The Reading Writer or The Writing Reader?

Sonia Hendy-Isaac

‘There are three parties to every transaction that written language makes possible: a writer, a reader, and a text.’ - Frank Smith.

Every literary transaction involves Frank Smith’s triangular formula - the writer writes, the text is created and the reader, reads. For the Literature student, this exchange, takes place within a clearly defined structure - this student reads the text. Literary Theory may encourage this specific breed of reader to place the work within the context of the writer’s biography; to ‘historicise’ the text’s socio-political position; or apply a psycho-analytical approach and so on; but ultimately there is rarely, or indeed, no actual interaction with the writer. So what happens when the reader is a writer, is in the presence of the writer or is even the writer?

This paper explores the position of the Creative Writing student and asks to what extent are these students currently ‘equipped’ to engage in critical discourse, in terms of both creative, and critical, self-reflection. At present, the Creative Writing student is predominantly taught within a workshop environment, which is founded on reading. The key question is how we actually define, and more importantly teach, reading and critical engagement within the field of Creative Writing. Paul Dawson observes that

[T]he best way to learn how to write, according to most teachers of Creative Writing, is to read … There must be more than this to Creative Writing, however, or it would be no more than an institutionalised book club.

This statement exemplifies my argument; if it is sufficient to read, and then to write, as two entirely separate entities, then the academy of Creative Writing has indeed established not only an institutionalised book club, but also an institutionalised writers club. Every Creative Writing student will at some point be told to write, write at every opportunity and then … read - read widely - read everything! The fact remains, that many students are summarily asked to ‘read as writers’ to improve their craft; but we do not entertain this instruction in the reverse - how should these writers engage as readers?
The oxymoronic term, the ‘writing-reader’ or indeed, the ‘reading-writer’ epitomises the dichotomous position of the student within the Academy. The Creative Writing student isn’t taught how to read because, as J. Hillis Miller points out; ‘[T]eaching reading seems unnecessary. If you can read, you can read.’ Their position is significantly more precarious than that of the Literature student, because after all, not only can these students read, they are (primarily) writers; they should know how to read literature - they are (hopefully) engaging with the process of writing literature themselves.

Allow me to digress for a moment, during my own undergraduate experience as a Literature major, I read at least three new texts a week, attended lectures, participated in seminars to learn how to analyse poetry, prose and drama. I studied Literary Theory; I juxtaposed my interpretations against those of the leading academics. I learnt to argue my case, dissect and analyse the language, the literary techniques, to gain an ‘understanding’ of what it is to read literature. The process was sometimes successful, but even on the occasions it wasn’t, I learnt something more about analysis, criticism and literature; I was never simply told to read, this crucial critical engagement taught me how to read; I filled my proverbial critical toolbox.

Now, as a Masters student in Creative and Critical Writing, I am once again asked to read every week - not the canonical, exemplary texts of my Literature background - but something closer to home (and potentially more important) - the work of my peers. I am expected to critique - to offer a précis of what worked for me and what didn’t, primarily as a reader - but also as a writer. At postgraduate level, it is a reasonable expectation that this student is equipped with the critical tools required to engage in this process. But here’s the conundrum - without the literary engagement of my own Undergraduate experience, would that be so? Is the Undergraduate Creative Writing student offered the same opportunity to establish their critical toolbox as their Literary counterparts? To contextualise this, Elaine Showalter explains that the

overall objective in teaching literature is to train our students to think, read, analyse, and write like literary scholars, to approach literary problems as trained specialists in the field do, to learn literary methodology, in short to “do” literature as scientists “do” science.

The pedagogical approach to reading is, for the Literature student, clearly defined - what is the comparative definition for the Creative Writing student? If as Bausch asserts, the writer should ‘not read books as an English major is trained to read them,’ then how should the student writer read? How do we hone the skills of these writer-critics in our midst? It is insufficient to glibly advise these writers to read without fully supporting their journey into critical reading. Dawson has considered the argument:

[T]raditional boundaries between reading and writing, the creative and the critical, have been challenged, but the argument remains that Creative Writing offers students more personal freedom and practical skills than an essay-based literary studies class.

If we assume that current pedagogy guides students in the technicalities of writing, these ‘practical skills’ - that is to say, to gain (and therefore to write with) an understanding of voice, language, plot, dialogue, point of view, etc; then it is suffice to say that in order to achieve this, the student will be exposed to and asked to read exemplary literary examples of these. But this, in isolation, is restrictive; the danger is that they are simply being taught to elucidate literary devices, not to explore each text with the full critical engagement. Whilst I am not suggesting that teaching practice within the Creative Writing discipline doesn’t go beyond these restrictions, there is one key difficulty; the main teaching opportunity to expand students’ reading and analytical skills is within the workshop.

