Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writing Process and our Various Writerly Selves

On her blog, The Word Cage, Mary Biddinger writes about a student who's exploring the intersection between creative writing and academic writing--but they haven't been able to find much research on the subject or source material.

For years, I've been collecting books where authors talk about their writing process, so I thought that surely I would have something. I found lots of books on my shelves of interviews with writers--no surprise, since that's one of my favorite formats. I found many books of essays, where authors wrestle with what it is they mean to do in their creative writing. I even found an essay or two where authors wrestle with which genre is the most natural for them, for example, how to integrate their poet self with their novelist self.

I didn't find anything which talked about writers who feel torn between academic writing and creative writing, much less anything that explored authors who work in both worlds.

When I think back to my own graduate school days in the late 80's and early 90's, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The MFA world was fairly separate from the PhD world. The MFA folks had to take one class in theory, and they complained bitterly. The theorists would say, "Creative writing is the dirt from which theory flowers." Those of us who went to graduate school because we love poetry, both the writing of it and the reading of it, felt a bit lost.

And the academic job world still seems stratified in this way. If I want a job where I teach British Literature of the 19th Century, I really need to have some articles, preferably a book, analyzing the work of those writers. If I publish my own book of elegiac poems that find a model in Tennyson's "In Memoriam A.H.H.," that's unlikely to win me a teaching job where I can talk about Tennyson--unless I have a PhD and some academic articles that analyze the work of Tennyson.

I've spent much of my creative life writing poems, because they're more portable (I started dabbling with the novel form long before laptops were lightweight and affordable). I decided not to focus on research and academic writing once I finally finished my dissertation and could write whatever I wanted. But occasionally, I wonder if I should beef up my CV, in case I ever want a job elsewhere, and I return to academic writing.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford for a book of essays about narratives of community in linked short stories written by women. It went through several revisions, and I thought, oh yes, I remember why I didn't want to do this. But when I held the final book in my hand, I felt such a rush, and I thought, why don't I do this more often?

I know I'm not the only writer who wrestles with various writing identities and wonders how much time to devote to each. I find it interesting that those of us who write in a variety of genres (such as feminist criticism or theology or cookbook writing) outside of the standard Creative Writing genres of Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction, don't write more about that part of the writing process.

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