Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 11, 2017
(Paul Munden, Jen Webb, Randall Albers, Paul Hetherington, Lori A. May) The number of creative writing programs and the numbers of students in those programs are expanding significantly. But employment outcomes for creative writing graduates are poor: research shows that they either experience a working life characterized by precarity, low wages, and high volunteerism, or else must find employment in other areas. In this panel, we discuss ways in which curriculum content can prepare students for a future that includes creative and professional success.
Published Date: April 12, 2017
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. The recording features Paul Munden, Jen Webb, Randall Albers, Paul Heatherington, and Lori A. May. You will now hear Paul Munden provide introductions.
Okay. Welcome, everyone, to this session on preparing creative writing graduates for lifelong careers. We’re going to be looking at this very much from an international perspective. I’m Paul Munden, and I’m director of NAWE, the National Association of Writers in Education, which is the equivalent in the UK of AWP. I’m joined on the panel, from Canada on the far left, this is in order of how people are going to speak, we have Lori A. May from the University of Kings College, Halifax, from Australia, we have Jen Webb, who’s Director of the Center for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra, from the US we have Randall Albers, who’s professor emeritus of Columbia College of Chicago, and also from Australia, Paul Heatherington, who is professor of writing at the University of Canberra and head of the International Poetry Studies Institute, which is based there.
And I want to start just by acknowledging two important things. First is that I think there is perhaps a public perception that creative writing programs prepare you for very little other than a life of disappointment, and secondly, completely in opposition to that, the fact that creative writing is perhaps the ultimate transferable skill, and it’s one of the most useful things that you would possibly study. All of which suggests to me that we’re either underselling it, or maybe selling it in the wrong way, because if we rely on stories of certain graduates gaining high profile publishing contracts, that’s the risky way to go because, you know, even a ten percent success rate also equals a ninety percent failure rate. So, I’d like to start by quoting a few things from this publication from 2013, which is a report on creative writing in British Universities with responses from senior academics within around twenty different institutions, and if you’re interested in reading it in greater detail it is downloadable free from the NAWE website. And it says creative graduates are considered to be articulate, able to express themselves, both verbally and in writing, creative, independent, problem solvers, engaged, enthusiastic, and aware of the world around them. They’re team-workers with good presentation skills, creative, imaginative, and self-disciplined, critical thinkers, aware of the wider writing business and excellent communicators. They’re well equipped for further study in a whole range of disciplines—for teaching, reviewing, editing, organizing literary events, using writing as therapy, working in the creative industries, or arts administration, or in almost any number of traditional graduate jobs. And graduates get into a wide range of careers, where communication skills, creativity, and independence of mind are valued, for example, newspapers, magazine, PR, advertising, TV, radio, theater, literary agencies, libraries, booksellers, web, and games design and of course, teaching. And a poet at one of the top universities who was contributing to this report, intriguingly sites joblessness as something which creative writing graduates are uniquely well prepared, and you can imagine where critics might go with that as a headline, but actually it was said in all seriousness to describe the high level of inner resourcefulness which creative writing as the report says, “in learning to construct a variety of human narratives in their studies they are perhaps better equipped than most in finding their own personal ways through even the most difficult of times” and we sure are in the most difficult of times. And I’d like to add to that a further comment by a former chair of NAWE Maggie Butt,
“Our students are coming out of university with all the skills which constitute true graduate-ness and more. Often, they have delved deep into themselves and faced their demons. They’ve experienced the joy and despair and hopefully they’ve developed their ability to write well, to express themselves with clarity and vividness in a range of genres—a skill which can be applied to writing a good business report as much as to writing fiction and satisfaction, which comes… and satisfaction, which comes with any creative activity. They are humanities students in the broadest sense. They stood in the shoes of others by reading their poetry, plays and prose, and by the imaginative act of creating fictional characters of their own. A small minority choose the writer’s life, perhaps going on to post-graduate studies, aiming to be recognized as playwrights, novelists or poets, and usually supplementing their income with some other day job. Some of our students have gone directly into work as professional writers, journalists, advertising copy writers, script writers, dramatists. Others have chosen to use the insights and skills they’ve gained as teachers, PR people, art therapists, website designers, book editors and sub-editors, TV researchers, literary agents, librarians, parents,”
And I think that’s a very interesting word she includes at the end of that list.
