing engage with digital technology, utilise collaboration, and become more interdisciplinary in pedagogy and practice. These outcomes would help creative writing fulfill a vital role in the university, because digital technology has inherent artistic, creative and communicative qualities, the editors argue. However, they elaborate, such outcomes cannot be realised as long as the field lingers in a print culture that fails to utilise digital tools and doesn’t embrace the vast array of digital genres. 
Engaging with the digital age is no small challenge as the current state of creative writing programs can still be described as ‘rather low-tech and quaintly humanistic’ (McGurl 21). To address the subject and try to persuade teachers to move forward, the editors have included essays from preeminent scholars in the field of creative writing studies including Graeme Harper, Anna Leahy, and Adam Koehler. Timothy Mayers and Stephanie Vanderslice provide endorsements for the book. To enhance the discussion, the book also includes essays by researchers who approach creative writing and digital studies from a range of other perspectives including game-based learning, computer science, composition, library science, and graphic design.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section, ‘Digital influences on creative writing studies’ provides various contexts for examination: envisioning creative writing from the perspective of ‘synaptic’ response (Harper); post human theory (Koehler) craft principles (Leahy and Dechow); gaming (Hergenrader); skill training for marketability (Clark); and aesthetics (Amato and Fleisher). The second section ‘Using digital tools as creative practice’, considers pedagogical applications such as online teaching (Rein); social media for identity construction and authorship (Adsit); and social media microblogging (Scheg). Additional essays afford insight into Creative Writing’s relationship to computer code (Brown); programming language (Reed); Netprov (Networked Improvisational Language) (Wittig and Marino); digital storytelling platforms (Clancy); and new media (Letter).
To open the discussion, Harper, in ‘Creative writing in the age of synapses’, challenges creative writing teachers and practitioners, as he so often does, to consider what it means to be a creative writer, asking us to re-see ourselves, re-imagine our creative writer selves in the context of new circumstances, new environments, and to consider what the opportunities are that come with the situation.
Koehler’s essay, ‘Screening subjects: Workshop pedagogy, media ecologies, and (new) student subjectivities’, follows and reminds us of the field’s history, and validates the importance of that history as we move into the digital age. Koehler seeks to frame a digital creative writing pedagogy, and to understand the potential contributions of creative writing programs.
An understanding of the boundaries that differentiate creative writing from other disciplines and the goals of its pedagogy are also recognised by others such as Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher in ‘Two creative writers look askance at digital composition (crayon on paper)’ and Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow in ‘Concentration, form, and ways of (digitally) seeing’. This awareness is important for persuading the audience to embrace digital tools as other essays challenge the discipline’s borders.
Helpfully, a number of the essays directly address the fears and concerns of those who are resistant to a move. For example, Leahy and Dechow express concern about the dangers of distraction, of the multi-tasking, non-linear challenges of the digital environment. Initially unsure of how to accommodate the digital in pedagogical practice, the authors lead the reader on a journey: to embrace the play and enjoyment of the digital, and to examine a greater significance for creative writing within the university. In ‘The text is where it’s at’, Christina Clancy describes her own concerns and lack of confidence before describing how and why she took the plunge and some of the lessons she learned in a training workshop and applied in the classroom.
There are many other useful examples of how to proceed. For example Abigail G Scheg, in ‘Reconsidering the online writing workshop with #25wordstory’, explains working with Twitter and short form story writing. Joseph Rein, in ‘Lost in digital translations: Navigating the online creative writing classroom’, mentors the uninitiated about teaching online and draws from a careful analysis of his own experiences. The essay alternates between identifying problems and offering solutions and provides clear, concise directions of how to best engage students.
While all the essays encourage more engagement with the digital world, some push harder at the boundaries of traditional creative writing, for example, Rob Wittig and Mark C Marino’s ‘Acting Out: Netprov in the classroom’ is played out in an Advanced Writing course at University of Southern California. The improvisational and performance aspects are interesting but not typical. Likewise, the idea of engaging with video games is not traditionally found in creative writing but rather in Media Studies. Trent Hergenrader, an Assistant Professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, researches digital pedagogy, creative writing pedagogy, and game studies (182). His ‘Game spaces: Videogames as story-generating systems for creative writers’ challenges such assumptions as how we define ‘literary’, and what it might mean to work more collaboratively. James J Brown Jr’s ‘Writing with machines: Data and process in Taroko Gorge’ is a fascinating exploration of Nick Montfort’s ‘poetry generator’ to consider how programming might extend what we consider to be creative writing and even challenge romantic authorship notions about solitary genius (134).
Many of the authors are able to convincingly present parallels and similarities that align creative writing and computer programming, digital technology and new media (for example, Leahy and Dechow, Brown, Letter, Reed). The issue of multimodality looms large, but the focus of the articles is to attend to the benefits. For instance, Clancy argues that digital and multimodal forms are useful in engaging students and ultimately serve to bring them back to traditional narrative.
Several essays address the issue of the teacher’s role, how we teach and how we lead. For example, Amato and Fleisher debate teaching expertise when considering multimodal forms; Amy Letter, in ‘Creative writing for new media’, argues that the role of the teacher is to ‘inspire’ (188) the students, ‘coaching and supporting students emotionally’ (186). The goal seems to be to learn how to ‘task-switch and derive creative energy from the technologies’ (188). This, Letter argues, means no hand-holding and, she continues, this is no different than what is done in creative writing traditionally. Michael Dean Clark, in ‘The marketable creative: using technology and broader notions of skill in the fiction course’, argues that collaboration and communication skills are what all students need and that creative writing programs can provide that training, although they have not traditionally done so. His hybrid classes serve as a model for how that outcome might be approached.
While all of the essays are interesting, not all the suggestions are realistic for many classrooms or perhaps for the discipline. One problem is implementation (Amato and Fleisher). Another issue is that creative writing is an intense training in itself (Letter). New media training introduces more demands. Aaron A Reed’s ‘Telling Stories with Maps and rules: Using the interactive fiction language “Inform 7” in a creative writing workshop’ is a fascinating study and reveals similarities between programming and writing. However, as Reed points out, the time needed to learn the computer language is prohibitive (150). Additionally, the issue of pedagogical borders is not easily resolved. This is evident when Janelle Adsit proposes, in ‘Giving an account of oneself: Teaching identity construction and authorship in creative nonfiction and social media’, that in the digital age ‘marketing should be a subject of analysis in the creative writing classroom’ (110). Adsit’s comment indicates two important issues for the field: (1) there is a different kind of marketplace, and (2) there are barriers to that space. The marketplace relationship needs further examining.
Can creative writing teachers move beyond fear to create a vital discipline by using digital technology? Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy certainly offers a starting place and is a valuable resource for pedagogy and practice toward that end. A website provides additional tips for teaching. The concerns mentioned above represent an important part of the discussion that the authors have initiated. The book offers a strong starting place from which to consider how creative writing might be vibrant within the university and fulfill its role in educating students from all fields – to effectively and creatively communicate ideas through training in both creative writing and digital experiences.
Susan Taylor Suchy is an author and academic working at the University of Western Australia. She is currently researching the relationship of the discipline of creative writing to the digital marketplace and how the creative writing student creates within that space.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste