Teaching Creative Writing Through Material Culture; or, Zooming In On the Elephant in the Room

Christine Wiesenthal | June 2015


There is a certain grain of stupidity that the writer… can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”
–Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 64–5, 77

To think through things is to recall that “things… can be portals,” as Aislinn Hunter notes in her wonderfully strange book of paratexts, Peepshow with Views of the Interior. “What is a portal exactly? Portal the noun is, specifically, ‘a doorway or gate etc.… It is an aperture.… Porta L.: ‘gate’ [is related to] portare L.: to carry.’ So a portal… takes us, carries us, from one place to another” (Hunter 24).1 Both iPhones and say, elephant bones, my representative example today, are portals in this regard, catalysts for transportation. Things thus underline the very principle of movement, the locomotion of thought at work in the operations of metaphor and metonymy. And yet, as a teacher of creative nonfiction, I first turned to things in an attempt to arrest my students: to make them stop. Stare. Sniff. Touch. Pay attention to things. Cultivate that “certain grain of stupidity,” also known as sustained concentration or focus, that O’Connor insisted writers “can hardly do without.”

I’ve turned to things, in other words, in an attempt to counter the rise in recent years of what education professionals briskly refer to as “attentional issues”: the increased distractibility of wireless generations used to multitasking and the compulsive stimulation of prosthetic technologies.2 Of course, it’s now commonplace to conclude that “chronic distraction” is “the defining condition of [our] age” (Lorinc 50); all of us constantly commute between the “multiple stimuli” of various media.3 My own concern has been how “changes in attentional control” (Rekart 62) due to this habitually divided state of consciousness matter to our craft and our pedagogy, and how powers of concentration and focus might be developed through the use of material culture. It is, I think, now more essential than ever that our students be provided with regular opportunities to practice purposeful attention, the selective narrowing and maintenance of focus for uninterrupted close study and observation.4

To this end, I’ve started to interrupt my regularly scheduled workshop and class sessions with fieldwork in various museums and collections, using these excursions into material culture as the basis for a series of low-stakes exercises in creative analysis and description. Not only do imaginative reconstructions of the world depend on a capacity for such sustained focus, but by extension, so too, I would argue, does any sense of larger social responsibility attached to the writer’s craft. By placing emphasis on embodied experience, “object exercises” sharpen student writers’ awareness of themselves as the primary focalizing device or filter through which the world is processed—an awareness prerequisite to any form of “attentional control.” Embodied experience may not constitute a privileged ground for “truth,” but it is, as O’Connor also suggested in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (1969), through such experience that we produce and re-evaluate knowledge and “truth” of the world, including its joys, its curiosities, its travesties and injustices. (“[The] writer begins where human perception begins”; “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses” [67]). Offering rich repositories for creative scholarship, museum and collection sites afford a range of eye-opening, raw-world materials that can help beginning writers move beyond the “radical subjectivist expressionism” (or preoccupation with “personal… private experience”) that they sometimes associate with “creative writing” (Myers, 174–5). More specifically, the exhibits in such spaces can prompt them to “new thoughts about how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relationship to other subjects” (Brown 7).

Working with a specific “specimen” or aspect of the collection space, most students come away from the zoology exercise having at least posed, if not fully thought through, larger troubling questions about mortality...


Of all the collections I now take my writers to practice their powers of (unmediated!) attention—these usually include paleontology, mineralogy, fine arts, textiles and clothing—it’s the zoology museum and teaching lab at the University of Alberta that tends to leave the most profound impression, and can perhaps best illustrate the case I want to make here for including the “experiential archive”5 of things in our teaching repertoire.6 As a curated space, the zoology collection is distinct for how powerfully it engages multiple senses beyond the role of vision that theorists such as O’Connor and John Berger tend to stress. As a space where “the museal” most closely meets the mausoleum (in Adorno’s formulation),7 the zoological collection insinuates death at the olfactory, haptic, even auditory level—the subdued tone typical of museum spaces seems to take on a heavier valence when surrounded by thousands of “specimens,” weirdly lifelike in taxidermy; bloated and floating in fluid; rigged up in skeletal outline.8 Yet this atmosphere of morbidity is countered by the “enlightenment” design of the collection space, which itself disciplines our gaze and attention, the regimented rows of tagged exhibits and “case technology” reinforcing “the [apparent] solidity of classificatory regimes” (Pearce 105). Even the carcasses in the claustrophobic “Bone Cooler Room,” a refrigerated storage facility for animal parts with residual tissues, are systematically shelved, a visual order at odds with the sickening smell of the vault.9 Working with a specific “specimen” or aspect of the collection space, most students come away from the zoology exercise having at least posed, if not fully thought through, larger troubling questions about mortality; about the distinctions we make between domesticated “pets” and wild creatures;10 about the politics and ethics of human and nonhuman animal relationships implied by such repositories. Do the educational and scientific aims of such a place legitimize its existence?


