Creative Writing

Creative Writing and Disciplinarity

Tuesday, 3rd January 2017

From Jan. 3, 2017

Yeah, not quite buying this argument. Ok, I know this isn’t my field. Creative writing is what (full disclosure) my spouse does. But I do know a few things about disciplinary borders.

So let’s try a parallel argument here. Painting. There are lots of different kinds of painting, ranging from representational art (let’s call that “fine art painting”) to multimedia (let’s call that “popular art”) to house painting to, I suppose, painting someone’s nails in a salon. Now, suppose the house painters decided that it’s all just painting, and that it confuses people to call what hangs in galleries and what goes on your living room wall the same thing, and that those who are doing the gallery stuff need to just give up the “fine art” label and just call everything painting.

I can hear the objections already, of course. I’m comparing house painting to other kinds of writing, and by doing so demeaning it. But am I? The argument here is that writing is writing is writing. These are all just different genres and audiences.

There is, of course, another move being made, which is that rhet/comp is the place that recognizes that writing is just writing, and should in fact be the umbrella under which all writing exists. As a philosopher, I recognize this kind of colonialism, because my own discipline engaged in it for a long time. We like to look back to the days when all university areas were either natural philosophy or moral philosophy. We smugly point out that the highest degree most people get is a Doctor of “Philosophy”. We imagined, like Hegel, that if you go far enough into any discipline, you end up with philosophy. Historians do history; we have philosophy of history. Scientists do science; we have philosophy of science.

What happened? Well, the rest of the disciplines didn’t exactly sit still for that colonialism. By the 1980’s, philosophy itself was being shown to be nothing but textual study, or nothing but politics, or nothing but aesthetics, or nothing but psychology. There was, in other words, an anti-colonial movement, and philosophy (except in a few circles) doesn’t much have that colonial sense about it anymore. If we did, we would still insist that any time anyone else talked about concepts, or about ethics, they were on our territory.

What does this have to do with this spat about writing? Well, just that there’s no clear reason that I can see that it is any different from my painting analogy. It is not the name that confuses people, it is a labyrinthine university structure and politics that makes it so students don’t know how disciplinarity works. It is a creep of mission of writing programs (and, BTW, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it needs to be done cooperatively with those areas implicated in that creep, not as a colonial enterprise).

And, the further implication is tied to my story about the history of philosophy – if the real goal here is to see everything under the umbrella of writing understood as rhet/comp, I would say, be careful what you wish for. Academic overreach rarely consolidates areas; more likely it generates new resentments.

What’s the real charge being made against creative writing here? I think it is simply its claim to being art, along with the implication that other kinds of writing are not art. Is the implication really true? I don’t know. I doubt it, but I think that’s how “creative” is being understood. But could we do the same thing with painting? Can the house painter (a skilled profession, by the way) say that the studio artist is not producing art? Would that person even want to say that? Nothing is stopping the house painter from also being a studio painter. Some of the skills might be transferable. Does that mean that these two disciplines are effectively the same thing? Because that’s the claim being made about writing.

Of course, there’s slippage in my analogy. We don’t teach house painting in universities. We could, as a cultural expression – it could be part of design and architecture, I guess. But we don’t. We do, however, teach many forms of writing. We teach technical communication, and business communication, and all sorts of other things, along with the use of language to produce art.

Disciplinary silos are messy things, always have been. But they are artifacts of different methodological histories, different frames of reference, different goals. This proposal is not about making things clearer for students, or getting rid of stereotypes, this is just academic colonialism and a lack of respect for a body of practice. It buys into the stereotypes that art can’t be taught, that teaching creative writing teaches mediocrity and boilerplate method, that workshops are passe.

And, if the author is serious, here’s a suggestion – why not disband writing centers and give all those resources over to creative writers? I mean, if the issue is that all writing is creative, then you could also go that way, and infuse everything with the creativity that is already there? But of course, that’s not the point in this essay. The point is academic colonialism.

Not everyone in writing programs like this have such little respect for their colleagues. Many are exactly the opposite, willing to recognize different academic traditions of writing, willing to find creative ways forward. We need to hear more from those people.

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