Creative Writing 102: Critical Theory-The (Im)possibility of Application

FOREWORD



Creative Writing 102 articles are a continuation of the previous Creative Writing 101 series and serve as one of the academic courses in the field of Creative Writing Studies and Literary Theory. The course, which is a fundamental guide within the scope of general knowledge compared to the technical knowledge of Creative Writing Studies and Literary Theory, also addresses students and the general readership alike. With this goal in mind, the article has been written in very plain and basic English to convey just the necessary understanding of Creative Writing and provide an introduction.


Creative Writing 102 is mainly divided into five chapters including:


- The Screenplay - Blending Screenwriting with Literary Theory


- In the Realm of Travel Writing - Immortalizing Stories in Nonfiction


- The Digitalization of Creative Writing Through Video Games


- Critical Theory - The (Im)possibility of Application


- Unraveling Creativity and Humor in Comedians' Personalities


[Book cover of Creative Writing for Critical Thinking: Creating a Discoursal Identity by Hélène Edberg].


“Studying theory is an important way of bringing together Literary Studies and Creative Writing. Theory enriches both creative and critical investigations and while the use of theory is considered de rigueur in Literary Studies, in Creative Writing, the value of theory has been hotly contested.” (Atherton, 2010, p. 5).

Critical theory and literary criticism are used for interpreting and analyzing the content of literary productions while creative writing targets the written outcomes of writers in terms of creativity, imagination, and originality. In the fourth article of the 102 series of Creative Writing, the concern is about questioning whether there is a possibility to incorporate critical theory to the teaching and practice of creative writing in higher education; or rather an impossibility of application due to the difference of the two disciplines. In this sense, to what extent and how can critical theory be applied to the practice of creative writing?


Critical theory and Creative writing – a relationship of interconnectedness or unrelatedness?


The adoption of critical theory to the discipline of creative writing has been controversial to many scholars and teacher-writers in higher education, questioning the efficiency and usage of the thematic content of literary criticism in the teaching of creative writing in classes. Some scholars are in favor of incorporating critical theory to creative writing while others refute such practice to preserving the authenticity of creative writing. Three basic fundamentals, including “freedom”, “receptivity to the new and unfamiliar”, and “experimentation” shape the discipline of creative writing by distancing its content from “the philosophical, social, historical, cultural, and psychological apparatus of critical theory.” (Ramey, p.46). In other words, the dissociation of literature, philosophy and other areas of humanities like psychology, sociology, and history in the Creative writing studies is thought to limit and hinder the writer’s creativity and writing process. Thus, the writer is thought to be deprived of guidance and in this way he or she is unable to produce, what Ramey (2007) refers to as, a “fine new literature”.


[Book cover of Thinking Creative writing Critique from the International New Writing Journal

edited by Graeme Harper].



The impossibility to write or create content is explained by the unpleasant experience of the ‘blank page’, whereby writers or students feel uncreative and powerless to put any ideas in the shape of words on a white paper or a blank Word document, explains Atherton (2010). Hence, they are overwhelmed by a feeling of blockage and feel trapped in the process of writing. At the Australian University of Melbourne, a literary approach to the teaching of poetry is used by Professor Kevin Brophy in his creative writing class. The experience of the ‘blank page’ is studied and examined in W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Balloon of the Mind” as an instance to demonstrate the complexity of the task of writing. In this sense, Pr. Brophy’s reference to Yeats’ poem is made on purpose to raise his students’ awareness of the process of writing in terms of processing ideas into the mind, structuring and organizing what to write and how to proceed with writing.


Coupled with the example of Pr. Brophy’s pedagogy, more insights on the creative process of writing are given by Atherton (2010) when she points out the interconnectedness between theories of the sublime and writing. The sublimity of creation undergoes a state of chaos before reaching a state of delight, whereby the writer experiences a certain kind of fright, frustration, and bewilderment in not being able to create. In this sense, the writer is transported by a series of mixed-up feelings and oscillates between the ability and inability of creation until comes a moment of illumination and inspiration enabling, thus, the writer to express ideas through words. Therefore, the incorporation of critical theory to creative writing studies is described as crucial as it “allows for the enrichment and layering of creative and analytical writing.” (Atherton, 2010).


