>Multimodality in Current "Creative Writing"

June 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

>As I have been discussing in my last two posts, there is a current disciplinary divide between Composition Studies and Creative Writing. To some extent, both disciplinary categories have been traditionally housed under the broader “English Studies” category. However, recent trends toward Writing Across the Curriculum have, for better or worse, widened the disciplinary gap between these categories. In a recent article Doug Hesse, a respected scholar in Composition Studies, calls for more attention to Creative Writing within Composition Studies, particularly with regard to the topic of multimodality.

According to Hesse, the Creative Writing classroom offers more flexibility for developing the kinds of writing necessary for current college students than traditional Composition classrooms, which tend to focus on writing forms (the persuasive essay) and styles (rhetorical canons). However, Hesse argues that in the current Creative Writing discipline, there is not enough attention given to multimodality in writing. Hesse believes that Composition Studies has been more diligent than Creative Writing in exploring multimodality with regard to writing. This shows up in first-year college writing courses which increasingly explore writing as video, as image, as blog, and as interactive in both production and consumption.

I contend that the issue is more complicated than a simple divide between Creative Writing and Composition Studies, although divisions along those lines certainly make things complicated. I also believe that in Creative Writing classes there has been a longer and richer tradition of multimodality, one not necessarily centered on innovative technology. Hesse’s definition of the term multimodality relies on a definition associated with contemporary educational models which narrowly define the term to mean “writing with technology.” At least when considering English programs, in order to do an accurate study of multimodality in relation to Creative Writing, one must also take note of the place of Film Studies programs housed in English departments. Because such programs often take the form of interpretation courses, they may look like the domain of Literary Studies, itself a key player we have not discussed much. Screenwriting and drama classes are still widely taught within English, they bridge into performance studies, which is inherently multimodal.

Further, I believe part of the problem is that, at the upper division and graduate levels, there is little attention given to composing outside of Creative Writing courses, thus exacerbating an existing professional divide with the discipline of Composition Studies. Composition Studies itself is a misleading term, since the scholarship tends to be pedagogically heavy and geared toward traditionally “academic” styles of writing. As Hesse himself notes, Composition Studies should explore “creative composing – in teaching, in scholarship, and in our expanded sense of ourselves as textmakers” (25).

This divide between Composition Studies and Creative Writing coincides with a decline in the teaching of theory and philosophy as contemplative counterpart to English Studies in general, which I described with regard to Francois Cusset two posts ago. In the allergy to theoretical discourse as a complement to writing and professional, civic engagement, English Studies has lost a lingua franca for communication within its own discipline. Interestingly, Brian Evanson’s piece, which I referred to in my last post, calls for the firm grounding of aesthetics and philosophy for creative writers. Even Literary Studies scholars either eschew theory or present it as methodological interpretation. Theory is not discussed or thought of in terms of invention in any explicit way, though it may very well perform a “behind-the-scenes” function in many classes. If it is discussed, there are the normal growing pains students go through with reading something rigorous, and often the theorist’s personality outshines the function of the theory.

Thus, in English Studies, we rely on an outdated pantheon of theorists as authoritative figures without training new ones. Theory itself becomes passe, signalling (rightfully) an outdated system of symbolic power. Contemporary creative writers, who may embody intriguing theoretical perspectives, are not studied in any critical way; indeed, their work appears archaic to scholars in Composition Studies because within Composition Studies there is more emphasis on medium than compositional content or process – “Deep as it may be, it remains a poem, in print.” And as Egon Spengler said, way back in the 80s, “Print is dead.”

More insidiously – and ignorantly – because contemporary creative writers are not studied in any critical way within graduate programs, their symbolic power relies on “in-the-know,” inbred communities which (like scholars in Composition Studies) create their own identity boundaries, and as such they are read by institutional professionals as people who refuse to “play the game.” They seem far out, as Hesse says, they “play no service role,” and they are resented for it. At the administrative level, there is little understanding for what the role of the English Department is outside of teaching a kind of composition that is outdated and studying Shakespeare.

My take is that Creative Writing is resented at the administrative level because the critical apparatus to engage with it has been destroyed by a move away from theoretical discourse to the emphasis on teachers as coaches, as facilitators. Literary scholars, once the theoretical buffer between theory and practice, in their (understandable) allergy to the elitist nature of high theory intensify the gap between Composition Studies and Creative Writing without intending to. In an effort to assert their own importance in a culture increasingly moving away from the importance of studying interpretation and symbology, they protect their own and, like Composition Studies scholars in Hesse’s view, resent and envy the attention Creative Writing, that un-civic discipline made up of people who won’t play game, gets from young students. Young students, products of this environment, capitalize on the fact that anyone can be an author, publisher, reader, distributor, and naturally gravitate toward the profession where they can produce something culturally meaningful, something that both Literary Studies and Composition Studies lack because they are entrenched in institutional definitions of worth that have no current market value.

