Right before Writing

By MacRobert, Marguerite | Journal of Literary Studies, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Right before Writing


MacRobert, Marguerite, Journal of Literary Studies


1 Right before Writing

1.1 Why Creative Writing is Important

A decade ago, the Department of Arts and Culture formulated an objective of "stimulation and development of South African culture and identity through the development of writing, literary expression and literature" (The Cultural Strategy Group Report, DACST 1998: 28). This is linked to a programme which seeks to "[contribute] to the ability of South Africans to be innovative and competitive" and "promote innovation and new literary forms and genres" (p. 31). Creative writing programmes are flourishing at major South African universities, and creative writing remains a heavily weighted part of the matriculation school leaving examination. How and why we teach creative writing is thus a matter of national concern. Sadly, however, it does not always attract the close attention it warrants, and the writing process is often poorly conceptualised and oversimplified.

Cultural psychologist, Jerome Bruner (in Armstrong 2007: 5) argues that "storytelling is implicit to the creation of human culture. The process of creating and telling stories appears to be fundamental to understanding of not only what it is to be human, but how it is we are human". He declares the "narrative gift" we all possess to be "as distinctly human as our upright posture and our opposable thumb and forefinger". However, as anyone who has attempted writing will testify, there is an enormous challenge when it comes to writing down these stories, so, as one teacher put it, "even though [novice writers] might be sure they have an important story to tell, they are often disappointed at how flat and uneven the story seems when they write it down" (p. 6). This is because "the craft of the written narrative is extremely complex, and uses very different skills than oral storytelling" (p. 6).

Evidence in fact suggests that the creative process of writing requires more preparation and time than is sometimes budgeted for in the teaching of creative writing, particularly in school. Furthermore, this time before writing needs to be more carefully managed and planned for, if teachers are to teach creative writing and not simply ask it of their learners. In order to better understand the writing process, a great deal of research has been conducted.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which writing is studied. The first is to focus entirely on what happens in the classroom at school or at university and to experiment with various techniques for teaching writing, to see which didactic method yields the best results. The other method is to study what successful writers in the world outside the educational institution are doing and to see whether their techniques and tips can be used in the classroom. Both types of research are important, as "[w]e need to know what separates expertise from mediocrity and what is needed ... to foster continuing growth in competence" (Scardamalia 1993: 19).

There are distinct differences between how novice writers write and how expert writers write (cf. Kaufman 2002); these need elaboration if teachers are to understand where they are going with their students.

2 Some General Problems in the Teaching of Creative Writing

The thorny issue of talent has to be tackled head-on as it impacts on creative writing. Far too often one hears primary and high school teachers dismiss or praise learners for their talent or lack of it and say things like, "Wow, you are so creative!" or, "You will never be a writer," as if they have a divine intuition about these things and no further job to do. This has been referred to as "the Romantic legacy within English departments, characterized primarily by the notion that one either is or is not a writer, and that this cannot be changed by any amount of schooling" (Mayers 1999: 84). As one writing teacher and researcher puts it,

I believe [talent] is a most devastating element in the classroom, causing many writers to give up, often before knowing whether they have it or not. …

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