Now Maggie wrote that article in the same year that the Arts Council in England decided to make a big push on professional development for artists generally and gave money to NAWE and other organizations to put in place a whole variety of resources and support for those working and studying within the arts, and we set up something called The Writer’s Compass, an information and advice service for writers. So, on the website there’s a whole range of resources—case studies by writers, reflecting on how they got where they are from really quite humble beginnings in some cases, and we list all the opportunities for writers—jobs, commissions, residencies, courses, workshops, training events, and we send out a weekly bulletin to our members so that people get all that information on a plate. So the aim really is to help writers at all stages in their development to build and sustain their careers. So, we then work closely with universities, sometimes visiting and offering talks and seminars with a careers focus, and increasingly now, UK universities have started to build such things into their own core provision. Writers at Work is the title of one unit offered within the University of East London’s BA program. Many programs now arrange work placement for their students. One program with a professional writing focus has thirty publisher’s, agents, and writer’s organizations offering placement for their students. Some have informal work experience schemes, making use of their local small presses and other contacts, and others connect with schools, local authorities, galleries, museums, and libraries. So the question I find myself asking now is, “Do literary studies or other disciplines get this sort of support?” I don’t know. I mean to find that out. But I think even that brief glance at what’s going on in the UK shows how creative writing programs take their students’ prospects very seriously, and not, I think, just because they have to be seen addressing employability by their universities and the powers that be. I think it’s a genuine aspiration among creative writing tutors to see their students leave equipped to make a living but also to take a leading role in creating the kind of culture in which they want to inhabit. So, that’s all from me for the moment. I’m going to hand over to Lori, who has a plane to catch, so she has to go next.
Thank you, yes, I will start with a disclaimer/apology that I do have a flight to catch but I have my business cards here so that if you have questions for me, based on today’s session, if you want to email me I’m happy to do so.
There are two writing life mantras if you will that I try to share with my students, and I primarily teach in low-residency MFA programs where I’m accustomed to having a very diverse, wide range of ages of students that I work with everywhere from mid-twenties to early eighties. I have a student right now who’s actually eighty-six, and he’s fabulous. And so, I have a range of student needs as far as what do they want to do with their writing and with their writing life, but across the spectrum, the two aspects I try to share with them, is one, diversify your portfolio, and two, literary citizenship. What I mean by diversify your portfolio, because it sounds very Wall Street, is to look beyond your one genre of passion, to give yourself opportunity to explore and play in other genres, in sub-genres and to take your idea and look how can you sprout off other ideas from the work that you’re committing, much so that if you’re spending years researching something or laying out a novel or you know, organizing your memoir, writing is like an iceberg; what ends up on the page is the top of the iceberg and what you, the writer, put into it is everything else that we don’t see below water. So, my goal is to say, “What can you do in the Writing World, and in the Arts World, with the other 70-80 % of information and research and time and passion and tears that you’ve put into your work. If you’re a memoirist, perhaps that means working in short form in essays, and getting those publications out there, because nonfiction in the short form pays. I’ve had articles that paid more than book advances, and I didn’t intend to do freelance writing, we’ll call it, but when I realized the paychecks involved, oh, I do intend to. I intend to keep doing that. And even for fiction, when you think about if you are focusing on developing a strong setting of a real-world place, for example, you’re getting to know a region, you’re getting to know a town. There’s going to be things you discover along the way, and you think, well that doesn’t fit in my novel. Perhaps, though, it could fit into a travel article, and if you like to travel, things like freelance writing can get you to visit places on someone else’s dime. And when I’m speaking of that, it’s not only the travel writing, which can sometimes pay well, and sometimes you spend more on travel than I make on travel writing, but the other articles that I can do, that supplement the rest of my writing life, pay not only for me to write the poems and the personal essays and the memoir, but they also give me opportunity to explore and go to places, you know, off the beaten path, to visit other cities. And then what I do when I’m going to those other cities is that I set up workshops. I set up readings. I try to capitalize as much as possible on one thing that I’m doing to make sure that anytime I’m doing one thing that I’m trying to do at least half a dozen, because then if I can have half a dozen of income streams due to one effort, then I’m supporting myself as a writer.