“Literary Studies elevates creative writing to the highest level by studying and analysing creative texts; creative writing is similarly enhanced when it is underpinned by literary theory.” (Atherton, 2010, p .2).

Not many universities are in favor of adopting critical theory and literary criticism to the teaching of creative writing, for many teacher-writers and scholars think that creative writing is far distinct from English. In other terms, English is given more importance as a field of study and the inclusion of critical theory to its curriculum in higher education is justified by the fact that theory is de facto considered to be part of English studies. However, this claim is refused by other scholars. According to them, critical theory used in the field of English studies is by no means a part of it. It is an independent discipline and a mixture of other field of studies, such as philosophy, psychology, and sociology, combined to provide criticism and analytical explanations of literary works. Any attempt at separating both disciplines would be qualified as “artificial” and “unconstructive”, argues Ramey (2007). For this reason, the debate over adopting creative writing to critical theory or rather separating it from literary criticism is still open to discussion and further examination of teaching programs at higher education.


[Book cover of Creative Writing with Critical Theory: Inhabitation

edited by Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz].



At some point, there are several universities worldwide whose curriculum programs have been re-designed for the benefit of prioritizing critical theory in the teaching of creative writing. For instance, the MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Sussex promotes the interconnectedness between theory and practice through an emphasis on critical writings to empowering students with enough knowledge and mastery for writing and thinking in a creative way. Moreover, the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland provides students with a literary program in the study of creative writing and elaboration of academic projects on poetry and fiction. Not only such programs aim to improve the students’ writing skills, they also cover, most importantly, a great deal of theoretical and historical framework related to the students’ discipline for a better quality of training. In this way, creative writing students and contemporary creative writers in general, explains Ramey (2007), are tempted by experimenting and using “techniques such as self-reflexivity, pastiche, parody, irony and other frame-breaking operations,” in their writings and creative process of literary composition.


“At California State University, Los Angeles, MA students in the Creative Writing Option are required to enrol in classes in Historical Criticism and Contemporary Critical Approaches and take classes in a variety of periods and genres of English, American and world literature.” (Ramey, 2007, p. 46).

How is critical theory taught in creative writing classes?


Postgraduate students of creative writing studies have pre-constructed opinions about critical theory as “didactic, political, polemical, rigid, and impenetrably jargon-laden,” argues Ramey (2007). They think that blending creative writing with critical theory is a useless and threatening method of learning as it would jeopardize their ability to produce any literary writings and put their imagination and creativity at risk. In fact, the common concerns that students express are “If I know too much, I won’t be able to write naturally,” and “It will take away my creativity,” describes Ramey (2007). She lists out three preliminary questions that any creative writing student should ask in class before proceeding with writing. The first question is “What are a writer’s responsibilities?”, supposedly helping the student to find out the motives of becoming a writer and the main tasks any writer has to follow and prioritize. The second question is “Why do you write?”, which incites the student to question himself or herself about the reasons of as well as the need for creating stories, in general. The third and last question is “Whom do you write for?”, which targets not only the writer’s readership in terms of gender, but also implicitly points out the readers’ age and interests.


[Book cover of Creative Writing and the New Humanities by Paul Dawson].



To undo the traditional thoughts about the triviality of combining critical theory with creative writing, Ramey (2007) proposes to teach her students the basics of theory by referring to passages of significant literary and philosophical figures, including Horace, Dante, Lucretius, Quintilian, Tertullian, Plotinus, Longinus, Plato and Aristotle. Ramey’s method of teaching aims to demonstrate the importance and relevance of ancient literature in terms of concepts, themes, and reflections in contemporary literature and how it guides, teaches and impacts new creative writers to produce innovative, complex, and novel literature. Also, acquiring more knowledge about history of literary criticism and theory is required, if not compulsory, for the grasp of the discipline of creative writing, claims Ramey (2007).


