TEXT Vol 12 No 2 October 2008


Writing: the 'stir and growth' of ideas


Matthew Arnold is a twenty-first century thinker, though he doubles his identity, being at the same time a nineteenth-century writer. He is someone who could be sitting in the office next door to yours or mine: a poet, a cultural critic, and someone who both did and didn't have a place in formal educational institutions. He taught school for a while, worked as a school inspector (who has ever made a living purely as poet?), and ended up as professor of poetry at no less an institution than Oxford (yes: Important Universities have indeed respected creative practice; and the Oxford Chair of Poetry, established in 1708, is still extant). In the Preface to his Essays in Criticism, however, he describes himself 'as a plain citizen of the republic of letters, and not as an office-bearer in a hierarchy [Oxford University]' (Arnold 1910: viii). Arnold did not find a perfect fit with the academy, but still left behind him a legacy of words, a wealth of creative and critical works.

He was one of us; and, like one of us, he both valued and distanced himself from the identity of academic. It is worth reflecting on the careers of those like Arnold who preceded us, especially given the distressing news (reported recently in the Australian) about the departures from Melbourne University's creative writing program of a number of members of the community of writing program academics. Journalist Andrew Trouson names and quotes Marion M Campbell, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Robyn Ferrell and Sari Smith, all of whom have known about writing, have written gloriously, and no doubt have inspired and encouraged writing students in the course of their careers to date. Vale. For now, anyway.

Trouson makes the point that they 'blame a lack of research recognition for creative writing that has left them demoralised and overworked', and he quotes Marion Campbell as saying, 'we left because we felt burned out, exhausted and undervalued, and extremely frustrated' (Trounson 2008: 27). This experience has been canvassed in TEXT, and emerges from time to time in papers presented at AAWP conferences, as well as being something with which most writing academics are very familiar. It is, we suggest, an issue of burning importance at the present, especially given the looming presence of the ERA (r.i.p. the RQF).

So, what might Matthew Arnold say about the problems facing creative writers in the academy, about the (im)balance of creative and critical work? Arnold writes, in one of his better-known essays, 'The function of criticism at the present time', about the problem of relating the two modes of thinking and, of course, the two modes of writing. He points out (in a way that suggests he had read Paul Carter's 2004 Material thinking) that the material used to make creative work - in this case, 'literature' - is ideas:

we may lay it down as certain that in modern literature no manifestation of the creative power not working with [current ideas] can be very important or fruitful. And I say current at the time, not merely accessible at the time; for creative literary genius does not principally show itself in discovering new ideas, that is rather the business of the philosopher. The grand work of literary genius is a work of synthesis and exposition, not of analysing and discovery; its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them; of dealing divinely with these ideas, presenting them in the most effective and attractive combinations, - making beautiful works with them, in short. (Arnold 1910: 5)

Arnold should be taken to task for some of this. The statement 'the grand work of literary genius is a work of synthesis and exposition, not of analysing and discovery' is far too prescriptive for current thinking, and is awfully neoclassicist. That writers should be denied the role 'of analysing' is wrong-headed; creative writing is considerably invested in perceiving and analysing. Perhaps 'making discoveries' is a lot to ask of a writer, but why shouldn't they try? Given the shifts in form, use of language, use of media and approach to subject matters and to social questions, discoveries are in fact being made all the time, in writing and by writers. Besides, why should analysis and discovery be allowed only to philosophers? - many of whom have combined their philosophy with their creative writing or creative writing's techniques. And talking about 'grand work' is, anyway, dubious, and terribly nineteenth century.

So all right, Arnold isn't entirely a twenty-first century thinker (after all, this essay was first published in 1865); his writing and the ideas exposed in that writing are inevitably dressed in nineteenth-century logic. Nonetheless, his are fighting words, for anyone currently in the position of Professor of Poetry (or other creative writing academic position) because he identifies writing as an intellectual, as well as imaginative and technical, activity. Our task, Arnold suggests, is not in the first instance to undertake conventional research - which he names here 'discovery' and 'analysis' - but to inflect and reflect, and hence to offer commentary on, contemporary intellectual ideas. The work we do as writers, for Arnold, is not the making of new ideas as philosophers do, but responses to, inflections of, those ideas. We are tasked, Arnold writes, to contribute to 'a stir and growth everywhere' in society, to make present the 'order of ideas' that is circulating at the present time (1910: 6). We can only do this, he continues, if we immerse ourselves in ideas, and in discernment of those ideas (1910: 8).

