American Culture

The State of Literary Art V: Theory Schmeory…

Do we need a theory of creative writing? Would that save higher education? Uh, nope…

(For previous essays in this series, look hereherehere and here.)

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

This essay in the series of essays on Joe David Bellamy’s assessment of American writing ventures into territory that may be irrelevant by the time I finish this. In this section of Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, Bellamy tackles a problem that is solving itself – although not in a way that Bellamy, or anyone in academia or creative writing expected at the time of this book’s appearance in 1995.

The section containing Bellamy’s dispute with the structure of English departments and their contentious relationships with creative writing programs is called “Literary Education.” In a pair of essays called “The Theory of Creative Writing I: Keeping the Frog Alive” and “The Theory of Creative Writing II: the Uses of the Imagination and the Revenge of the Pink Typewriter” Bellamy discusses the two main issues that plagued relations between English departments and creative writing programs: the rise of literary theorists and their increasingly esoteric and irrelevant (to the teaching of English, particularly thinking and writing, anyway) specializations, and the emphasis on analytical/critical approaches to all learning that permeate academic instruction.

Of the first, what the rise of literary theory did was to create greater and greater gulfs between the experience of literature as our finest examples of writing as an art form. Bellamy refers to this problem as what it is: academics involving themselves (and, in far too many cases, forcing students to involve themselves) in discussions of critical theory (here’s a good list for the uninitiated) that much of the time had/have little to do with actual literature. What Bellamy claims for the study of creative writing is that it allows students to engage with literature in ways that help them appreciate the beauty of both the form and content of literary works. While this may or may not be true, Bellamy’s suggestion that students be allowed to create creative responses to literature they study because doing so improves their sensitivity to art, their ability to discern meanings, and their writing skill has a great deal of merit. But, as he notes, English departments being the political morasses that they are, “legitimizing” creative writing instruction (and integration of creative writing into other curricular study in the field) was, is, and will always be seen as a threat to the scholarly faction.

The second essay, the one which references the pick typewriter, allows Bellamy to focus on what he sees as a major problem in giving students true liberal arts education: what he perceives as de-emphasis of the arts in education. Bellamy’s chief claim, that changes in administrative views of students as clients to be trained for technocratic roles, ignores or worse, he  believes, trains students to repress their imaginations. This, he thinks, does much harm. First, it diminishes the ability to use creativity as a problem solving tool. Second, it alienates any students whose natural bents are towards creative thinking rather than pure rationalism. That pink typewriter that Bellamy references is a symbol, as an anecdote he shares explains. A college roommate of his, an art major, created an objet d’art by pounding his old typewriter with a sledge hammer, then painting it bright pink. Bellamy says that whenever he thinks of his roommate’s art work he is reminded of the frustration that many students feel in an educational system that negates creativity in favor of abstraction and analysis. The pink typewriter symbolizes words as they are taught in the university – pins pricking students, poking into them that only analytic abstraction is acceptable as methodology for trying to understand their world. Bellamy argues that if for no other reason, creative writing should be integrated university teaching to help students that the imagination can help us understand the world as well as analysis and critique.

One can feel Bellamy’s pain concerning the problem of trying to get the business oriented technocrats now fully in charge of the American university system and determined, it seems, to make it nothing more than job training for corporate interests to see that arts education (and I don’t believe Bellamy would limit the usefulness of art integrated into the wider curriculum to creative writing) has value in helping higher education programs produce (there’s a business term) more interesting, thoughtful, valuable graduates. But the drive in some higher education circles towards MOOCs, towards skills certifications, towards “useful, job-oriented training” rather than liberal arts education, especially liberal arts based education continues apace. And as students are sold this technocratic training as the only real education, Bellamy’s concerns may become moot. Like it or not, the arts are disappearing at a rate to rival the polar ice caps.  So worrying about justifying their existence may already be wasted effort.


12 replies »

  1. I must admit to a bit of guilt here. This opens my eyes a bit to what I teach — a form of writing that some argue is restrictive in the way Bellamy describes. Teaching sophomores, who have come to college under-prepared in matters of sensible language use, forces me to use what amounts to the old “inverted pyramid” as a basis of instruction. That’s about as rigid and technocratic as writing gets.

