Colors of a Different Horse: Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy

Wendy Bishop & Hans Ostrom, eds.
Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994
328 pp., 22.95 pb

Carter Kaplan
Independent Scholar

This is an anthology of 22 essays, reports, dialogs, and confessions treating various aspects of creative writing theory and pedagogy. These diverse pieces, prepared by creative writing instructors from across the country, are united by the assumption that theory can and should inform the creative writing classroom. By theory is meant the constellation of interpretive strategies which have been circulating for the past fifteen or so years among university English departments: poststructuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, cultural and ethnic studies, Marxism, feminism, discourse theory, cognitive theory, postmodernism, cyberpunk, new historicism, lesbian and gay studies, post-colonialism, social-constructionist theory, interactive fiction, dialogism, etc.

The book's greatest strength is its ability to process these often abstruse and convoluted ideas and present them in terms creative writing instructors will swiftly understand. From a technical standpoint, there is some very effective writing here. And there is among some of these articles a playful inconclusiveness and exuberance which enriches the pedagogical dialog. There are, of course the problems which surface in any dialog centered around the analysis, advocacy, or application of theory. Sometimes there is a lack of critical rigor in the application of the abstraction of theory to the real world of the classroom. The dynamics of the relationship between theory and the everyday world is often ignored or explained away with a limiting epistemological relativism. Sometimes a theory is accepted simply because it satisfies the ideological or institutional views held by the writer. Sometimes a writer will go to great lengths to elaborate a theory, only to draw the conclusion that this theory has nothing to contribute to creative writing. In some cases the theories treated by the contributors are already out of date or have fallen out of favor. There is a tendency to treat theory as if it were knowledge, to elevate correlation to the status of that modernist myth-deity called "causality."

What first strikes the reader of Colors of a Different Horse is the ease and precision some of these writers bring to bear in explaining theory. Contributor Eugene Garber's clever and too brief gloss on Wittgenstein's Tractatus comes to mind. It is unfortunate that he didn't play more notes on this string and then go on to discuss Philosophical Investigations, for here lies the solution to the book's central philosophical error concerning theory: insensitivity to the tension between reality and illusion; between the particularity of events and the superstition of cause and effect.

When theory and philosophy are examined or contextualized within a work of literary imagination, fascinating things begin to happen. This practice, of course, represents a very recognizable literary tradition: Menippean Satire, or what Northrop Frye (in recognition of Robert Burton) calls the "anatomy". The Menippean tradition offers much to fiction writers interested in exploring theory. Firstly, Menippean tradition is open to all fields of intellectual inquiry: natural science, theology, religion, philosophy, mathematics, music, history, medicine, jurisprudence, etc. Secondly, the Menippean tradition contextualizes, compartmentalizes, miniaturizes and subsumes a priori theory beneath a world view which is empirical and accurate, but is also rooted in a love for social consensus, justice, peace and tolerance.

The Menippean view is of a world that is variable, changing, manifold, and multifarious. It is a world peopled by individuals leading their own particular lives, individuals capable of evil, but also capable of creating goodness, happiness, and love. Finally, with a shrewdness which will impress the most rigorous skeptic, Menippean tradition identifies within its empirical approach certain irregular but verifiable patterns which are of profound metaphysical interest. Some of the contributors to Colors of a Different Horse are already on the Menippean wavelength. Others seem poised to embrace Menippean satire, and, rather than teach theory, will instead seek to un-teach it as the best method for achieving their pedagogical goals. What characterizes the "signifying systems" of free societies is the understanding that theory is, by definition, tentative.

Some readers will find Colors of a Different Horse to be overly-ideological and overly theoretical. I disagree with this perception. The contributors spill as much ink rejecting theories as they do embellishing them. But more practical questions must be asked: How accurately or effectively do the contributors define the situation of creative writing in the university? Are contributors enlarging or narrowing the range of the creative writing experience? Is their grasp of theory accurate, balanced, and at a level consistent (or even superior) to the backdrop of knowledge represented by the university context? And what about the contexts of other traditions? Other knowledge markets?

Colors of a Different Horse contains several articles which seek to re-establish academic and collegial boundaries. In "Theory, Creative Writing, and the Impertinence of History," R.M. Berry argues that "Creative writing is the most influential theory of literature since World War II" (57). Creative writers are here presented as alternatives to literary criticism specialists with Ph.D.'s as definers and teachers of literature. Berry's idea suggests some interesting questions: how does writing fiction, plays, and poems improve students' knowledge of literature? knowledge of the humanities? theory? how is this knowledge described?

A number of articles address questions concerning the magnitude and character of pedagogical courses. There are contributors who argue creative writing MFA candidates should be taught to teach composition, and contributors who think students of rhetoric and composition should be taught creative writing. It has been my own experience that courses in pedagogy, particularly in a writing program, consume valuable time and frustrate creativity and scholarship. At the university level, an instructor's qualifications are not based upon the pedagogy seminars he or she sat on in graduate school, but upon the work that instructor has produced in his or her field. That work can be assumed to include coursework and teaching. However, a new MFA with few publications and little teaching experience will find it difficult to find work teaching writing. Would a course in composition pedagogy improve such a student's chance of landing a job? Should that course in pedagogy include "broad...examinations of cultures, politics, and institutional systems" as editor Wendy Bishop suggests (292)? Should creative writers be trained as researchers? Should the role or idea of a creative writing teacher be reconceptualized into that of a "cultural worker" with an agenda of social transformation?

While a great many challenging ideas are discussed in this book, the overall message of Colors of a Different Horse is an appeal for tolerance. Theory is used by the contributors only as a point of departure for demonstrating their learning, their art, and to ask questions concerning creative writing as an institution and a pedagogical practice. There is some excellent "hands-on" strategy here that has nothing to do with theory, but simply the day-to-day chore of reading through and commenting upon student narratives and poetry--a daunting task.

The major drawback of this book has something to do with theoretical discourse itself. Has anybody coined the phrase "theory-centric" yet? The solutions to the problems postulated by these teacher-writers will be found in the broader conceptualization of their roles; not as writing teachers, not as cultural workers, but as artists with unique and unprecedented resources at their disposal for understanding and describing the variable and ironic nature of the human condition.

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