“Critical theory for creative writers reflects who we are as individuals in relation to the literary examples of the past. It is a way of entering into tradition in order to express our unique voices and visions in the present.” (Ramey, 2007, p. 50).

In a unit of her MA class Critical Theory for Creative Writers, Ramey (2007) shows the link between critical theory and the practice of creative writing by dividing the course into four main sections – a lecture, a writing assignment, a discussion, and a workshop. A list of selected readings of Longinus’ five notions of ‘Sublimity’, Sappho’s poem “Fragment thirty-one”, the section twenty-two of Aristotle’s Poetics, a section of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and Karl Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), followed by another literary representation and Marxist examination of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605) through Edward Bond’s Lear (1971). The selected themes are utilized to prompt students to interact through discussion and debate. Thus, for the sake of producing critical and creative writings, students are encouraged to criticize the various thematic content of the course. Hence, it paves the way to a better understanding of the interconnectedness between critical theory and creative writing.


On the whole, teaching critical theory and literary criticism in creative writing classes is still subjected to debates in many institutions in the world. Many scholars and teacher-writers are against the idea of linking the content of theory to the practice of creative writing, for the literary and non-literary themes of theory are considered to be unimportant to be taught to creative writing students. Others, however, are aware of the utility and relevance of critical theory to the discipline of creative writing. The inclusion of modern and experimental methods to their courses are made to help, guide, and teach new writers to produce better creative and critical writings by reproducing other versions of ancient and canonical literature.



Image Sources

Dawson, P. & Routledge. (2004, December 9). [Book cover of Creative Writing and the New Humanities by Paul Dawson]. Routledge.com. https://www.routledge.com/Creative-Writing-and-the-New-Humanities/Dawson/p/book/9780415332217


Edberg, H. & Palgrave Macmillan. (2018, February 8). [Book cover of Creative Writing for Critical Thinking: Creating a Discoursal Identity by Hélène Edberg]. Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Writing-Critical-Thinking-Discoursal-ebook/dp/B079PPGQ26


Hecq, D., Novitz, J., Hills, L., Matthews, A., Bacon, E., Harper, G., Pittaway, G., Coles, K., Disney, D., West, S., Hetherington, P., Munden, P., Hogan, E., Jackson, A., Kocher, S., & Walker, A. (2018, September 26). [Book cover of Creative Writing with Critical Theory: Inhabitation edited by Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz]. Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Writing-Critical-Theory-Inhabitation/dp/1780240686


Routledge, & Harper, G. (2020, December 18). [Book cover of Thinking Creative writing Critique from the International New Writing Journal edited by Graeme Harper]. Routledge.com. https://www.routledge.com/Thinking-Creative-Writing-Critique-from-the-international-New-Writing-journal/Harper/p/book/9780367730543


References

Atherton, C. & University of Melbourne. (2010). Sleeping with the enemy: creative writing and theory in the academy. Aawp.Org.Au. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.aawp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Atherton.pdf


cassandra-atherton.com. (n.d.). Cassandra Atherton. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://cassandra-atherton.com/about-cassandr


mup.com.au. (n.d.). Kevin Brophy. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://www.mup.com.au/authors/kevin-brophy


Ramey, L. (2007). Creative Writing and Critical Theory. In S. Earnshaw (Ed.), The Handbook of Creative Writing (pp. 42–53). Edinburgh University Press.


Additional Readings

Lamarino, D. L. (2015). Codifying the Creative Self: Conflicts of Theory and Content in Creative Writing. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 5(6), 1123–1128. https://www.academypublication.com/issues2/tpls/vol05/06/01.pdf


Yeats, W. B. (n.d.). The Balloon of the Mind by W.B. Yeats. Poets.Org. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://poets.org/poem/balloon-mind


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Neyra Behi

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