    Journalism, in its quest for speed and efficiency, has always leaned on formulaic writing. It’s worse now, as the demand for “news NOW” grows more digitally intense.

    But: What I teach is a baseline. They may be sophomores now irritated by my refrain of “subject-verb-object, verbal phrase” for summary ledes on hard news stories. But feature writing lies ahead, as do my blogging and opinion writing courses. By then, they will have more control over their writing, and imagination and risk-taking will be encouraged — because they have the ability to do so.

    When public schools do not provide sufficient emphasis on the fundamentals of language-use, it’s damn hard to allow imagination when the students have so little ability to write precisely. Any meaning, any imaginative flair, is lost in a comedy of comma errors and twisted syntax.

    So I wonder: Would Bellamy appreciate what I do … or criticize it?

    • The thing young writers don’t yet grasp is the value of what I guess we’ll call the compulsories. You need to know how SVO writing works. You need to know the inverted pyramid and the pyramid and the reasons for them, which to use when and why, and so on. Jebus, one of the most valuable lessons of my life came late when I found myself running writing and editing for a mobile SMS entertainment service. Being able to cram a paragraph worth of punch into 150 characters is hard as hell, but it’s remarkable how that skill benefits other types of writing that I do.

      In other words, a great writer is a versatile writer, one who has a lot of tools in the toolbox. Writers who don’t have that breadth of ability are limited in ways that undercut their work, often sooner rather than later. Jim is a minimalist, but I assure you that he can crank out an effusive PR brochure if he had to. You’re a journalist who has written an awfully engaging novel. I’m a poet, essayist, marketing and PR writer, SMS entertainer, and have also done fiction, nonfiction, and have scripted corporate training videos.

      I can do all these things, and you can both do these things, because we learned to write and we learned the value of versatility.

      If you can help the sophomores understand that learning to do this helps them do other things down the road, that it makes future learning easier and more productive, you’ll be in good shape. Of course, they’re sophomores, so the odds are not in your favor… 🙂

    • Bellamy might criticize what you do, Denny – but I doubt it.

      We face a crisis in teaching writing – one of long duration and increasing acuteness. It’s also complicated by what we might call the “mutation” factor: the problems keeps changing thanks to technology. Sam and i used to do presentations on this in the late 80’s-early 90’s that traced the problem to TV. Now we have seen several new iterations – computer assisted writing, email writing, web site/Internet writing, texting. All of these have brought complications to the treatment of serious problems of clarity and coherence.

      I’d note, too, Denny, that you teach journalism – a specialized form of discourse that has long had strict rules (at least in print format). But as you noted in a piece just a few days ago, the Web has made teaching people the principles of journalism complicated. The actual writing act for a journalist is also, I bet, exacerbated by Internet journalism (and blogging) and the other effects of Internet discourse.

      I teach both academic and professional writing. and see variants of these effects in the two areas – though less so in professional writing than in academic writing – as you might guess. I fight many of the same battles you do on the same basis. Clear, organized prose is rarer than ever to find and harder than ever to teach.

      What you do is essential, Denny – students don’t know basics of discourse, much less basic tenets of a specific discourse style such as that used in journalism. Making sure they can communicate in a coherent matter is mission #1 – as we both know.

  2. Why is technocratic training wrong? We live in a technocratic society. We need technocrats and are willing to pay for them. Education is expensive. Many people, perhaps most, invest in education with an eye toward an economic return, which can only happen if people are prepared to take on technocratic roles. Therefore it makes perfect sense for academic institutions to focus on technocratic training.

    It makes no sense to focus on creative training. We don’t need more creatives or more creativity–yes, professors assert we do, but there’s no proof of it. It’s just an assertion. Anyway, we have plenty of creatives. The world is awash in creatives. Look at the number of self-published novels or youtube videos or paintings or poems or whatever. And I might add, much of this is done by technocrats.