For the literary citizenship aspect, I consider those opportunities as my invitation to put myself in a community that may not be my own, and say, “What can I go and support from other writers? What can I learn from different organizations—artists’ communities, writing communities, bookstores, museums, people in other communities outside of my own comfort zone? What can I support while I’m there, and what can I share with others?” And sometimes that may involve volunteering at an event if I’m going to, for example, I’m going to Florida for AWP Tampa. What organizations are in the region, that if I show up a week earlier, what can I do? How can I meet other people? And it’s somewhat interpreted as networking from time to time, of “oh, we’re reaching out to other members of the community.” I don‘t like to look at that as networking. I look at that as opening doors for myself and as opening doors for others. Today I met a writer who is looking to put together a panel for next year, and she’s a multidiscipline artist, as in she writes but she also does fine arts, and she does quilts and some neat fabric art, and she’s looking to put together a panel for next year on artists who are writers and artists, because she thought that would be interesting, and she said, “I can only think of myself and someone else and we can’t have a panel of two.” And I said, “Oh, I met someone from northern California when I was at this event,” and so I sent her the email from that, and then, “Oh, I met someone from Vancouver, B.C. when I was at another conference.” And so, it’s giving someone else that opportunity, and as an anecdotal, how this all works of paying it forward, at the end of it she said, “Oh, and by the way, I wanted to mention, I wanted to bring you out to New York for this event series I’m doing.” When you help other writers, they remember you, and they know that you’re a valuable piece of the community. We all kind of work in this ecosystem, or depending on where you are it might be an egosystem, but we all work together to make this life, and we’re resourceful to one another, so when you think of how does all of that work for a post-graduate life, you don’t have to be an undergrad student or an MFA candidate to do these things. You should be doing these things no matter what education level you have or if you have no education whatsoever, being a valued part of the community, opening doors for others, those doors open for you and perhaps that volunteering for a festival, being a reader for a literary journal, all of those things are things then that you add to your resume—your writer’s CV. And it’s skill building. If you do that several years in a row, now you have a very strong resume, when you go to apply for an arts-related job, perhaps in publishing, or in teaching, and they can see that diversity of your portfolio, but of also you being a valued member of the community. I do have my cards up here, so, thank you so much.
So, I’ll go from the personal to the very general of Lori’s to my work. I’ve been given money by the government to look at the outcomes of creative arts degrees for students in creative writing and visual arts in Australia, China, and in the U.K., and this means interviewing people. We interview a lot of people who are within five to ten years of having completed their degree to see what they’re doing. Are they still making work? Are they still practicing the art form or have they given up and are they working at a bank? Did somebody die and leave them heaps money, which is the best way to make a living as a writer. We are also analyzing really big datasets—Census data, financial data, graduate destination surveys to see where do people go, where do they report themselves going when they first left their degrees and started earning a living. And what kind of income do people in the creative industries, but particularly, of course, writing, and for me visual arts as well, what kind of income and lives are they making over the course of a lifetime? Now, it’s a tricky thing because on the one hand almost every creative arts student, in whatever art form they are, knows that there are no jobs for them. We know that they never, ever, ever see a job ad that says, “Poet Wanted,” which is a bit tragic, but most of our students, when I’ve talked to them, has a secret hope that they’ll be the one. They’ll be the one who makes it. They’ll be J.K. Rowling but do work they’re really proud of, et cetera, et cetera. People are encouraged by the impulse to write, or the impulse to paint, the impulse to make art, to give themselves over to three or four or seven years of education and put themselves in the position where they hope that they can actually make a living from the artwork. They are also encouraged in many cases by a line of thought that more or less starts from Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist from the States—originally from Columbia University, and he dreamt up the idea of the “creative classes.” He’s been an adviser to the U.K. government on creative and cultural industries. His ideas have been turned into curriculum material by universities around the world, who thought, okay, “We know that fine arts people don’t make a living, but Fine Arts is like creative industries. We can make it work. We can figure this out.” What Florida and those that followed him posited, was that because the arts sector is such a good contributor to GDP, round most of the world, very high contributor to GDP is art, visual art, writing, performance art, film. And