Archive for June, 2013

A Brief History of Creative Writing’s Academic Origins

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Today I started reading D.G. Myers The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880First of all, this title is a bit deceptive since Myers does discuss events prior to 1880, but these events are important to note since they brought about the creation of English Composition at Harvard, which in turn had a number of faculty members in those first years that helped bring about Creative Writing as the academic discipline we know today.

One thing I didn’t expect in this reading was the entrance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Address titled, “The American Scholar,” Emerson states “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” This, Myers notes, is the first time we see creative and writing used together as a term, and yet fifty years after this discussion, there was yet to see any evidence of what Emerson was trying to point his listener’s toward: a more humanistic approach to English. (To add: Emerson also discussed “symbolic sight” by which poets reveal the spirit within matter, so I suppose I really shouldn’t be surprised at finding Emerson is a part of all this. Thank you, Emerson. I owe you one.)

While Emerson wasn’t turning toward the concept of Creative Writing as we understand it today, he was trying to steer students away from the then present teachings of Philology, which focused on studying English as a language, in all its practicality. Literature was only taught to examine language and rhetoric, and not taught to examine the spiritual, or more humanistic or artistic approaches to that literature. This, of course, grew out of things like Darwinism and the importance of rational, scientific discourse that everyone saw as important in a good education. Literary study just wasn’t a part of this.

And what Emerson was trying to point toward was a study of literature we do and know of today, and that is a literary discussion and critique. With this new openness for literature, which became a subject at Harvard with teachers like A.S. Hill, the man who could be considered the “father” of Creative Writing as a discipline Barrett Wendell, Le Baron Briggs, and Charles Copeland, came creative writing.

But when I say out of them came Creative Writing, I am not telling the entire truth since CW wasn’t really a subject yet. Instead, it was English Composition (which formerly had been called the New English). It is simply that the teaching practices of instructors like A.S. Hill, Barrett Wendell, and Charles Copeland helped bring about creative writing as a discipline.

A.S. Hill wrote Principles of Rhetoric (1878) founded on the belleristic notion that elements of literary style are suitable for any type of speech or writing. While Hill was essentialist in his thinking, and embraced ideals of Platonic authorship in that he felt that innate genius had something to do with good writing, he was also moving toward a constructivist approach  in that writing could be seen as a way humans construct a self. Further, there are four features of Hill’s idea of composition that mirror Creative Writing:

  1. Literary over the rhetorical
  2. Writing is thought of in terms of its intrinsic demands
  3. Writing is a constructive activity that depends on judgement and devise a solution to a unique problem of literary form.
  4. Writing is a liberal art, and an effort to retrieve English from Philology and Rhetorical dogmatism.

While it would seem at A.S. Hill could be considered the “father” (and yes, I hate using that word almost as much as you hate seeing it) of Creative Writing, Barrett Wendell appears a more likely candidate. Wendell was hired to teach an advanced composition class at Harvard and in his classes he required his students to write a daily theme, and it is from him that we get this idea of writing a theme in Composition classes. While you may scoff at the daily theme idea, this had an instructional purpose in that they were used as a scaffold to help students write longer, more complex essays, which he had students turn in every two weeks.

What is unique about Wendell in terms of him ushering in a place for Creative writing is that he required the writing his students turned in had an effect on the audience and not just show that students understood the content of the material, which is what other writing teachers asked students to do. And sure, there are rhetorical elements here, such as the notion of audience effect, but this is as rhetorical as Longinus is rhetorical.

Myers argues that Wendell reinvented the teaching of writing in five ways:

  1. Writing was the subject of instruction. Writing was no longer part of another discipline. Instead, writing was its own discipline.
  2. Writing is not just rhetorical, but also about expression, personal or social or otherwise.
  3. Writing Required literary judgement and aesthetic cultivation for it to be successful
  4. Writers should be the teachers of writing
  5. Purpose of writing is not scholarly examination, but also in the making of that writing. In other words, there needs to be a purpose for why the writer constructed the essay as he or she did (hence, the rhetorical mention in #2).