    Further, people will do creative without getting paid. Anyway it’s not at all clear that creativity can be taught. (Clearly the craft of writing, painting, etc poetry, etc can be taught, but creativity itself?) If we can’t teach it, don’t need it and therefore won’t pay for it, why in the world should it be taught, other than perhaps as an indulgence for the children of the wealthy?

    Seriously, where is one shred of evidence that we need more creative training or that technocratic training leads to less creativity?

    • Wait, wait, Otherwise. You’re doing a nice little double-reverse here in demanding that somebody prove creative training works. The onus is on you here. See, we have creative training and always have. There are music classes in school, art classes, band. English classes often build in creative writing sections. And this doesn’t begin to touch all the creative training kids get at home, or in dance programs, or whatever. Truth is, while people like me lament that schools are hacking art programs, the culture you’re talking about has always had a good bit of creativity training.

      So you’re the one positing the change and the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that eliminating all these things will have no adverse impact.

      This said, much of what you assert is correct. A lot of people will continue being creative even if it costs them money – I’m exhibit A, I suppose. And you’re also correct, I think, in arguing that creativity per se can’t be taught. I can teach you how poems are written, but that won’t make you a poet.

      I will observe that this is not a universal opinion, however. I know those who’d argue that creativity can be fostered. Perhaps I can’t take a left-brained slug and make him into Picasso, but perhaps there are ways of making him a few percent more inventive.

      I have long speculated about what it would mean if you could somehow make 300+ million Americans each 5% more creative. My guess is that the results would be spectacular, but that’s hardly something I can prove, so for now it remains an interesting theoretical question.

      Still, the basic point here is that you’re positing that it would make no difference if we slashed things that promoted creativity, and that’s a position that’s going to need evidencing. We KNOW what happens in a society with X level of investment in creativity – we are that society, and the result is around us every day.

    • Having spent most of my 20+ years in the financial services industry in some form of technical capacity (even systems training for 4 years), I can see how people might think that creativity doesn’t apply in a technocratic environment.

      But perhaps you would like to see the references in a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago; one from a conservative source – the other from what would likely be considered liberal – ….The links I refer to that I find applicable to this discussion are in the last four paragraphs.

      If we can’t think creatively how do we come up with solutions for improvements to processes, to solving problems, – ever participated in a mind mapping exercise? Ever read “What a Great Idea” or participated in a session with the author of that book? Or even read “Breakthrough Creativity: Achieving Top Performance Using the Eight Creative Talents”? Company executives should be thinking about creative learning in their organizations.

      I believe a great deal of research has been done on the importance of creativity….even the benefits of music education (

    • Could you define “creatives,” Otherwise? If you’re including every damned amateur who has written and self-published a novel, for example, you’re conflating to include in the creative class 90% of the population, most of whom could be proven to be demonstrably uncreative. That ‘s a false equivalency.

      Nowhere in this essay does it claim that there should be “creativity training.” That’s an inaccurate reading. What the essays argue for is the integration of creative thinking exercises into other curricular activities. All humans have imagination. Being able to harness that imagination in activities in one’s job as well as in one’s life creates both economic and social capital. If integrating creative activity into the study of any field helps those who study to be imaginative, then the integration has served its purpose. Jesus, Otherwise – companies pay big money for training in creative problem solving, etc., to foster just that sort of productivity. Wouldn’t having that kind of training in college curricula seem valuable to the greedy sociopaths who pay themselves 50-150 times what they pay their employees? Perhaps they’d be worth a fraction of that money if they’d had such training.

  3. OK then, integration of creative thinking exercises into other curricular activities, (which of course is definitionally the same thing as creative training–claiming otherwise is distinction without a difference.)

    Corporations pay a tiny pittance for creative training. It only seems big if you’re on the outside and don’t see that they spend 100X that for nonsense like leadership training, which is an even bigger folly. These types of training are a sop to support the pretense that people arent cogs in a big corporate machine, which they are, but which bums them out if they think about it. So you drag in de Bono or some other charlatan for a day class, etc, etc. It’s nonsense, it doesn’t work, and it’s trivial.

    Look, I’m all for training in the arts, literature, drama, etc, but only for those who either plan to follow it for a vocation or want it for purposes of self-enrichment. I wish to heck I’d taken writing training long before I did, if so I might well have been more successful as an author.