because whenever artists move into an urban area, property values improve, the whole area improves. “So clearly,” they said, “arts degrees are very good for the economy. And therefore, good for society. And therefore good for the artists.” But none of them actually look at what the artists’ make from their artwork. There’s a very good cultural economist called David Throsby, and he’s worked out that poets in nine different nations earn, on average, from their poetry, four thousand dollars a year. And most of us earn $1.18, so a few people are earning ten thousand dollars and that averages it out. Well it dawned on Florida and his fellow travellers that really there aren’t earning opportunities for the creative class. That when artists move into neighborhoods, yes, it does improve. Property values go up and then artists have to move out because they can’t afford to live there anymore. At that point, the creative industries academics came in and said, “Employers want to hire creative people. So, if we are training people with skills in creative thinking, creative making, then they’re going to find heaps of jobs, they’ll find them in the creative sector, and even more so they can be what… become what is called embedded creatives. That’s where you do creative work outside the creative sector. So you might be a designer, for instance, but instead of working for a designer, you’d draw drawings for a car manufacturing company. You might be a poet, and you find yourself writing copy for the banking sector. Okay? So far so good. Nothing has come of this, really. Florida has acknowledged twenty years later that he was wrong. The creative industries researchers have decided to stop looking at artists and instead look at other creators of intellectual property, people like software designers who actually are marketable, more lucrative. The data my team and I have looked up shows that graduates of creative arts degrees in all the forms are about average, average as all graduates in finding their first jobs after university. But what they find as jobs is usually part time work, or short-term contracts. Over a lifetime you’ll be delighted to hear, graduates of creative arts degrees earn no more than graduates of high school—people who didn’t get a degree. So economically, it’s a poor investment, to earn a university degree in the creative arts. And if economy is what we’re worried about, then you know, so far so bad. It does get worse though. Sorry! Our research, and the research of quite a lot of other scholars in the area, shows that the career of a creative artist in any of the art forms, including writing, is difficult. There’s an ever-increasing number of graduates chasing an ever-shrinking pool of opportunities. Arts grants are decreasing around the world, and platforms for professional creative artwork are declining. Artists earn very low incomes. Their work lives area characterized by precarity, casualized employment, risky and precarious labor conditions—sorry—processes of self-exploitation whereby workers push themselves to the limit in attempt to actually build up the kind of reputation they hope will give them the autonomy to practice the art form full time. Almost no one achieves this. Most graduates of creative writing, creative arts programs live under the logic of what Hans Abbing calls the cruel economy, and the exceptional economy, because we are highly skilled, highly trained people—very capable, and we cannot cut a break. We do all the work for the GDP earner, but we don’t see the money from it.
There’s another degree of difficulty. This is not-- not good data. I’ll cheer you up at the end, I promise. In an era where anyone can be an artist, the Internet provides platforms for artists and others who are not trained and are not professional to strut their stuff, sometimes the rich and famous, and I give you E.L. James and her Fifty Shades of Money. Why go to the expense and effort of completing a degree that we know gives no economic turn, when somebody just waltzes onto the show, colonizes the space, markets, and those who invested no time and money in training can ace the field. Okay? It sounds grim and is grim, but if you’d like a cheerful note, this is a very, very important one. Creative arts graduates on the whole report much higher levels of life satisfaction, than do more highly paid people like lawyers, accountants, and doctors. Writers and other artists, they could do less than their fellow graduates, but it doesn’t bother them as much as economists think it should. They just want enough to be able to keep doing their writing, doing their painting. They want to be able to hang out with other people who think like them and see the world like them. Most of them refuse the lure of the creative industries discourse which encourages them to become embedded creatives. A lot of them would rather drive cabs, or work in shops, in hospitality, and preserve the intellectual and emotional energy to do their artwork later. A lot of others cheerfully take on low paid and insecure jobs in the arts sector. They work as interns or low paid editors in publishing houses. They do administration and security in art galleries, so that they remain embedded in the field that they love, and hang out with people who see the world the same way that they do—through artists’ eyes. And after all, students still want to take creative degrees. People like us still work at establishing and maintaining courses where those students can be educated for economically impossible futures.
