Derek Neale Blog Post

Many practice subjects have their more academic cousins. Creative Writing is no exception and is the obvious younger relative within its usual (but not exclusive) academic setting: English Studies. The first UK Creative Writing MAs were launched in the 1970s, the undergraduate single and joint honours programmes proliferating in the 1990s. The first UK PhD was completed in 1990, with the Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir at UEA. This coincided with the first iterations of the question: what is Creative Writing research? There were alternately ambitious and wry observations from those present at the subject’s birth. Malcolm Bradbury co-leader of the first MA at UEA aimed for a psychological and literary theory of creativity, relating to an exploration of ‘the ways in which the instincts, the structures, the modal forms of imaginative expression can take on their purpose and pattern … as original humane discovery’ He also described writing as playing in the sandpit and said ‘it seemed somewhat strange for us to be announcing the Death of the Author in the classroom [in reference to Barthes], then going straight back home to be one’. In the US the history is longer and has links to philology (see Cowan, 2018 for a fuller history https://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition/articles/the-rise-of-creative-writing.html ).

In our newcomer status in the UK we’ve gleaned much from other practice subjects, for instance the QAA benchmark statements for Dance, Drama and Performance and Art and Design informed and influenced the first Creative Writing QAA statement (2016) as much if not more than the English benchmark. The prequel to that inaugural QAA document was a joint teaching and research subject benchmark (2008) developed by the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), which is Creative Writing’s subject association. This prequel was itself influenced by other practice subjects. Perhaps the impasse faced by all practice subjects is the impossibility of translating practice (process and output or artefact) into anything other than what it is. That is no less true for Creative Writing; the fact that the common currencies of our practice are words and narratives makes it no easier and makes practitioners no more willing or able to re-narrate their work. This is why at the end of my PhD, for instance, I felt that my critical commentary on the relationship between writing and remembering was just as much a fiction as the novel it accompanied; a different kind of fiction admittedly, but, of course, both kinds are fictions in a very positive sense, a sense that signals a route to a kind of truth.

NAWE has attempted to keep up with responses to the Creative Writing research/practice conundrum and in so doing has expanded on the three pages devoted to research in 2008’s prequel benchmark document. The more recent updated research benchmark (see https://www.nawe.co.uk/writing-in-education/writing-at-university/research.html ) asserts, perhaps in the way that younger cousins are prone to, the discipline’s research principles: the centrality of practice and the various forms practice research might take.

The updated research benchmark has learnt from English Literature and Language, but also from other disciplines. We’ve inherited perspectives that can be applied to practice, if often retrospectively. These include but are not confined to critical analysis, theoretical methodologies, literary history, ethnography, as well as formal, stylistic, narratological and linguistic approaches. These opportunities form chapters, books, articles and commentaries about process, but cannot supplant practice as the central research method in the discipline.

In a seminar recording from last year, a collaboration between OU’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing research group and NAWE, Robert Hampson talks through possible research outputs and assessment strategies. See http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/contemporary-cultures-of-writing/node/25 This offers evidence of how REF assessment of Creative Writing research has evolved and is evolving. Typical practice outputs include novels, short story and poetry collections, creative nonfiction, scripts and performance, but these forms are constantly being expanded upon. Disparate portfolios pose another problem. For instance, I’ve a small collection of commissioned short stories. They are diverse though connected by theme and motif – mothers and fathers, for instance, memory, time and madness. Here, as is often the case, the research questions didn’t precede the writing or the collecting of the stories. Research questions became apparent retrospectively. I find this is a useful attitude to adopt, one which relieves the unnatural fit between creative process and bureaucratic necessity. ‘Not knowing’ is more important in the writing process than any obedience to a preconceived research question.

What are the research questions that arise in that collection of six stories? I’ve mentioned the thematic connections but there are separate research questions. For instance, the stories ask how consciousness and human narratives can be imagined and represented, eliciting empathy. How can narrative elucidate being human? And, in relation to this, what part is played by various narratological elements – mimesis, diegesis, prolepsis, analepsis, paralypsis – and how does contextual literary knowledge inform, enhance or reference such narratives?

There can often be further complications in REF assessment inherent to the nature of the dissemination of literary outputs. For instance, some of the stories were published previously (though never submitted for previous REFs or RAEs); some of them are new stories. REF assessment should be focused on this new constellation as a coherent project rather than their prior individual appearance. The issue is also discussed in the audio in relation to the different publication lives that poems might enjoy.

The quest to establish what practice research means in Creative Writing continues to produce vibrant responses, ones in which practice is acknowledged as central but where research significance or what a previous blogger on this site has called researchfulness has been flushed out and illuminated, hopefully without forfeiting the writing’s tacit route to knowledge. Not only is the question – what is Creative Writing research? – still being asked, but it is now firmly coupled to the knowledge that playing in the sandpit is a big part of the answer.

[1] Bradbury, Malcolm. 1993. ‘‘Graceful Combinations.’’ In The Agony and the Ego: The Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored, edited by Clare Boylan, 57-63. London: Penguin.

[1] Bradbury, M. (ed.) (1995) “Introduction”, in Class Work: The Best of Contemporary Short Fiction, London: Sceptre. p. viii

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