    However, I see no value in encouraging creativity in the masses. Those people in the masses who are creative will encourage themselves, e.g., the amatuer creativity you disparage. Those who aren’t don’t really need it anyway and can’t possibly use it–sort of like music training for the tone deaf.

    My original point was to push back against those who snark against technocratic training and put forward nonsensical points suggesting such training is indicative of corporate sociopathy.

    I’ll leave the thread, but Scrogues are wonderfully honest, dispassionate and crisp-thinking folk until we get to the topic of education. Then all sorts of garbled emotional arguments start leaking in about technocrats and sociopaths and the like. I shouldn’t even try to engage on these topics.

    Yes, education is increasingly technocratic and vocationally oriented. Yes, much of that is done with a cynical and self serving eye, e.g., degrees in sports marketing–vocational training for an industry which has no jobs. Yes, most CEO’s I know have some sociopathic tendencies. Yes, wage disparity is a real danger to our society and should be reduced through the tax code.

    No, none of that means we should introduce creative thinking exercises into the curricula. That’s just the whining of envious liberal arts professors who watch their SEMI colleagues get paid more.

    • Otherwise,
      Regarding spending by companies on learning and development – this is 2012 data but gives some idea about company spending on L&D – I haven’t seen the 2013 report yet. Some of the most successful companies are those that invest in learning for their employees – not just technical training – but communications, mentoring, and, yes, leadership development. (I think a review of the ASTD BEST Award winners might provide insight into how beneficial L&D is in an organization.;;

      I think, too, you may be mistaking the arguments made as being about money when they are really about the importance of broad-based knowledge,

      And, forgive me, but the ‘jab’ at the end seemed out of character and irrelevant to the topic. I don’t really know much about where Sam and Denny stand on this – Sam and I haven’t really been in close communication since grade school; I at least know this – Jim doesn’t ‘whine’….he may rail….but he doesn’t whine. As for the money envy if you knew him better you’d know that money is not his primary motivating factor and he does not begrudge people earning money fairly. He cares deeply about an educated society, about learning, and about the future of our society as we move to ‘funneled; training that focuses ONLY on how it relates to career paths.

      Pardon me if I misunderstood your intent in that last line.

      • Otherwise,

        The fundamental question is frequently about your core assumptions. We all have assumptions and first principles, and when they run amok we use terms like “dogma.” In any case, your core assumptions tend to proceed forth with the idea that material metrics are the way to evaluate the worth of things. And not just things that explicitly hitched to that world, but EVERYTHING. We’ve had conversations about markets, for instance, where I asked you to explain why markets were the appropriate logic and your response was because markets assure equilibrium. Yes, but why is that the goal?

        I’m oversimplifying a bit to illustrate a point, but in these cases we tend to go in circles because you assume material/monetary/market etc and I insist that those metrics only be applied to cases where they clearly make sense.

        I think some of this is going on here. You’re reacting against a perceived argument in favor of creativity, or however we frame it, and you instinctively resort to what are ultimately market assumptions about the broad value of the programs in question. Now, if the question is specifically about whether or not a program in fostering creativity will enhance the bottom line, then by all means, let’s have at it – and I have your back every step of the way. But that isn’t the character of what has turned into a long, running debate that bubbles up in different places around different topics. This is really a more generalized discussion of philosophy and principles by this point.

        So again, I circle back to the question: why are these tools the only ones, or the best ones, to use? I know at the core you don’t believe that money is the only metric because I’ve seen you pursue, with ruthless focus, things that simply don’t register on those scales. You are yourself creative, and if I asked you to provide an example of where your capacity for associative thinking helped you see a solution that someone who was equally smart, but lacking your right-brain capacity, simply couldn’t get to, it would take you what, a half-second?

        I sometimes wonder if there’s a running debate in your own mind, and people like Jim and Denny and me are standing in for half of what you’re debating. Maybe somewhere out there you have some intensely logical friends and with them you’re making the argument against the things you argue for over here.

        I don’t know. I’m hardly a psychoanalyst. But I figure I can’t be the only one who has these internal conversations.