All university courses must provide their graduates with a good feel for the disciplines, which they’ve studied, some technical conceptual skills, a map of the landscape into which they will emerge, and the tools to build a career, okay? And they all claim to do that, and, in most cases, they do. But creative practice degrees need a bit more, because creative arts is, as we know, different from many other fields. Unlike pretty well all other graduates, including other humanities graduates, our students are likely to live what Bernard Lahire, cultural sociologist, calls “The Double Life.” So, if you’re a historian, if you trained as a historian, and you don’t get work as a historian, you may never actually touch much, you might just read it as a hobby, but you’re unlikely to have a really serious professional interest in it. You’ll do something else. But if you’re a creative arts, creative writing graduate and you can’t get a job, you are very likely to keep making your work in a very intense and focused way off and on over the course of your lifetime. So you have one life where you are earning your income, your professional world. You have another life where you don’t earn your income, but you earn your identity—your sense of self, and that’s a double life. So, artists need to have the skills, resourcefulness, resilience, problem solving, to shift between the demands of the two worlds in which they live. And given this context my team and I are trying to figure out some ideas, we haven’t gotten very far, that might help us construct approaches to teaching, and to content, that provide creative students with what they need to craft satisfying, creative, ethical, and financially sustainable careers. I’ll report back in twenty-five years when I know the answers.
Okay. I can assure you, Jen, that most of us do love Australians, okay? Uh… I’m just curious, here, I know we’ve got some teachers here, but how many of you are students, okay? And how many of you know what career you’re heading toward? Some of you. I don’t see… not everybody, though. Do you know what skills you have? That’s the question. Okay, we’re gonna talk a little bit about that. I’m Randy Albers, I was chair of the Fiction Writer Firm at Columbia College in Chicago for eighteen years, and I’ve been there since Nostradamus.
Paul aptly subtitled this panel, “Preparing Creative Writing Graduates for Life Long Careers”. Not ‘career,’ ‘careers’—plural. An article some time ago, pegged the number of career changes for graduates at about seven. That’s what I used to tell students at open houses, and so on, and… but a more recent article says that creative writing graduates will change careers four times before they’re thirty, and probably twelve to fifteen times over their lifetime. Creative writing programs often see their purpose as simply giving their students space within which to write. Talk of careers, if any, usually focuses on teaching, sometimes publishing, or publishing related jobs. Yet, despite the incredible growth in creative writing programs, only one job opens up for every five institutions per year for all the graduates of those programs to compete for, along with some others. They’re not good odds, and the trend toward the use of adjuncts and non-tenured faculty promises to erode those numbers even further in the years ahead. I don’t say this to discourage anyone from pursuing a teaching job, I really don’t, but it indicates why today’s students need a realistic appraisal of career prospects, including alternatives beyond the traditional tracks. In preparation for this panel, I sent out an informal survey to a dozen Columbia College of Chicago grads, and undergrads, alums who have achieved some measure of success. You should know the fiction writer department where they studied had a dual mission to give the students the tools to become independent writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays, and too, to develop and enhance skills enabling them to compete in a wide variety of jobs. What I wondered, what these alums have to tell us about the usefulness of their creative writing training, in particular, what skills were most helpful in their careers. Rob Macdonald, following his MFA, began a business generating web content in the early days of the net. Didn’t know anything about computers, he was just writing the content. Since then, he’s been president of two different companies, founder of a strategic communication firm, and an award-winning columnist in Baltimore. The most common skills he developed were: see it out here, having a vision, communicating, being precise, using your own words, trusting in inspiration, collaborating with others, listening and sharing. At Columbia, we’re using a story workshop approach originated by Don Schulz as a very highly interactive process approach that emphasizes seeing in the mind, along with voice and extensive experimentation with techniques and forms and audiences and so on. Bill Burke echoed Rob—a teacher, an editor of two national publications, on his way to becoming what he terms ‘a knowledge worker,’ social system designer, and process facilitator, for the Chicago office of a world wide consulting firm he cites the ability to empathize, to put yourself in the point of view of others, the ability to envision situations, and more than just envision, understand and appreciate the ecosystem of the current or possible future situation. Seeing in the mind is a capacity that transcends writing and will support all sorts of activities. It is a great source of strength, perhaps even a super power. Holding at least thirteen different positions since he graduated in the nineties, Edward Eusebio has a resume that might make him an honorary millennial. Publisher, editor of three different magazines, EMS content, editor internet consultant, web architect, software sales engineer, web development consultant, director of web and application