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