What might this mean for us, 'demoralised and overworked' academics in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Perhaps that it is worth continuing to make the case that the knowledge we generate in our practice has value, though it may have a different epistemological and methodological approach from other disciplines. Perhaps that it is worth digging into our past, to see how others handled the exigencies of their situation. This has been done to some extent by David Myers, Paul Dawson and others but for the most part they focus on institutional arrangements; we suggest here that we would also benefit from investigating what writers in previous periods thought about writing and/as intellectual practice, and how they carved out spaces for themselves in that intellectual field. Throughout history, as we know, creative writers have doubled as critics and thinkers. How might we better tap into this wellspring of their experience to find ways in which we can satisfy the universities' need for reportable research publications, while keeping our focus on what matters to us - the 'stir and growth' of ideas expressed in creative language?

This issue of TEXT is full of stir and growth. The essays published here comprise a body of work that explores the pedagogical and institutional aspects of writing and writing programs, and both the writing life and the process of making work.

One thread traced by a number of contributors to this issue is the place of writing in the academy. Significantly, these papers expose the points of intersection and convergence for writing and writers. Bunty Avieson explores the relationships between and the parallels in critical and creative work. Locating her thinking in the current state of things - the world of convergence, the economic imperatives - she makes a case for the transferability of writing skills. Wendy Beck and her co-authors offer an account of how they formed and have sustained an academic writing group. While they are not creative writers or members of writing programs, their paper lays out a model that could usefully be adopted by creative writers in the academy, particularly as we seek to position ourselves in the research evaluation stakes. Claire Woods observes the intersections between writing and so many other disciplines in the academy and, drawing on a recent study, examines students' perceptions of their experience and their needs as undergraduate writers.

Several papers pursue questions of writing pedagogy: Dominique Hecq takes up the field that is Lacan, and explores how a Lacanian psychoanalytical approach can enrich the teaching of creative writing, and Andy Kissane confronts the issue of violence in writing, and particularly how this can be managed, directed and supported in writing workshops. Research and teaching are, of course, closely intertwined, and several papers take up the question of research. Emily Sutherland sets out contemporary thinking about the relationship between investigation and changes of environment, and then, drawing on her own practice, argues for the value of travel as a research mode. Nigel Krauth too addresses the writer in an environment, and proposes a phenomenological approach, one in which writers are invigorated and enlivened by walking: walking and writing, walking as writing. In the April 2008 issue of TEXT, Paul Dawson published what he called a polemical critique of practice-led research as a basis for disciplinary identity. In this issue, Camilla Nelson takes up the gauntlet and offers a 'polemical' response to Dawson's paper, outlining approaches to research and practice and how they operate in the pedagogical space of the Faculty.

The third thread in this issue is that of the practice of writing. Kevin Brophy discusses style in writing, the relation between language, communication and writing, and 'worries at' the question of what it means for a style to work, and how writers achieve a quality of aliveness. Janene Carey's essay outlines an innovative way of dealing, creatively and ethically, with other people's stories in the account of her research into palliative caregivers. Jen Webb, in an essay that is also a review of the first publications from the John Leonard Press, discusses the world of small and independent presses, and where poetry fits in the scheme of things.

As well, there are reviews of recent publications of interest to TEXT readers, and poems by Christopher Kelen, BN Oakman and Maria Takolander.

List of works cited
Arnold, Matthew 1910 Essays in criticism, London: Macmillan return to text
Carter, Paul 2004 Material thinking: the theory and practice of creative research, Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing return to text
Trounson, Andrew 2008 'Departures speak volumes', The Australian, 24 September: 27 return to text

Jen Webb and Nigel Krauth



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Vol 12 No 2 October 2008
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb