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On Creative Writing

On Creative Writing

by Graeme Harper

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What is Creative Writing? Millions of people do it, but how do we do it, really? What evidence of its human undertaking does Creative Writing produce? How do we explore Creative Writing, as both an art form and a mode of communication? How do we come to understand Creative Writing, creatively and critically? Posing questions about the nature of Creative Writing, On


What is Creative Writing? Millions of people do it, but how do we do it, really? What evidence of its human undertaking does Creative Writing produce? How do we explore Creative Writing, as both an art form and a mode of communication? How do we come to understand Creative Writing, creatively and critically? Posing questions about the nature of Creative Writing, On Creative Writing asks us to consider what Creative Writing actually is, and in doing so encourages us to reflect on how our knowledge of Creative Writing can be increased. Emphasizing Creative Writing as an act and actions, On Creative Writing considers what lies at the core of the activity called Creative Writing.

Editorial Reviews

Philip Gross
Graeme Harper's book comes at the right time for the discipline of Creative Writing. It is a bold statement of the human-centred view of writing, in which nothing is alien to the writer at work or reflecting on that work: the practical, the personal, the intellectual and above all the unformed and the unfinished are all part of the reflection. There are new tools here to help writing students to connect the academic viewpoint to the true and secret lives of their own writing. It also widens the terms in which writing educators can pursue the debate with each other. Harper does the job with clarity and wit and, above all, good creative questions.

John Weldon
This book is an engaging attempt to explore a field of artistic enterprise from an angle that is very much often ignored. It is refreshing to see act/process/mysterious game (call it what you will) that we term Creative Writing discussed in such a thorough and rigorous manner.

Product Details

Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date:
New Writing Viewpoints Series , #4
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

On Creative Writing

By Graeme Harper

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2010 Graeme Harper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84769-256-6


Creative Writing Primarily Involves Finished Works?


When speaking about 'Creative Writing' it is sometimes the case that we are speaking about two things. That is: the activities of Creative Writing and the finished works that emerge from the activities of Creative Writing. However, most often the term 'Creative Writing' is used to refer to the activities we engage in. The results of these activities, alternatively, are most often referred to by their specific 'artefactual' names -- for example, the 'poem', 'script', 'story' or 'novel' that emerges from the acts and actions of Creative Writing.

This separation in language also represents a separation in attitude, a separation that was extended by the strength of the focus during the 20th century on the objects, the 'finished' artefacts, of creative production. This was particularly the case in the second half of the 20th century when consumerist ideologies, supporting an economic system increasingly dependent on the exchange of goods and services, made material goods a primary mode of human exchange, and the provision of services likewise became highly commodified. In a metropolitan rather than rural focused production system, no longer trading in a relatively leisurely fashion in hand-crafted objects or in a close community of labour exchange, consumerism involved product and purchaser, the role of the producer -- at least as it pertained to the recognition of the individual, or to place of the personal -grew less significant. That is not to pass judgement on the impact of consumer culture in the latter half of the 20th century. Rather, it is simply to note that the rise of consumerism relied on the significance of goods and services for consumption and on the desire, and ability, of the consumer to purchase these goods and services. If there was a producer referenced at all the role of producer 'branding' was more notable than the actual activities of that producer.

Of course, the word 'production' is being used instead of the words 'Creative Writing' or 'creating', to indicate this was a consumption and production cycle of a distinct kind and that it impacted upon how we viewed Creative Writing. In the case of Creative Writing, the words 'creative writer', or 'creator' or 'maker' might seem more appropriate to indicate the often individual nature of the acts and actions of Creative Writing and to highlight the fact that not every piece of Creative Writing was destined to a commercial exchange. Indeed, this is part of a point worth developing later. Here, however, the important aspect of the historical profile is that it was product-consumption related, even while culturally the latter 20th century saw the rise of individualism and the declarations of the importance of individual voices. In the case of economics, it was not the individual human 'maker' who held sway but the individual human 'receiver'. This was a cycle dependent on the willingness of individuals to purchase, to receive according to trade focused on artefactual brand (even in the case of services where commodification used almost identical rhetoric or the imagery of offering 'satisfaction').

Language, then, whether verbal or visual, whether denotative or connotative, bore the significance of finality, the importance of completed 'works', and demoted the relevance of 'working' or 'undertaking' to a secondary rank in which efficiency, delivery to the market, adherence to a promoted brand, and clarity of what was on sale, far outweighed the accuracy of production information. Indeed, while later in the century evidence of some Western concern with 'fair trading' or 'exploitation' of non-Western producers became evident, for the greater part of the 20th century the West, where consumerism most strongly flourished, devoted itself far more to delivery of goods and services than it did to the question of how -- physically or, indeed, ethically -- these goods and services were delivered. This focus on end commodity result even bore an alternate moral standing by which the product, in the broadest sense of the term, was expected to be available when and where the consumer required it. The moral imperative of satisfying the consumer came in many guises, not merely in terms of quantity or quality, and certainly not only relating to the initially observable appearance of the good or service. Rather, it carried with it symbolic and cultural intention, high culture, low culture, 'well-made', 'poorly-made', 'expensive', 'cheap', significant or insignificant for one cultural group or another, whether the dominating or dominated. Categories and ideals that transgressed the boundaries of the material, but were always entirely tied to it.

We could take this historical perspective back further for Creative Writing and note that such a separation of the 'finished' artefact from the acts and actions of creative writers owed much to the commodification borne on the back of the ideal of copyright. Copyright, founded as it was on the 'concept of the unique individual who creates something original and is entitled to reap a profit from those labors'. And yet already can be observed the deductive shift, because in this definition the conflating of 'something' with 'labours' locates copyright in end, indeed final, result rather than in the labour, or creating itself.

From this perspective, we can extend such analysis to show how we have seen considerable importance placed on 'works' rather than on the human 'work' of creation. So, for example, Martha Woodmansee, writing in her chapter in The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature, asks: Will the author in the modern sense prove to have been only a brief episode in the history of writing? By 'author' we mean an individual who is the sole creator of unique 'works' the originality of which warrants their protection under laws of intellectual property known as 'copyright' or 'authors' rights.

This is a reasonable question to ponder, if we begin with 'works' rather than 'working', because if authorship is located in the ownership of completed artefacts then of course the authors of The Construction of Authorship are right to ask whether such a concept has any permanency. Ownership of artefacts has to be seen as fragile because artefacts can be exchanged, can be traded, can be sold, valued and re-valued, placed on the market, or stored for future exploitation. But what about actions?

What about the acts and actions that a creative writer, or group of creative writers, undertake? Once undertaken -even while being undertaken -- who owns these? If they are not contracted to someone else -- say in the case of a film script or novel produced according to a pre-writing contract -- if they are not contracted to someone else, can anyone other than the creative writer or writers ever own them? Indeed, to be entirely accurate, what actually is it that is contracted if the writing of a work is contracted? It is not the act or actions of the creative writer that, say, the film company of publisher has contracted; rather it is the work or works they produce. They have, most definitely, contracted the labour, but if the labour produces only labour and no result, would the contract be seen to have been met? This question, too, we might visit later. But, for now, suffice to say it would be an unusual circumstance that would see a creative writer contracted simply to write but never to be expected to deliver some work or works to those who had contracted them.

The subject of Jaszi and Woodmansee's book is copyright and 'appropriation' and it would be churlish to criticise their conclusions. They place their focus on artefacts and their contributors produce clear analyses of copyright vested in objects and products. But shift the point at which the analysis begins away from artefacts and towards the acts and actions of creative writers and Woodmansee's consideration of whether authors will continue to exist becomes erroneous. Of course, authors will continue to exist as long as we continue to undertake the acts and actions of authorship. I take authorship here to be the activity of authoring; and, of course, I am speaking of the practical and, indeed, physiological as well as psychological act of creating, not about whether interpretation of the works of others is a form of authoring, or about whether authorship is as much a wider cultural activity as well as an individual one, or about whether the word 'author' may mean something other than the 'physical' commonsense concept of the 'maker'. Naturally, this approach brings together the idea of the 'creative writer' with the idea of the 'author' and that, in itself, raises many questions. But because this conflation has also been generically, colloquially and even critically undertaken by many others, it would seem simplest to let it remain, at least for now.

Jaszi and Woodmansee are not unaware of the problems in all this, explaining in their Introduction that: To merit copyright an 'expression' must be 'fixed,' leading to the exclusion of a wide range of improvised works and works of oral tradition.

Again, entirely accurate. And yet, how many acts or actions of creative writers are fixed and how many are in motion, part of a continuum of action, inseparable from the action beside them, before them, or after them? Naturally, a ridiculous question because human actions are only able to be separated from each other if we stop them. If we stop them they are, by simple definition, no longer acts and actions but past activities that might be reflected upon, even if then they are altered by their relationship with fixity, and now also altered by their relationship with any current or future acts and actions that may be undertaken. To recall some related comments by Henri Bergson briefly:

From Creative Evolution:

Let us start, then, from action, and lay down that the intellect aims, first of all, at constructing. This fabrication is exercised exclusively on inert matter, in this sense, that even if it makes use of organised material it treats it as inert, without troubling about which animated it. And of insert matter, fabrication deals only with the solid; the rest escapes by its very fluidity.

From Time and Free Will:

On the one hand we attribute to the motion the divisibility of the space which it traverses, forgetting that it is quite possible to divide an object, but not an act: and on the other hand we accustom ourselves to projecting this act itself into space, to applying it to the whole of the line which the moving body traverses, in a word to solidifying it: as if this localizing of progress in space did not amount to asserting that, even outside consciousness, the past coexists along with the present!

From the Creative Mind:

I was indeed very much struck to see how real time, which plays the leading part in any philosophy of evolution, eludes mathematical treatment. Its essence being to flow, not one of its parts is still there when another part comes along.

And later:

I very quickly spotted the inadequacy of the associationist conception of the mind; this conception, then common to most psychologists and philosophers, was the result of an artificial re-grouping of conscious life. What would direct vision give -- immediate vision, with no interposed prejudices?

And this from Time and Free Will:

The whole difficulty of the problem that occupies us comes from the fact that we imagine perception to be a kind of photographic view of things, taken from a fixed point by that special apparatus which is called an organ of perception -- a photograph which would then be developed in the brainmatter by some chemical or psychical process of elaboration. But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all the points of space? No metaphysics, no physics even, can escape this conclusion. Build up the universe with atoms: each of them is subject to the action, variable in quantity and quality according to the distance, exerted on it by all materials atoms.

That is probably enough of a selection from Bergson's philosophical writings to give a flavour of them to those unfamiliar with his work, and enough to suggest equally how a concentration on fixity, and a failure to deal adequately with the active aspects of human activity, human creativity, relates to recognising Creative Writing as acts and actions, and how this might thus relate to the actual status of 'completed' works of Creative Writing.

If, on first thought, the sense in which a work of Creative Writing is 'complete' when released to a readership or audience suggests we might use these 'completed' works as focal points for a consideration of the acts and actions that produced them, then Bergson's work certainly asks us to think again about how we co-locate such discussions with those about Creative Writing itself. Equally, the statements of creative writers about their activities frequently undermines the suggestion that completed works are ever -in the sense of what Creative Writing actually is -ever truly complete. To take the comments of one of Henri Bergson's near contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway:

When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no-one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated your emotion, the sights and sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it. But you do, you read it in covers and you see it all the places that now you can do nothing about it.

Hemingway expressing here the creative writer's desire to 'do [something] about it', to take action to correct some element of their writing that notions of the object, of finality, of completeness, denies them easy access to correct. To stay in broadly the same period, add to this these observations from the diaries of Virginia Woolf:

This from Sunday 22 January 1922:

[...] The birds wake us with their jangling about 7 o'clock; which I take to be a sign of spring, but then I am always optimistic. A thick mist, steam coloured, obscures even twigs, let alone Towers Place. Why do I trouble to be so particular with facts? I think it is my sense of the flight of time: so soon Towers Place will be no more; & twigs, & I that write. I feel time racing like a film at the Cinema. I try to stop it. I prod it with my pen. I try to pin it down.

And this from Saturday 2 August 1924:

[...] honestly I don't feel old; & it's a question of getting up my steam again in writing. If only I could get into my vein & work it thoroughly deeply easily, instead of hacking out this miserable 200 words a day. And then, as the manuscript grows, I have the old fear of it. I shall read it and find it pale. I shall prove the truth of Murry's saying, that there's no way of going on after Jacob's Room. Yet if this book proves anything, it proves that I can only write along those lines, & shall never desert them, but explore further & further, & shall, heaven be praised, never bore myself an instant.

'No way of going on.' The fear of having no way of proceeding, of continuing. To continue to be a creative writer someone must be writing, creatively. Simple as this statement appears, might it be the core of why completed works do not constitute Creative Writing? Not to emphasise here any argument for Woolf having a fragile psyche, a notion that has been too great a focus for some biographers and critics over the years. And, inadvertently, have I picked up comments by two creative writers who chose to depart the world in, dare I say it, broadly similar ways? Then perhaps best to add an alternate. This from South African playwright and novelist Athol Fugard:


After the long sweat of reshaping and rewriting, now entered a phase in my work on the third act of People which I can almost say I 'enjoy'. My line is sketched roughly on paper so there is no longer any of the tension involved in moving from moment to moment, and of finding those moments. But it is a rough line. Now I refine -- Somewhere else in the notebooks I have spoken about this -- likened it to passage of time, a mechanism which once evolved can be wound up again and again and allowed to run down.

An intriguing combination of analogical thoughts here: 'evolution', the 'winding up' and 'running down', the 'finding' of 'moments', the 'rough line'. It is often the language used to describe creative practice that alerts us to the fact that there are combinations of the individual and societal or cultural at work. Depending on the writer, these emerge more or less obviously, appearing on the surface of the language of creating or suggesting by more oblique reference that they are there beneath it. But the focus remains activity, an undertaking without separations. It is not merely a sense of wanting to do better, achieve more, that is recalled here in the diaries, letters or notebooks of Woolf and Hemingway and Fugard but the sense that completeness, artefactual existence, does not equate to the Creative Writing lives in which they are personally engaged.


Excerpted from On Creative Writing by Graeme Harper. Copyright © 2010 Graeme Harper. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Graeme Harper is a Professor of Creative Writing at Oakland University, Michigan, USA. He is Series Editor of New Writing Viewpoints, as well as Editor of New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. Graeme was the inaugural chair of the Higher Education Committee at the UK's National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE). He is an award-winning fiction writer and a former Commonwealth Scholar in Creative Writing.

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