While Wendell did a lot to help us understand English composition, as well as help create a space for creative writing in the university, Le Baron Briggs is sometimes seen as taking his place in this roll call, if you will, but only because he was seen as a better teacher than Wendell and students simply liked him more. In other words, Myers seems to argue that Le Baron Briggs was the “cool kid” everyone wanted to be and people liked him and therefore they wanted to give him the credit for this, but it really wasn’t him. Just laying that down for you all.

The final instructor, Charles Copeland, seemed to argue for a less romantic and and less imaginative type of writing, and looked more to writing as reporting. The only reason Myers seems to mention him is because he told students to write of life as they see it, and that is one of the big tenets in creative writing: a creative writer can only write what they know.

What I found interesting in this reading was how English Composition and its close cousin, Creative Writing, came about because people were sick and tired of the scientific approach to studying literature, which came about because of Darwin, etc. They wanted to harken back to the Romantics and their way of thinking, which of course brings us all back to the idea of Platonic authorship, or the Author-Genius. And really, many of these Harvard instructors mentioned that, but they also can be seen as constructivists as well, as Copeland asks them to write of the world as they see it and Hill believed that writing helped to relay a sense of self. But they were all doing what Emerson had mentioned in his address in 1837: emphasize a creative thinking and a creative writing. Something far removed from the philological study that was ever-present at Harvard until Charles W. Eliot begin his presidency at Harvard and ushered in A.S Hill and others to teach English Composition.


Because you are born with a natural talent, or something

Monday, June 24th, 2013

I’m admittedly a Ken Robinson fangirl. I love his TED Talk on Why Schools Kill Creativity and I have read a number of his books. I’m reading one for my comps this summer and while I pretty much eat it up, there is one thing I am running into again and again in his discussions: the idea you are born with “natural talents.”

While I agree that all humans have the potential to be highly creative and innovative, I don’t quite buy the natural talent discussion. I’d prefer we talk more about innate proclivities toward certain things, like math, music, writing, or dance. We just have an interest in these things. For example, I have always been interested and enjoyed reading, and so writing came as an early interest to me. But writing and reading were not natural talents I had. I just worked at it more because I was interested in those things. I don’t think they were natural talents, just things I was drawn toward. I could have been awful at it, and maybe I was for a while, but i continued to work at it. And sometimes, I still think I am awful at it. I know I am a decent creative writer when it comes to poetry and creative nonfiction. In fact, I don’t have to work as hard at that as others do, but mostly because I spent most of my high school years in my room writing stories, poems, and plays instead of going out and doing whatever my peers did. But when it comes to writing in that academic tone, I have to work much harder, mainly because I didn’t stay up half the night writing in that way, and that is something I have been working on in graduate school.

But we may have interests that lead us toward failures, too. For example, I like Baseball. I enjoy watching or listening to a baseball game, regardless of how well I may like the team or how much I know about the team. Even though I enjoy baseball, I am not meant to play it. At all. Granted, if I had worked at it more, maybe I would have gotten better at it, and that may be the truth. But there were other things hindering it, such as when I was young I was scared of the ball (quite literally) and have no real physical strength to hit the ball very far. If I had worked on building my strength up, and realized the ball was not really that threatening, maybe things would have turned out different. As a child, I also didn’t like the constant socialization that seemed to come with playing sports. It seemed like every day there would be a game or a practice or some such thing. I just really wanted to be left alone. I guess, if there is anything “natural” about any of this, it was that I was an introvert and possibly slightly afraid of any object out of my control, such as that baseball. And really, I just didn’t enjoy being in the game, but I enjoyed watching the game. Two very different things.

So, each time I read about “natural talents” I wonder if people really mean it that way, or if they are just trying to articulate what I did above. But I think people read it to mean it is something we are innately good at, as if we were “born” to do that thing. But I don’t think we are. It is a combination of interest, environment, experience, and ability to work at it, so we need to stop talking about “natural talents” because they really don’t exist.