development, and, now, ecommerce projects and program manager. Those moments that are most crucial to his success? The semi-circle story workshop classes at Alton Semi-Circles. The Semi-Circle was seeing in the mind and what happens next. Semi-circle also translates well into collaborative scene, and being able to communicate the shared and agreed upon vision during every stage of the software development lifecycle. Cheryl Johnston worked as a publicist, grant writer, and managing director for the Story Week Festival of Writers, before she began her own very successful author publicity business. She says, “How to read like a writer, and what makes a good story, led to my present occupation as an independent literary publicist and producer. Three important skills for a publicist are: writing, research, and presentation. Also it is great to be exposed to so many different voices, and our assigned readings, author visits, and fellow classmates.” Certain patterns begin to emerge in these responses. Writing programs trapped in product based critiqued approaches tend to teach a little beyond reading and writing/editing/rewriting skills, but attaining flexibility, leading to meaningful employment depends on our addressing a range of skills. What are we doing in the classroom, not only to develop reading and writing, but also to draw out higher level capacities for seeing in the mind, audience avarice, collaboration, conceptualization, abstracting, and most centrally, creative or imaginative problem solving. I think that’s what writers mostly have to sell. To take one instance, many alums over the years tell me that they were surprised to find they possessed a skill that is in short supply in the work world: active listening. Rob Duffer, freelance writer, teacher, digital editor, and now the main autos writer for the Chicago Tribune says, “Listening to diverse story tellers made me a better interviewer-storyteller-editor. Listening is an act of editing.” How, we might ask, do we promote active listening in the classroom, how do we recognize and capitalize on when it is happening. For one thing, we must develop the internal audience sense to coached oral reading, which enables a student to hear the organizing power of their own voice addressing an audience. Thus, Margaret Wappler links “organizing ideas so they could be accessible and compelling for a reader, articulating my vision with precision and vitality,” she links those to oral reading and workshops. Reading aloud forces you to slow down, listen attentively, and create a performance that is dynamic and captivating. Since completing creative writing degrees in Columbia College and Cal Arts, she’s been a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, editor at DAME Magazine and a freelance writer for Elle, Cosmo, Rolling Stone, Nylon, New York Times, and others. She’s also author of the recently released novel, Neon Green. As many, many well known writers who work day jobs over the centuries, Vonnegut—the car salesman, Stephens—the insurance lawyer, Williams—the doctor, Burrows—the exterminator and private detective, so the example of Margaret and all of the other respondents, remind us that graduates need not give up creative writing in order to work a day job. David Baker combines documentary film making, fiction writing, and freelance non-fiction writing with his day job as director of productions at Oregon State University. He asserts “I’ve come to believe that you need to do two things: always write like it’s the most important thing in the world, like it’s your only true career, and like your planning on quitting your day job to write full time, and second, you must continually work to find or create the non-writing career that you would never want to quit even if you landed a major book deal.” Finally, one of my favorite stories, after completing her undergrad degree and teaching briefly, Alexis Thomas now owns a thriving business. Taboo Tabou, described in its web copy as a female friendly adult store with a wide variety of lingerie, fetish clothing, adult toys, novelties, and bachelorette party goods available. Where does her creative writing training come into play? Research. “Everything I do is research based. And I spent so much time in the creative writing department researching. When I want to bring in a new lingerie line, I know everything about it. Same thing with toys. The sex toy world moves so fast.” Maybe you knew this, I don’t. “I know from the research skills I’ve learned in college what to look for, exactly, to analyze the potential of an item.” She credits Reading as a Writer courses for completely changing her approach to work, in traditional lit classes she says there was “no end product of analyzing. Because I was taught how to read, to analyze what a writer was doing and then do it myself, I know how to do that and every aspect of my job, and I really think that is why my shop was voted Number One sex shop in Chicago.” You can cheer if you want now. As people tell us about the value of creative writing training for a variety of careers, all of them assert that they wouldn’t have traded that training for anything. One said, “I can’t imagine life without it.” Another said, “You might say everything else I studied was a waste of time.” For students who have to think creatively about how you market those skills, identify those skills and then market them, you have to think as creatively as when you are writing. Our task as teachers, on the other hand, is to find the courses and the adjunctive supports enabling students to build flexible skills for the future. Most of us, most of all, we need to reflect upon, both upon what skills we’re teaching, and how we’re teaching them—if we’re able to do those things well, our graduates, I would assert, would be uniquely positioned for success in multiple careers, and we will have helped them see a realistic, visionary path to living creative fulfilled lives.
Hi, I’m Paul Heatherington, I’ve come all the way from Australia and it’s great to be here. Today I’m just going to close the formal part of this session by reflecting briefly on language use, and in particular on the ways in which writing programs and the practice of creative writing—and I’m going to especially refer to poetry, but you can sort of see this is a discussion of creative writing in general—may equip people to be more engaged, more satisfied, and better prepared citizens, and I’ll be picking up a point that Jen made earlier, that there are many ways of judging a successful life, and successful work, and money obviously is important, but some people earn a lot of money and they’re not very happy, other people earn less money and are more satisfied, so I want to reflect on some of those issues. Contemporary society is sophisticated and highly nuanced in the communication modes and styles, and professional and personal success often cause for a considerable capacity for understanding the subtleties of this communication—all the complexity and noise of communication around us. Our societies are also characterized by various forms of doublespeak. The term doublespeak brings to mind George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. Orwell writes of how, and I quote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” He goes on to say, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
The study of creative writing may not always directly prepare creative writing graduates for secure places in the workforce, although it often does do that. In my life, I made my creative writing my first priority from the time I was an adolescent, and it led to lots of personal, professional success in various ways. I didn’t become rich but I’ve had a good life, and so it can lead to that kind of thing. And I suppose more generally, though, many of these programs, through teaching more sophisticated ways of reading, as well as writing, enable students to comprehend language as it is used in their societies, this society, more successfully, to develop an understanding of sincere and insincere ways of speaking and to equip them to express themselves in nuanced ways. These kinds of skills are very valuable to many employers and employees, and I speak as someone who worked in a professional capacity where the people who expressed themselves best were mainly the best and most successful employees. Though that wasn’t always appreciated by everyone I knew in the organization I worked in for a long time, but nevertheless it was the case. And one challenge for the future is for universities and other teaching colleges, and so on, to better communicate to employers how useful these skills are, and also to ensure that creative writing courses continue to teach students how to analyze existing texts, whether these are classic novels or today’s political speeches, as well as how to write new work. Those skills, in my view, go hand-in-hand. These issues are particularly important, because since the Romantic period, for a long time now, the idea of the more or less separate self, the individual has been predominant in society, and literature and literary characters preoccupied with their selves and their individual histories have been the protagonists of so many novels, from Dorothea of Brooke in Middlemarch, to Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Many, many examples could be given. Such characters reflect our modern and on-going interest in the intricacies of personal identity, and J.M. Fitzgerald identified a poem, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, as the first work of western literature that took the perspective that by telling one’s story one revealed truths about self, leading to the contemporary notions that each individual constructs themselves, and that each individual story is his or her own uniquely. We believe this stuff now. We often take it for granted, but it was a new idea then, with the Romantics. And these ideas, because they continue to dominate contemporary ideas of self and individuality, you know, they… they raise lots of questions for us we might look at sometimes more closely than we tend to do. Because despite these ideas, contemporary first world western societies, those we live in today, while celebrating individual freedoms, have failed to solve many people’s feelings of precariousness. Philip Cushman, and he was talking about the United States in saying this, argues that the current configuration of the self is characterized by a pervasive sense of personal emptiness. He wasn’t talking about everybody, he was talking about a tendency in society, and he was thinking more broadly of western culture, I think, more generally. He also said that our time is one of cultural brokenness, and that modernity remains characterized by moral confusion, having no mutually agreed upon tradition that guides our daily practices. And Béatrice Appay more recently has argued that precariousness increasingly defines the conditions under which people work in all different sectors of activity, and, you know, just in terms of whether we can expect to keep jobs, whether we know we will get jobs, if we have them, you know, will