Reginald Sheperd argues that the ideal workshop is ‘where students seek to improve, expand, and even challenge their writing and their notions of poetry in a context in which writing and reading poetry [or prose or drama] are taken to be of intrinsic value.’ One of the workshop’s cornerstones is to encourage writers’ development following the critical reading and analysis of their work via their peers. This raises the quandary of not only how the students are to hone their reading skills in order to fully engage in the workshop, but why students are asked to read outside of it. Is it encouraged to increase their knowledge of literature, for the pleasure of reading, to understand craft and technique, to imitate, to define what is publishable? In real terms it is all of these; but it is how this ‘reading practice’ could actually benefit their learning experience that is of most significance. Jeri Kroll insists that ‘on the simplest level, [students] are readers and editors of their own [work] as well as of their peers’.

If criticism was not a definitive reference point in the workshop, it would make little difference as to the critical grounding held by its participants - but in the realms of Academia, it is integral. It is insufficient to manipulate Showalter’s assertion to say that the Creative Writers must “do” Creative Writing, as scientists “do” science, because in the academic environment, the Creative Writing student is expected to engage in the same level of critical exchange (or possibly greater than that) of their Literature peers - yet ironically without the same emphasis placed on the theories of critical reading.

Would the presence of a more structured approach to reading and criticism aid the progression of the Creative Writing student? Put simply, it would facilitate three things; firstly a better understanding of literature; as a writer, no sense of originality, innovation or experimentation in your own writing can really happen if you do not read effectively, at least some of, what has already been written. Secondly, Creative Writing as an academic discipline is taught primarily through the workshop which will only function at its optimum level when its participants are able to engage critically with the text in front of them. Thirdly, development as a writer relies on the capacity to discern the difference between what you have written, that is to say, what is actually on the page - and what you feel you’ve written; this distinction is quite simply impossible without critical reading.

Sheperd observes that ‘students take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves in a manner and to a degree which usually doesn’t happen in literature courses … This also applies to getting students to provide substantive criticism of their peers’ work, which often feels mean to them.’ This is ultimately the crux of the writing-reader dichotomy; critical engagement (even with your own work) is not about likes or dislikes, or what will damage a writer’s sensibilities, or even bolster their confidence - it should focus solely on the text. Smith asserts that ‘[W]riters cannot reach through a text to the reader beyond, any more than a reader can penetrate the text to make direct contact with the writer.’ But in the workshop this textual barrier is broken - both the writer and the reader are in the room. This is precisely why students need to read critically; at a distance – dispassionately, theoretically.

Perhaps, even outside of the realms of the workshop, this skill is also essential in completion of ‘assessments’ in the Academy; for just as surely as Showalter’s Literature students should embrace good scholarly practice, so too must the Creative Writer. Students are expected to produce a ‘critical response’ to their own creativity, Amanda Boutler explains that this,

details the writer’s own reflections upon their work and the research and writing process. It’s an opportunity, albeit limited, for the writer to provide some context for their work: it’s here they can direct the marker to literary, cultural, social, religious, philosophical and political engagement.

Note the final words of this statement - ‘literary, cultural, social, religious, philosophical and political engagement’; this list could serve adequately as a point-to-point reference for the Literature student to structure an essay – but should we be asking this of the Creative Writing student? Shouldn’t we argue that the creative work stands alone and should be marked on its own merits, without the critical engagement? If we actually dissolved the requirement for a critical reflection entirely, then without doubt, the workshop model would suffer even further from a lack of critical awareness. Dawson argues that ‘the pedagogical practice of the workshop is fundamentally one of critical reading.’ To ensure that Creative Writing is a valued academic discipline we must adopt a critical theory dedicated not only to the process of writing - but to reading. A student’s capacity to read with detachment and academic conciseness allows the analysis of any text for its literary merits, as well as its flaws. This will not only improve the work of those writers and the inherent quality of the workshops they participate in; it will improve the academic standing of the subject itself.

Reading truly is an art, and it is one that requires inclusion as a central critical tool for the Creative Writer - not to be fostered in flippant advice to simply read for reading’s sake, but to read as any writer would hope someone would approach their own work; to engage with it critically, for as Dawson succinctly asks; ‘is there a writer's theory of literature which is different from a critic's theory of literature?’ I am not advocating that writing masterclasses be replaced by Literary Theory modules – but surely there is a middle ground? If the current teaching environment of the workshop is to function as a forum for writer development, then it must insist upon applied reading and critical engagement; to ensure this, a more structured approach to reading and critical theory becomes essential. Creative Writing students’ are, after all, (and perhaps always have been) ultimately judged as reading-writers or writing-readers.

