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Book Review: Critical Approaches to Creative Writing

Critical Approaches to Creative Writing

Author Graeme Harper

Reviewed by Dr Deborah Biggerstaff (Warwick Medical School)

 Why did I want to read this book?

I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of hearing a student admitting that they find writing difficult, when they come to write up their assignment, however we may try to design an assignment activity that can best assess their learning. Over the years, I’ve frequently observed how many students, even perfectly competent postgraduate students, may admit to struggling with their writing, when trying to communicate their ideas clearly. As someone who generally enjoys the writing process, (although I also admit to sometimes wrestling with the challenges of writing!), I’ve become increasingly intrigued by what might be ‘going on’ among our students who say they find writing ‘difficult’. Writing can be difficult: it is hard work and requires effort. Most students I’ve met over the years are bright, keen communicators in class. They are people who are generally highly engaged with their course, but then admit to struggling to get their thoughts and ideas down on the page. What can we do, as educators, to support our students to help them become better and more confident writers?

I’ve been thinking about this conundrum for some time now and have been exploring the field of creative writing to see how I might help support my students. Hence, my discovering this little book by Graeme Harper, who, as well as being an award-winning fiction writer, and a leader in the field of creative writing, is editor of the journal New Writing.

What I found appealing with this book.

I was attracted to this text since Harper, currently Professor of Creative Writing and Dean, Oakland University, Michigan, US, was the first person to be awarded a doctorate in creative writing in Australia. The author, in this book, also considers some of the critical aspects of creative writing. Thus, this book offers us, as reader, some useful insights into both the creative and critical elements of writing to examine what creative writing actually is, in order to help the reader gain a better understanding of the actual writing process. .

The ideas contained within the book are suitable for any discipline where clear communication in writing is needed, however broadly one might define the field.

What I found appealing with this book is the author’s emphasis on the critical, thus offering ideas and connections with those aspects relating to both academic writing and pedagogic enquiry. Harper examines what constitutes the process of creative writing, and how we can gain a better understanding of this process, whether for our own work, or for supporting our students’ development, to become more competent writers.

Much of the book is concerned with what Harper describes as ‘creative exposition’ : a process whereby the practice of writing is explored, alongside thinking about the final finished ‘product’. The ideas contained within the book are suitable for any discipline where clear communication in writing is needed, however broadly one might define the field. Everyone, whether student, writer, or academic, needs to develop skills in writing, if we are to get our ideas across clearly to whoever may be our audience.

As the author observes, the art of creative writing is “both an individual practice, based on the self (you, me, other creative writers), and a holistic one, reflective of cultural, societal and historical influences upon us and upon those around us.” (preface, p. xviii). Further on, in this introduction section, Harper provides some additional definitions for creative writing as an emerging discipline, as a “field of scholarly inquiry and research”. He considers some of the dynamics involved in creative writing while also reminding the reader that much of what we might do, as writers, belongs in the field of the personal, or the individual.

The Preface and Introduction section considers the creative writing process, linking writing to our ideals of personal satisfaction and self – expression in many creative fields. Throughout the book, the author asks a perceptive selection of questions we, as reader, can use as the starting point for our own creative thinking process for getting the words down on the page. We are asked to consider writing concepts such as ‘distinctiveness’ (p. 5) or ‘Form, style, type genre’ (p. 6) while also asking us, as reader, to pay attention to how our thoughts, and things that happen in our quotidian experiences, may “impact on the dynamics of creative writing” (p.7).

Later, within this same chapter, we are asked to consider what distinguishes creative writing from other forms of writing, with Harper suggesting that it is the heightened elements of what might be novel, of originality, and aspects of inventiveness that define what may be ‘creative’. The author also explores ideas around ‘exposition’ in relation to those more academic aspects of our writing where we might seek to expose or reveal an academic idea or explanation; supported by facts or the ‘evidence’. This description is something we often prompt students when we ask them to support their ideas with citations from the relevant research literature. The reader is reminded that creative writing is as much a craft as a process, that includes utility, for the “purposes of both art and communication” and is associated with our lived-world experiences.

In a later chapter the reader is introduced to writing with imagination, where we may draw on observing events, or feelings from the past and present, while also perhaps re-working these experiences in the narrative telling of the story. Harper observes how, in our writing or reading, we may be “moving between different cognitive activities, in which the imagination, the intellect, our senses, memories, feelings all play a role.” ( p.23). The reader is asked to consider how such creativity in writing may involve the symbolic, longevity, and the need for the ‘story’ to be transportable. Additionally, we are also reminded how writing can be encoded; that many writing styles have observable patterns or representations, thus suggesting a consistency of style or understanding to life – style. This last point, I suggest, may perhaps also apply across some intra-disciplinary fields in academia.

For what is quite a concise volume, the main points of the use of narrative in writing are covered well. The succinct approach would be particularly useful for some of our students who may struggle with the writing process when trying to put together a cohesive ‘narrative’ within their work. The reader is offered a thoughtful depiction of time and the role of sequence in writing: time may be multi-layered but the creative writing process may also offer us, as writer, “a kind of empowerment that releases us from day – to – day time” (p. 47).

This book also explores some of the many factors that can influence the writing process. Harper, as a North American writer, reflects briefly on the role of culture in creative writing, and conceptual viewpoints across time. He also shares some of his thoughts on writing in relation to different lifestyles and the changing perceptions of ‘nation’, while ideas relating to macro-history, are also introduced. Other topics which may influence creative writing such as location and place are considered; these include environment, the tools we use, stimuli and, of note for some of the students we teach, how a writer may use research materials, and accumulated resources for whatever project they may be working on. The also explores aspects of identity, psychology and personality involved in creative writing influences, with some suggested models for the interested reader to consider.

Some of the main practices of creative writing are covered well, with sound advice on the actual process: the stages of Pre-writing; Writing and Post-writing are described clearly with some useful tips and advice as to how to help strengthen that first draft. The author reminds us that the ‘post-writing’ stage is where the skilled writer will concentrate the most time since “it is in post-writing where creativity and intelligence have most opportunity to flourish” (p. 67).

The concluding section of the book covers evidence in creative writing and how we might assess ‘value’, whether as writer or reader. The critical assessment of the evidence and the quality of that evidence is examined. We are invited to consider the different components of writing, including how a writer may choose to reveal what they have undertaken (as practice) and what role evidence may have to play on such practice. Some aspects of research methods are introduced to the potential writer, with a short summary of how such method might be incorporated, or applied, within the practice of creative writing.

Finally, and perhaps the section that offers the reader the most pedagogic utility, the reader is provided with a Checklist section where different elements relating to creative writing are set out as a series of questions. I particularly liked these short, practical exercises, linked to the content for each chapter. The questions proposed by the author help to bring home, and clarify, the main points covered within each preceding chapter. These questions could either be used by students for self-directed learning, or as a source of support when designing a teaching session where we want to help students develop their academic writing skills. Being able to communicate clearly is a core component for all our students’ professional and personal development, and their ‘employability’, whatever discipline.

Would I recommend this book?

Critical Approaches to Creative Writing is a thoughtful, concise little book that I enjoyed reading. If I was to use a star rating (five stars being maximum) I would award this useful volume 4.5 stars since it has much to offer. My only reason for not giving it the full five stars? Although the author does provide a few, limited, references, personally, I would like to have seen a few more, and a complete reference list provided for the reader.

The author has distilled a lifetime of knowledge and skills, drawing on his expertise as a creative writer. This is a great little book and an engaging read: sometimes good things really do come in small packages!

Dr Deborah Biggerstaff

Warwick Medical school

3 May 2022