they stay the same, how are we gonna be treated at work? Can we feel confident that we’ll continue to be paid the kind of wages that we want? Et cetera, et cetera. There’s a whole lot of precariousness now in our society even though we keep talking about freedom and so on. Now, um… I would argue that we can tend to become more resilient if we master our use of language and our capacity for self expression, and one form of self-expression is poetry, and I’m now going to talk about poetry, but other forms of writing might work in similar ways, so if you’re interested in writing novels or memoir or whatever it may be, read those forms, if you like, into the word poetry that I’m using now. Although, I do particularly want to single out poetry because I think it’s a form that’s often dismissed a little bit by mainstream society and it needs to… we need to claim back its place. It’s got a very important place in culture. Much modern poetry, and by modern poetry I mean a good deal of the poetry written since, say, about the middle of the nineteenth century, understands that beneath people’s drive to construct a coherent self-narrative, which is what we are all trying to do I think with our lives, that often a great deal is conflicted and broken. Poetry also understands to acknowledge such conflict and brokenness may be a way of addressing the precarity of modern life I’ve just referred to, which is so often characterized by bewilderment in the face of the conventional and sometimes misleading narrative consolations of politicians and other opinion makers. I don’t know whether any of you’ve felt in the last twelve months bewildered by what public figures have said, but certainly I have. And poetry speaks in a different way. It represents one way of constructing an authentic mode of speaking, because it understands that much of experience is illusive and may even be unsayable. The key aspects of existence may only be suggested or intimated, and the precariousness may be acknowledged and articulated in a literary form, the lyric poem is what I’m thinking of, that is itself, to some extent, precarious and fragile. Margaret Dickie has observed that the properties of the lyric obstruct readings that are determined by socially limited understanding of the self or the subject, or by a view of characters expressed in a cause and effect logic, or by an insistence that the part can be understood by certain representative attitudes. In other words, she says, the lyric poem resists the totalizing ambition of such readings. Poetry opens up the wish that a lot of people have, particularly in the public sphere, to limit and define, and to polarize people. It opens up the space of discourse. Lyric poetry opens up and sometimes inimitably recognizes and represents vulnerabilities, and the sense of the precarious. Phil Cohen has written that if poetry exercises a form of sociological imagination, which it does, at least inclusively, it may simply consist in this capacity to offer us a glimpse into another and still possible world in which the clichés of common sense and the media hype of spin doctors and marketeers have given way to an idiom of counterfactual truth, where so much that otherwise remains on the tip of our tongue is at last put into memorable words. These aren’t alternative facts that I’m talking about. This is a profound idea of a counterfactual truth. And imagine it, truth moving into the possible other of the imagination. Poetry is one way of better understanding the provisional and the inconclusive. It may not be able to solve issues attendant on contemporary precarity, but it provides opportunities for self-expression that connect to broad and salutary representations of the self. Poems condensed linguistic gestures open up human subjectivity, our sense of ourselves, to a consideration of wide and sometimes unstable complexities. We have a way, therefore, of encompassing broader visions and ideas. Poetry as a form, speaks to humanity in its fragmentation, contradictions, and intensities. In these difficult times, I think internationally we’re living in very difficult and troubled and precarious times, we may well need such opportunities for complex self-expression. Such self-expression may be a way of finding our way. Additionally, students who undertake creative writing programs have the opportunity to better understand complex language in the workplace as well as in life in general, and also to understand the euphemistic complexities and sometimes false dichotomies that characterize much of contemporary politics. They also have the opportunity to learn to speak back to the rhetoric that dominates so much of the current news cycle, because they have tools to construct those alternative ways of speaking, which I think is very important. So these extremely useful and important skills, they may be as important as they have ever been, and let’s hope that contemporary and future societies continue to value these skills and offer employment to those who possess them.
Well, I don’t think we’re obliged to fill up the time, so we might just end five minutes early, but I’d like to thank all my fellow panelists and you for making it such an interesting session.