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Jonathan Gibbs

We know what Creative Writing is, and Critical Writing, as separate disciplines, but some of the most interesting writing being produced at the moment is writing that either plays with the boundaries between those disciplines, or ignores them altogether. I’m thinking of writers like Geoff Dyer, Ali Smith, Sheila Heti and Nicholson Baker, and, further back, but still very much informing this part of the literary scene, WG Sebald.

The PhD programme I am on at UEA is called Creative and Critical Writing, which suggests that the two types of writing might at least be considered in conjunction, while last year I gave a paper at a conference on the subject of Creative/Critical Writing, which suggests a different, perhaps closer relationship.

In my paper I explored what happens when the two terms are joined together: what happens when Creative and Critical Writing becomes Creative-Critical Writing – my name for that kind of boundary-jumping or boundary-ignoring writing.

In doing so I found myself reaching for metaphors to describe the relationship between the two disciplines. In a way the choice of metaphors was the whole point of the paper. They said everything I wanted to say about the subject. Here, then, sliced out of my academic paper and given a sort of brief, perplexed commentary, are my metaphors:

By Creative-Critical Writing I mean writing that elides the distinction between the two disciplines, or that cosies up to the divide between them, from one side or the other, to peer over the fence, or listen through the wall, and that sometimes, whether accidentally or on purpose, shifts or distorts that barrier, or otherwise disturbs the occupants or atmosphere of the neighbouring room, even if just to the extent of interfering with the television reception.

The idea here is clearly one of a divide as physical barrier, a wall or a fence, which immediately brings up the question of dimensions and materials. A garden fence that can be seen over, or leaned on and chatted over, and that might let through stray stems of a blackberry bush, or goose grass, or nettles, is very different to a 8-metre-high wall or fence – or, okay, ‘separation barrier’ – that would permit none of this.

When I wrote that the barrier might actually get shifted or distorted, I suppose I was thinking of cheap motel rooms, where you can hear the person next door, and so know they can hear you.  The point being, in the end, that Creative and Critical are, under the terms of this metaphor, very much open to each other’s influence, whether positive or malign, while always remaining entirely themselves, and that all of this is made possible by the barrier that separates them. (“Good fences make good neighbours.”)

It is debatable writing, as the land that once stood between Scotland and England, where one might have expected a strict border, was the Debatable Lands.

Here, in fact, the barrier is expanded, or dissolved, or exploded, to become a zone (interzone, demilitarized zone, no man’s land) where no rules apply, or different rules apply, or the rules are pending further definition, perhaps permanently so. I’m not sure that this metaphor helps us much: it is too temporary, too historically determined. History teaches us that one side or the other of such a zone will eventually prevail.

The discourse of Creative Writing, what I write when I write my novel, is confined to its pages, under what might be termed, in a slightly laboured analogy, laboratory conditions. Nothing that I write there can break out of its discourse to infect the wider, superordinate and dominant critical discourse of the department in which we sit, scribbling and squabbling.

The move from the physical or geopolitical metaphor to the medical, the corporeal, the intimate, is always going to raise the stakes of an argument. And yet there are paradoxes here. After all, what is the virus doing in the laboratory in the first place? It is being studied, and controlled, for the greater good of the community. (Is this what the Academy did when it let Creative Writing into its hallowed space?)

…the department, and my supervisors, were quite happy for us to think of those terms as not mutually exclusive, but as possible subjects for hybridization, without ever going into specifics about how that hybridization, or cross-fertilization, might take place – and now I’m put in mind of another reasonably current analogy: of genetically modified crops accidentally fertilizing ‘natural’ crops, though here I’m not sure which crop might be which, which I might be naïve enough to want to call ‘natural’.

An interesting scientific point: hybridizing two species to produce a ‘better’, ‘healthier’ hybrid can damage biodiversity, by driving out both original species, and thus diminishing the gene pool. Hybridization leads to homogenization. Nobody would want all writing to be Creative-Critical, every essay to be lyric, every novel to carry non-fictional under- or overtones.

In his poem ‘Meeting Austerlitz’ George Szirtes characterizes Sebald’s writing process as the use of “double exposure: He would unwind the world of memory and wind it up again a little off-centre as though it were a blind or hedge against bad luck”.