Works Cited

1 Frank Smith, Writing and the Writer, 2nd ed. (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994), p.87.
2 Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, (New York: Routledge: 2005), p.90/1.
3 To give just three examples; Richard Bausch asserts that writers must; ‘[R]ead. You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering’. Richard Bausch, ‘Letter to a Young Writer’ - <http://www.writing-spot.com/info/Writing-Tips-and-Advice/Letter-to-a-Young-Writer.html >
Paul Dawson heavily explores the history of writer-to writer advice in Creative Writing and the New Humanities, pp.90-98.
Or alternatively Frank Smith’s assertion that ‘[T]he writing we do cannot account for the writing we learn to do. Rather we must learn from exposure to writing, in other words from reading.’ Frank Smith, Writing and the Writer, p.178. My emphases.
J. Hillis Miller, On Literature (London: Routledge, 2002), p.115.
Reginald Sheperd points out that engagement in a creative academic environment means that the student ‘is staking a claim, however slight and tentative, to a place in literary culture, in writing as an artistic practice.’ Reginald Sheperd, ‘A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom’ <http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/03/few-issues-in-creative-writing.html>
Elaine Showalter, Teaching Literature, (Oxford: Blackwell: 2003), p.25. (My emphases)
Richard Bausch, ‘Letter to a Young Writer’
Paul Dawson, ‘Towards a New Poetics in Creative Writing Pedagogy’ <http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april03/dawson.htm >
Reginald Sheperd, ‘A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom’ <http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/03/few-issues-in-creative-writing.html>
Kroll, Jeri, ‘The Resurrected Author: Creative Writers in 21st-century Higher Education.’<http://www.multilingual-matters.net/nw/001/nw0010089.htm >
Paul Dawson addresses this issue directly; ‘the 'practical' nature of writing workshops, focussing as they do on improving the draft material brought in by students, causes the critical principles which underpin and allow discussion (reading) to remain invisible and under-theorised.’ Paul Dawson, ‘Towards a New Poetics in Creative Writing Pedagogy’ <http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april03/dawson.htm >
Reginald Sheperd, ‘A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom’ <http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/03/few-issues-in-creative-writing.html>
Frank Smith, Writing and the Writer, p.87.
Amanda Boulter, ‘Assessing the Criteria: An Argument for Creative Writing Theory’ - <http://www.multilingual-matters.net/nw/001/0134/nw0010134.pdf >
Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, p.88.
Ibid, p.88.

Full Bibliography

Anderson, Chris ed., Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press: 1989).

Behn, Robin, Chase Twichell, eds, The Practice of Poetry, (New York: Harper Collins: 1992).

Bolton, Gillie, Reflective Practice - Writing and Professional Development, 2nd Ed., (London: Sage: 2005).

Bryant K. Alexander, Gary L. Anderson, and Bernardo P. Gallegos, eds., Performance Theories in Education: Power, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Identity (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2004).

Dawson, Paul, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, (New York: Routledge: 2005).

Devitt, Amy J., Writing Genres, (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press: 2004).

Krauth, Nigel, Tess Brady, eds, Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice, (Teneriffe, Queensland: Post Pressed: 2006).

Russell, David R., Writing in the Academic Disciplines: A Curricular History, 2nd ed., (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press: 2002).

Miller, J. Hillis, On Literature (London: Routledge, 2002).

Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others, (New York: Oxford University Press: 2003).

Showalter, Elaine, Teaching Literature, (Oxford: Blackwell: 2003).

Smith, Frank, Writing and the Writer, 2nd ed. (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).

Web Resources

Armstrong, Luanne, ‘First Reader: Learning to Teach Creative Writing’-
<http://www.ccfi.educ.ubc.ca/publication/insights/v11n01/articles/armstrong.html >

Bausch, Richard, ‘Letter to a Young Writer’ - <http://www.writing-spot.com/info/Writing-Tips-and-Advice/Letter-to-a-Young-Writer.html >

Boulter, Amanda, ‘Assessing the Criteria: An Argument for Creative Writing Theory’ - <http://www.multilingual-matters.net/nw/001/0134/nw0010134.pdf >

Caldwell, Grant, ‘How and What Do Creative Writing Teachers Teach And What Do Creative Writing Students Learn?’ -
<http://www.ccfi.educ.ubc.ca/publication/insights/v11n01/articles/caldwell.html >

Dawson, Paul, ‘Towards a New Poetics in Creative Writing Pedagogy’ - <http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april03/dawson.htm >

Hunley, Tom, ‘Rhetorical Theory as a Basis for Poetry Writing Pedagogy’-
<http://www.ccfi.educ.ubc.ca/publication/insights/v11n01/articles/hunley.html>

Jones, Russell Celyn, ‘Teaching Creative Writing’ -
<http://www.richmondreview.co.uk/features/jones.html>

Kroll, Jeri, ‘The Resurrected Author: Creative Writers in 21st-century Higher Education.’<http://www.multilingual-matters.net/nw/001/nw0010089.htm >

Shepherd, Reginald, ‘A Few Issues for Creative Writing Classroom’ -
<http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/03/few-solutions-for-creative-writing.html>

Copyright - Sonia Hendy-Isaac 2008

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