TEXT review


Taking writing as knowledge

review by Shane Strange

 

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Tara Mokhtari
The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing
Bloomsbury Academic, London 2015
ISBN 9781472578433
Pb 257pp AUD29.95

 

The question as to whether creative writing can be taught – indeed, whether it can be taught at university – has been persistent: there continues to be a scepticism that writing can be more than simply a craft, more than a solitary pursuit; that one can learn writing like other forms of ‘real’ knowledge.

Of course, creative writing can, should be, and is taught – and very successfully. But there is an ongoing tension as to how creative writing orients itself as a form of knowledge. That is, when we teach creative writing, are we teaching it as a craft, with learnable and apparent skills and techniques? Or, as it resides in the academy, does it have the capacity to generate research and knowledge, and if so, what form of knowledge, what form of research?

While these important concerns continue to generate discussion, most introductory books on the subject of creative writing have erred on the craft side of this equation, with the discussions of character, structure and plot, the exhortation to reading, the desultory nod to newer forms of writing, and the (let’s be honest) hit-or-miss writing exercises. On this score, Tara Mokhtari’s The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing doesn’t seem to veer too greatly from the formula: there is a section on narrative structure; a chapter on digital writing; a nod to writing for performance. The writing exercises are neatly boxed at the end of each section; with further discussion ideas listed under the title of ‘Workshop’.

From this perspective, one might make the mistake of thinking that, like so many other books of this sort, this book is aimed at beginning writers. But this volume is aimed at the beginning student of writing, and as such aligns its content with the expectations and requirements of students undertaking writing as an academic discipline. 

Hence the book begins by framing writing as a form of knowledge:

New knowledge begins to materialize through the ways you bend your memories and imagine new possibilities in worlds separate from the one you live in. Simultaneously, the discovery of the process of turning existing knowledge into new knowledge through the written word bears more knowledge still. (5-6)

Clearly, this isn’t a book about craft with a knowledge emphasis awkwardly amended to it. The introduction and the first chapter of the book (called ‘Writing and Knowledge’ no less) cycles through a more complex story about what creative writing is and what it can do in the context of the limits of, and contributions to knowledge. This is something that craft-oriented creative writing books, with their well-worn statements about ‘writing what you know’ and ‘being creative’, do not deliver. Mokhtari’s approach offers a breath of fresh air: in a straightforward and supportive fashion, she presents many of the ideas that need to be introduced to those beginning a writing degree, while deflating preconceived notions about creative writing.

Next, Mokhtari provides a reasonably thorough but fairly standard exposure to many of the terms and ideas behind creative writing in its varying forms. Although The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing is clearly meant to embody a kind of ‘learning through doing’ ethos, one of my key critiques of the book is that it relies far too heavily on exercises, at times shying away from introducing a potentially more nuanced discussion of the forms it tackles, and therefore risks appearing at times a little superficial.

This criticism is partially overcome by the final chapter ‘Critique and Exegesis’. Mokhtari reminds us that the critical/exegetical requirements of writing degrees can be a ‘bubble-burster’ for writing students, then proceeds to  outline precisely what a critical piece of writing requires, and how it can be achieved in practical terms: by structuring an essay, doing research, identifying discursive writing techniques – essentially all the skills we want our students to be able to use to support and enhance their developing writing practices, while reinforcing writing as a knowledge discipline. The section on the exegesis, however, is too narrowly defined and, in my view, far too conservative. Creative writing studies have moved on from wanting an exegesis to be just a literary analysis of the work they’ve just produced. In fact, I would argue that nothing energising comes from the ‘novel plus exegesis’ type of thesis. I’m reminded though, that this book is for beginning students, and to have the exegesis introduced at all, even in this basic way, is a big step.

I think that one of the benefits of the academic growth of creative writing (in the Australian academy particularly) has been the push towards seeing writing as a form of interdisciplinary research rather than an institutionalised production house for practitioners. Books like Mokhtari’s take this engagement seriously and fundamentally, working outwards from the space that the discipline of creative writing has carved within the academy. That it does so in good faith and without scepticism is a boon.

The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing does much to situate creative writing as a knowledge form, and thus validates to students that what they are doing is research. Though the Introduction is not perfect, it is satisfying to see this perspective taken seriously in an introductory text.

 

 

Shane Strange is a doctoral candidate in writing at the University of Canberra where he also tutors and lectures in writing and literary studies. His research interests include creative labour and cultural work; subjectivity and creative practice and cultural representations of the city. He is a writer of essays, short fiction and creative non-fiction and now, prose poetry.

 

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TEXT
Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
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