This is a lovely metaphor, though not particularly germane to our current discussion. The whole point of double exposure – whether it is two superposed images of the same subject, or of two different subjects – is that the lens through which they are seen, and the film on which their images are exposed, is the same. The double exposure is a concretisation of the Heraclitan same river twice, whereas the Creative-Critical dichotomy, or synthesis, or whatever it is, is about two different ways of looking, or seeing, or thinking, or writing, at one thing. To stay true to the metaphor, it would be like taking photos of the same subject, at the same moment, on two different cameras: an SLR and a Polaroid; or perhaps taking a photo and painting a watercolour.

‘Living On: Border Lines’ explores, or explodes, the idea of the edges or borders of a text, describing the text “[overrunning] the limits assigned to it”. Throughout the piece Derrida uses a specifically watery set of metaphors – that overrunning is ‘débordement’ – that makes one think of breached sea walls and flooded land.

Interestingly, Derrida’s metaphor moves in the opposite direction to my ones. In my medical scenario, for instance, the subject is a body that fears encroachment from outside, just as the motel guest worries about the stranger in the next-door room. In Derrida, however, it is the text that is the active force, breaching its walls and flooding the neighbouring fields. Which is not necessarily a destructive action.

If there is a sense of disturbance at the Creative and Critical discourses being brought into close proximity – angrily humming and growling at each other, like rival cats in a garden, or similarly charged magnets – then the least we can say is that particular sea wall is still partly intact.

As with the television reception in the cheap motel, what I like about these metaphors is the idea two things affecting each another simply by being brought into proximity. After all, all those medical and scientific metaphors insist on the actual, physical comingling of different substances, whether at the biological, molecular or genetic level, which is not something that happens with literature. There is no gene in a sentence, or paragraph, that makes it creative or critical, fictional or non.

Sebald, who called his medium not the novel, but prose, could be said to approach the lyric essay from the direction of the novel, cosy up to it and pull the hat from its head and put it on its own. Sebald is the lyric essay, the ‘non-fiction artwork’, in drag, or perhaps ventriloquised.

One category of writing masquerading as another is, I think, one of the least interesting manifestations of this tendency. Think of titles: how vogueish it is for novels to go out into the world with a non-fictional hat on. This is cross-dressing at its crudest. The chances of a book called A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian containing real actual knowledge on that subject are about the same as those of Lily Savage having a pair of X chromosomes.  That said, the title here does aspire to the blissful irony of the double bluff: it so clearly doesn’t do what it says on the tin that the reader is bound to step closer, intrigued, convinced that it must contain some interesting knowledge, if only because it so clearly semaphores the fact that it doesn’t, by pretending it does.

Conversely, think of the non-fiction title, whether of book, essay or thesis, that relies on its subtitle – that which comes after the inevitable colon – to say what it does, first drawing you in with the showier, flouncier, fictional-ier pre-colonic title.

Ventriloquised is better, subtler. We learn not to trust the clothing, but we do trust the voice. Close your eyes, and the crudest ventriloquist’s dummy resolves to his or her character, the dialogue between it and its master becomes a ‘true’ one.

Fence, virus, sea wall, drag act… the wider point to be made here about my increasingly frantic search for metaphors for that central relationship between the creative and the critical, is that this very action pulls me down firmly on one side of the divide. Metaphor is creative, not critical, by its very nature. It is anti-scientific. Where science tries to increase knowledge of a subject by measurement and analysis, literature – or, more traditionally, poetry – tries to know by describing, by comparing.

Science brings its object of study into the lab, out of the world, banishes the world in fact, from its investigations. Poetry, given an object of study, immediately casts around for something else to lay alongside it, drape over it, throw at it. It roots through the bin, tips out its handbag, opens wide the doors and windows of the lab in the hope of something wandering in that is different yet somehow the same.

By trying to pin down the difference between creative and critical writing through metaphor, I do anything but… for of course pinning down itself is a metaphor, borrowed in this instance from science – pinning down butterflies, the better to study them. Metaphor is the mark of the creative in the critical: the mark, the trace, the spoor, the taint… pick your metaphor.

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