First poem of summer

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Like all lake side pebbles, stones

I become restless. The sea

is not from here and I am not from the sea


though I know what blue is and

waves that shatter the shore, a slow

shatter of my smooth surface


of the sky that cannot help

but grin back. It is a hopeless

thing, this touch of water


and air. Sometimes I wish

I could float out, far toward an

island that I can never see


and speak some language

so distant and cunning

that I could never get back.


(first draft)

This is what happens when I start reading about postmodern poetry for my comps. I totally start writing poems. It is like when I read about pedagogy, I totally start revising my own. Hopefully all this work pays off as much as any type of note taking would, which of course I am also doing.

The privileged Marginality of Creative Writing

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

I’ve been reading Tim Mayer’s book “(Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies” for my comp exams coming up this academic year. While Mayers does a decent job of giving an overview of why composition in the university became a field in the first place, his discussion of composition and creative writing joining forces to create a more solid space for Creative Writing is not the greatest argument I’ve ever seen. In fact, I feel some of his claims, such as by combining creative writing with composition, the field can become even stronger, is a bit idealistic. Sometimes in his book he even sounds a little like Mr. Rogers telling me it will all be ok and to be a good person. And his statement that “composition studies has reached an important stage in its development and is possibly ready to expand its scope to encompass territory commonly thought only to belong to creative writing” just made me say whut? Isn’t that the other way around, sir?

What I did find interesting, however, was his discussion regarding the marginality of creative writing. In my readings, I am trying to find a way to create a solid, academic space for Creative Writing in the university so that CW can have some “site identity,” a problem described by Graeme Harper and Jeri Kroll in their introduction to the collection Creative Writing: Practice, Research and PedagogyA big target, admittedly, but one that allows me to examine roles of authorship in CW and how new media and multimodal practices can benefit creative writing studies.

When it comes to CW and its marginality, Mayers left me some interesting ideas to think about. For one, he argues that because CW is so marginalized, it can almost do anything and become anything within the university. Of course, this is also a problem, as we see from the lack of site identity CW has in the university. (Again, where do you find CW depts? Almost anywhere and sometimes well-hidden.) He also argues that because of this marginality, the issue of scholarship in CW is something misunderstood. For instance, CW need to publish a lot if they want to have university jobs. (At this point, he also says something awful–he equates CNF with drama and then terms it, “so-called creative nonfiction.” So called? No. Drama? No.) But he states because of this, that CW scholars need to think what they mean by scholarship. He feels that the publishing of short stories, poems, etc would be and should be considered scholarship for the CW.

Well, duh.

But here he is also ignoring the idea of scholarship within the university. Scholarship is often original research. But then, stories, poems, and “drama or so-called creative nonfiction” (Mayers) are often thought to be original, that is unless you are following in the vein of Marjorie Perloff or Kenneth Goldsmith. And we all know that the university system is slow to see change. I mean, look at Blackboard and the technology available within that and then go elsewhere on the internet and see what is available. Yep. Like that.

He does mention, however, that the scholarly analysis of creative production is beginning to emerge, and this can be helpful to Creative Writing as a field. An example of this kind of scholarship is Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice, which is an interesting examination of poetry writing in a culture saturated with other types of media. Another example is Timothy Clark’s The Theory of Inspiration, where he attempts to demystify what it means when writers feel “inspired” which is cool, and I book I want to read even though it isn’t technically on my reading list, but it just sounds so cool, if a little Burkean or even impossible.

What Mayers wants people to realize here is that creative writing is, in all academic terms, serious writing and should be considered so in the academy. But in the same breath, he argues that “creative writing cannot be taught” because “it is so intrinsic to the writer.” Again, I go whut? There is a big problem if you want to create a space for Creative writing in the institution, but then say it cannot be taught because we are all beautiful, unique little snowflakes and no one can define us or what we do. No one.