The only place where market value exists is the concept of multimodality because the one who can give the sexy talk and convince administrators (themselves the teachers who “gave up” teaching) to fund them. English Studies as a discipline perpetually has a difficult time arguing what it does. And that is a large part of why multimodality is important.

In order for the disciplines of “Creative Writing” and “Composition Studies,” and “Literary Studies” to truly begin a (much-needed) dialogue, I believe Composition Studies professionals must break out of their roles as the answerable parties to the university at large for “training” writers. This does not mean that it is not the responsibility of both Creative Writing and Composition Studies to educate writers; it merely means that the definition of writing as a skill and as a form of knowledge production, as defined by current university models, is archaic and destructive to a larger conception of writing in the 21st century.

I, therefore, wholeheartedly agree with Doug Hesse’s call for more attention across the disciplinary divide between Creative and Composition Studies.

But here is how I believe it must be done.

Multimodality must be understood more in its denotative sense than its connotative sense.

Theoretical discourse since the late 1960s has been exploring the issues of image as text and text as image. In that discourse is a longstanding openness to multimodality, particularly with relation to the body. While Performance Studies, largely a part of Communication Studies continues to actively explore this theoretical discourse, discussions have fragmented away from English Studies. It’s not that English Studies should “own” all discourse, but the fragmenting into more and more specialized disciplines is destructive and ultimately unsustainable.

Theory considering the body, comportment, the nature of subjectivity, and ethics remains a rich source for understanding writing. Before writing departments, this was housed within rhetoric. While we may laugh off the elocutionary and gestural rhetoric that arose in the Enlightenment, in a world where writing is staging, blocking, and choreography, and audience interaction are more intensely part of the writing process, this theory can provide a critical function.

Film Studies, which has largely grown out of English departments with an emphasis on interpretation, meaning an outgrowth of traditional literary studies, must be regarded as part of the solution to foster dialogue between Creative Writing and Composition Studies. Any creative writer who has written a play or screenplay should be considered multimodal. Any creative writer who has collaborated with an illustrator should be regarded as multimodal. Many campuses, like the University of Colorado at Denver for instance, wrongly divide interpretive Film Studies and Film Production Studies. It is necessary to think of Tai Chi, Yoga, Jeet Kun Do, and dance choreography as script. It is especially necessary that with the term “multimodality,” we do not lose track of the physicality of writing, not just the tactility of the typing, but the destructive and productive nature of chisel and stone. The virtual world is part of the physical world, and that is true convergence.

In general, there is an overwhelming lack of attention to interpretation with regard to writing, which is an outgrowth of a production-oriented culture and the decline of theory in America as a valuable educational tool due to its abstraction from real politics. In Creative Writing workshops, particularly those focusing on close attention to syntax, to the ways language performs its own content, there is possibility for a meeting of interpretation and practice (see my interview with Kathryn Hobson).

Theory, interpretation, and practice must be discussed in relationship to community, social practice, and politics. There is an archaic division between positivism and negativism (critical theory) that divides the “hard” sciences and the “humanities” which is pervasive and fundamentally destructive to American education. Because of this archaic division, naive politicians seek the future of American stability in the “technical studies,” not understanding the value that liberal education gives to foreign students, who increasingly fund American universities.

In other words, American scholars, administrators, and politicians simply do not value the potential they have because of outdated, modernist, evidence-based thinking. Holistic thinking must be an accent to corporate taxonomic organization in the same way that eastern and western medicine must learn to speak to one another. Conceptually, these are the same problems English and writing programs face. True multimodality must be disciplinary convergence as well as the ability to produce text in different ways. The dogmatic assumption that advanced capitalism will prevail because capitalism won the Cold War when, at the rate things are going, America will “lose” because it is too complacent with its role as a world power and its dependency on nationalism as a unifying factor. Given its dogmatic attention to patriotism, one would think that America might have a more unified vision for the education of its citizens, but in its addiction to competition, its educational system will (rightfully) lose to nations who are able to avoid making their teachers (and students) compete with one another.

Here are some examples of multimodality within Creative Writing.










I have also interviewed two writers, Jennifer Denrow, a “Creative Writer” and Kathryn Hobson, a Communication Studies student, interested in ethnography and Performance Studies who has recently taken a creative writing workshop. Both of them provide examples of interdisciplinary thinking across the divide between Composition Studies and Creative Writing.

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