What a mess.

I still have a little over half of this book to read and I am not quite sure how I will feel by the end of it. I mentioned to my former poetry professor and “drama, or so called Creative Nonfiction” professor that I was reading this book for my comp exams and he just gave me a look like, oh yeah, that book. I now understand why he wasn’t so sold on it. While Mayers makes some interesting claims, he also contradicts himself and makes claims that I feel are misaligned or not well articulated. Hopefully, by the end of this book, I will feel a little better about it. Granted, he does make some interesting observations and got me to think more about the privileged marginality of creative writing, as he so terms it.

Either way, I am glad I got it from the library and didn’t buy the book. Hooray for libraries.

Second draft from Red River Valley Writing Project

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

I’ll try to remember to post the first draft soon, which is just a paragraph so I may just leave it as a comment. But here is the updated second draft I composed this afternoon after the first draft from this morning. Note this has some fictional elements.

In my small town, us kids used to hang out near the abandoned railroad tracks and smoke cigarettes and talk about parties we had only heard about from the high school kids. We hung out near the railroad tracks mostly out of convenience as they were near where we lived and we knew the older kids partied not far from there late at night. By hanging out where the high schoolers did, we felt as if we were a part of that circle, that crew, that crowd. We thought we were cool or we desperately wanted to be cool.

Our town was small—less than 300 people–and so we had nothing to do but get into trouble or pretend we were getting into trouble. If you want a picture of our town, it looked something like this: two churches, one small grocery store, a post office, a bank, an elementary school, one bar situated on the only hill in town, and an old folks’ home right across from the town park. The town had one main drag that pretty much touched all these landmarks. On one end of the town was the elementary school and on the other end was the old folks home and so in some ways the town was laid out in a progression of life, though the cemetary was the thing caught in the middle. And, of course, being so small, even as a child you knew everyone in the town and even remembered some of the dead caught in between the progression from school to nursing home.

But even with the park, which we as children ran to sometimes, the main area of interest was those railroad tracks where we would meet up. I remember exchanging mixed tapes with my friends out at those old railroad tracks. I remember talking about the music we liked, what was on MTV, and gossiping about the other kids at school. I remember sometimes we would call the numbers on the soda bottles just to have someone new to talk to or getting the passing semi’s to honk by punching our fists high into the air. We thought we were going to be trouble when we walked right into the bar one day and used quarters to buy cheap sex toys from the bathroom vending machine.

We weren’t as much trouble as we pretended to be, though, so when one of our friends actually robbed the small town grocery, there fell a new, strange silence over the rest of that summer. I remember spending less time down by the railroad tracks. I remember how none of us knew what to say to the boy who had robbed the store, though he liked to pretend nothing had ever happened. There was only one time he brought it up and he told me how other people had helped him, but they never got into trouble because they were not seen as trouble. Those other boys were from better, more well-to-do families where both parents had good jobs and they always attended church on sundays and they came to school in nice clothes and always looked clean. So when he tried to explain he wasn’t alone, and who else was with, he was either not believed or ignored and of course those boys from the families who fit together more like a puzzle denied any involvement.

The boy who robbed the store moved away in August of that summer. I had a crush on him, so I remember feeling sad and trying to think up ways to go visit him. I knew where he was going. It was a town not far away, about a 40 minute drive, and near what we called lakes country and so I knew most of my friends would be headed out that way anyway. It would be easy to get a ride. What I didn’t know was that in a year my family would be in a similar transition and I would be moving not 40 minutes away, but three hours away, and into another state and into another school and another group of friends.

As an adult, I don’t often think about my experiences in that town. Those days seem so lost to time, like a horizon you just cannot ever reach, as much as you try to see into that distance. Yet, I know those summer days, people, and experiences left a profound resonance with me that I sometimes remember when I see young, troubled students in my own classes or when I go back to where I grew up in those summers and see the young children out there, no longer playing by the now overgrown and abandoned railroad, but in a nice, updated town park. I see them laugh with each other and lean against the trees like they are cool and waiting for someone to step into their life like this is a movie and they have suddenly entered the next scene.
I remember our friend who robbed the store had to return all the goods or pay back for what he had stolen so there would be no charges and his family moved away later that summer.

Computers and Writing nOOb

Monday, June 10th, 2013

First of all, this post really doesn’t at all convey my true excitement about all that I learned at C&W 2013. It only tries to get at the big picture points, as most of my blog posts do.

‘This past week I attended my first Computers and Writing (#cwcon on Twitter) conference. Before I tell you more, I have to confess one thing:

I do not write code. I am not a programmer. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

And at first, I thought this might be a stumbling block, or a complete dead end in the road, especially as I participated in the Graduate Research Network and met a ton of coders and computer programmer types. I just sat there through most of the conversations and wondered WTF, am I in the right place? What am I doing here? These people are great, I thought, but I have nothing to contribute to this conversation. My only knowledge of any code is basic HTML knowledge that I picked up in the mid and late 90s and by now that is probably so old it is akin to ancient rhetoric, though admittedly I still use it when I need to. And I mean, anyone who had a livejournal account and/or an angelfire site had to use some basic HTML. You want to bold and italicize, don’t you? You want to insert that link. You need that cool graphic on your livejournal. But do I code? Oh, hell no. In fact, I have some interest in coding, but not enough to get me started fully right now. I have started codeacademy, but my progress is slow, mainly because of everything else I am doing. But that is probably more or less an excuse.

But as I continued to participate in the conference, I felt more at ease. For one, no one was bothered that I was tweeting or using my phone during panels. People always assume I am not paying attention if I am on my phone or ipad or macbook, but normally I am and in most cases I was actually tweeting the conference panel. I also was able to participate in a number of discussions about social media and teaching, about creative writing and new media (and by the way, I met a ton of people who are creative writers and do use social media to distribute, promote, and work on their writing, so haha), and there was even some really fun and nostalgic discussions about angelfire, livejournal, and even Homestar Runner. In fact, I think a few of us got really nostalgic about Homestar Runner via Twitter. In some ways, these folks were speaking my language, even if I did not know Javascript or Python.

Along with that, I learned a lot, especially about multimodality. A lot of the panels I went to focused on multimodal pedagogy. Probably the most useful thing I came away with in terms of teaching was how to better my multimodal assignments, particularly the professional blog assignment. I realized I need to almost completely revamp that, particularly the rubric. Students have been kind of awful at the multimodal component of the blog, and after attending computers and writing, I understand why. I realized I need to make these things much more explicit to them and maybe eventually work to teach them some code, once i start to learn it. I also need to talk with them more about “hacking spaces.” I need to get them to use Google Drive, Google+ hangouts, etc more, especially in my online classes. What people discussed and presented on inspired me not to do more with technology, because I already do a lot and don’t want to start the Creepy Treehouse, but to do better with technology.

Finally, I don’t think I have been to a more friendly, collegial conference in my life. I think I must have connected with at least 30 people via Twitter and am still getting Twitter follows. But don’t go thinking this conference was some Utopia conference, especially considering the coffee situation, though that stuff was entirely contextual to Frostburg, or seemed to be. I think some things need to be improved (for example, I heard a few complaints about gender in terms of women who don’t code and the bias that surrounds that as well as how race has been treated at the conference), but I think those conversations are getting started, or seemed to be and I hope they are and that those conversations grow and continue. Either way, C&W has a great community with highly talented people and great ideas that are already being implemented. At one point in the conference, Karl Stolley said that ‘if you aren’t here, I don’t know what you are doing.” While that may sound harsh, he has a point. I don’t feel my connection to technology is a bad thing when it is a learning and teaching tool and has given me, and all of us, the opportunities we now enjoy and will enjoy later.