Which brings me, finally, to the elephant in the room.

There’s a grey cranium the size of a small boulder which sits unprepossessingly in the middle of the teaching lab. It’s the skull of a female Asian elephant, Elephans maximus. Moved to curiosity and wonder, my students want to know: What is the head of an Asian elephant doing in Edmonton among the mammals, birds, fishes, and amphibians of Alberta? And where is the rest of it? A leaflet next to the exhibit and the collection’s curator, Dr. Braden Barr, fill in some of the blanks: she was born in the wild, but these are the remains of an early twentieth-century circus animal. She belonged to the second-largest travelling carnival troupe in the world, the Sells-Floto Circus, which named her Myrtle and trained her to dance the Charleston. We peer through the openings in her cranium, the nasal cavity at the base of the trunk, the large eye sockets. Portals. Peepholes with views through an interior. The unfathomable otherness of the object. How do we begin to think this “thing” through?

We are invited to try and lift it. Despite the skull’s bulk, it is surprisingly lightweight, because composed of pneumatic bone, like those of birds, mammals of flight. Myrtle, we learn, was among a group of travelling circus elephants that in 1926 repeatedly broke from their handlers, stampeding before being recaptured, first in Edmonton, then Calgary, and then again in Cranbrook, BC. Myrtle’s lower mandible is disarticulated, placed adjacent to the skull. If you look closely, you can see that the upper jawbone has been partially reconstructed with plaster. After her escape at Cranbrook, Myrtle was one of two elephants to evade capture and survive deep in the Kootenay interior for over a month. Ktunaxa (“Tun-Ah-hah”) guides eventually helped the circus men locate the animals (although the trace of these indigenous trackers was mostly erased from public reports). But by the time Myrtle was discovered, she was already dying of emaciation and pneumonia, and euthanized, sort of, on the spot. Gauging from the reconstructed jawbone, whoever fired the rifle was not the right man for the job. As a “memento” of what contemporary accounts dressed up as “The Great Elephant Hunt” escapade, A. J. Ironside, train master of the Canadian Pacific Railway, directed that Myrtle’s head be severed and shipped to the brand new Department of Zoology at the University up in Edmonton. The rest of her was left to the grizzlies.11

Uncovering the painful ironies, layers, and complexities of Myrtle's backstory while pondering her remains leads some students to make new leaps between past and present, linking Myrtle's history (for example) to a recent news controversy surrounding Lucy, an elderly and ill elephant in the Edmonton Zoo.

The elephant in the room: that which beckons as the obvious and important, but unspoken; an evidently uncomfortable truth, ignored or suppressed; Slavoj Zizek’s “obscene supplement.” The story that could be told through the portals of Myrtle’s bones constitutes exactly such a truth, one that belies both her popular and scholarly inventions as a colorful circus renegade and a bland zoological “specimen,” a representative type of Elephans maximus. In all too many obvious ways, such airbrushed narratives can be read as foundational to the cultural history of deracination and violence that still underwrites our (largely) untroubled sense of colonizing entitlement today.12 Uncovering the painful ironies, layers, and complexities of Myrtle’s backstory while pondering her remains leads some students to make new leaps between past and present, linking Myrtle’s history (for example) to a recent news controversy surrounding Lucy, an elderly and ill elephant in the Edmonton Zoo.13 Others respond in their exercises with leaps in point of view: animal autobiographies, imaginative reconstructions of Myrtle’s story through the creature’s own doomed but rebellious perspective.14

In effect a teacher and a powerful catalyst for transportation, Myrtle is but one of such storied museum “objects”15 which present writers with untold resources. Such “things” ask of writers not only the courage to confront and name any elephants in the room, but also the capacity to do so through deliberate and unwavering “attentional control,” a mindful filtering and concentration of focus.16 Perhaps ultimately, too, as we trend toward MOOCs and “alternative delivery” online programming, thinking through material culture at the local level can help clarify—for us, no less than for our students—the value of convergent mental and physical presence, of a critically alert sense of emplacement, of creative residency in the fullest sense.17


Christine Wiesenthal teaches creative writing and contemporary literature in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada, and served as a member on the first executive board of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Association.



  • Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1990.
  • ——— Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967.
  • Berger, John. Bento’s Sketchbook. New York, Pantheon Books, 2011.
  • Fenza, David. “Tradition and the Institutionalized Talent.” Keynote address at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, Toronto, ON, May 11, 2012.Gerard, Philip. http://www.philipgerard.com
  • Hunter, Aislinn. Peepshow With Views of the Interior: Paratexts. Kingsville, ON: Palimpsest Press, 2009.
  • Jakobson, Roman. “Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by T. Sebeok, 350–77. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.
  • Latour, Bruno. “The Berlin Key or How to do Words with Things.” Translated by Lydia Davis. In Matter, Materiality, and Modern Culture, edited by P. M. Graves-Brown, 10–21. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Lorinc, John. “Driven to Distraction: How Our Multi-Channel, Multi-Tasking Society is Making it Harder for Us to Think.” The Walrus, April 2007, 50–59.
  • Lui, Catherine. “Art Escapes Criticism, or Adorno’s Museum.” Cultural Critique 60 (2005): 217–244.
  • Myers, D. G. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • O’Connor, Flannery. “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” In Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, 63–86. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
  • Orlean, Susan. “Lifelike.” In The Fourth Genre, edited by Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, 6th ed., 205–11. New York: Pearson, 2007.
  • Orwin, Clifford. “Don’t Teach Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes.” The Globe & Mail, August 18, 2012, F9.
  • Pearce, Susan M. Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
  • Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage, 1992.
  • Rekart, Jerome L. “Taking on Multi-Tasking.” Phi Delta Kappan 93.4 (December 2011): 60–63.
  • Seabright, Paul. “Why Defend University? And How.” TLS, March 9, 2012.
  • Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.


End Notes

  1. Similarly, the word through, while used primarily as an adjective or preposition to signal a passage, a motion across space or time, sometimes indicating medium, agency, or “by instrumentality of,” has also functioned as both a verb (“throughed”) and a noun in the history of our language. In Old English, it could designate a “hollow receptacle” (such as a coffin or tomb) or a “trough, a pipe or channel for water to flow” (OED).
  2. The issue of attention emerged as a theme in several papers at the 2012 Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs conference; these discussions included Aislinn Hunter, “Look, and Then Look Again”; Martha Baillie, “The Novel as Core Sample”; Catherine Bush, “Looking as a Writer: Ethics and Attentiveness”; and Michael Helm, “Teaching the Uses of Blur” (CCWWP, Toronto, ON, May 10–13, 2012.) For an overview of recent studies on the effects of students’ immersion in various digital environments,” see Rekart. John Lorinc’s essay, “Driven to Distraction: How Our Multi-Channel, Multi-Tasking Society is Making It Harder for Us to Think,” was recently added to one of my course syllabi by the students themselves. Trips to the “experiential archive” encourage students to realize how a writer’s conscious presence of mind (as informed by eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands), enables precision of vision, originality of insight. In paying disciplined attention to the objects in a given environment, students, as Flannery O’Connor argued, discover the beginnings of craft.
  3. While it is also true that people may be paying attention in different ways—divided ways—that can’t simply be dismissed as “entirely negative,” studies have shown that “changes in attentional control” correlate to the under-use of “brain structures that… facilitate deep learning” (Rekart, 63, 62).
  4. To be clear, then, it is not technology per se that I am positing as “the problem” which needs to be addressed: it is, rather, the effects of technology on behavior and cognition, or habits of mind, that is my aim here. As Paul Seabright notes, “There are a good many paintings that you can view online more intimately than you can see them in the crowded conditions of the museum where they hang” (Seabright, n.p.); technology can facilitate close observation and focus as much any “thing,” as well as distract us.
  5. See Philip Gerard’s excellent work on integrating resourceful research in creative writing, where he differentiates between seven different types of “archives” (paper, living, electronic, visual, audio, experiential, and mnemonic).
  6. Obviously, such field trips do require a bit of advance legwork: curators need to be contacted and collections pre-viewed to assess any logistical difficulties (some collection spaces, for instance, necessitate splitting larger class groups into two); writing exercises based on the specific exhibits need to be planned; and students need to be notified in advance of any regulations or restrictions (no food or drink, backpacks, ink, etc.). Otherwise, it suffices that they arrive armed with only notebooks (whether digital or paper), and the set of writing exercise options that I distribute in advance. It’s productive to require that students have the exercise completed for submission by the end of the class trip, unless they are taken on a guided tour—in which case, I allow them to simply take notes and observe during the visit, and to submit their exercise the following class period. Advance distribution of writing prompts is key to ensuring that students arrive with the expectation of a purposeful aim: to gather enough details, impressions, facts and information to produce some original writing from their encounters with the objects on exhibit. It can be useful to participate in note-taking and writing alongside students (aside from the example it sets, the results can be surprising, for better or worse, when you complete one of your own writing exercises). In my own teaching practice, I’ve so far largely limited myself to campus resources on strictly logistical grounds. Transportation and time constraints make off-campus field trips more difficult—but not impossible—to arrange. The exercises described hereafter could certainly be applied in other public settings, museum or otherwise. Most of these exercises can also be easily adapted for genres other than creative nonfiction, and/or recalibrated for advanced undergraduates.
  7. “Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than just phonetic association. Museums are like… sepulchres of works of art [or objects]” which “neutralize culture” by decontextualizing and distancing the object from the “needs of the present.” Theodor Adorno, “Valéry Proust Museum,” from Prisms (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967): 175. As Lui puts it: “The museum institutionalizes and places the object under quarantine at a safe distance from the tensions of contemporary contradictions” (217).
  8. Assigned readings in conjunction with the zoology museum exercises include Susan Orlean’s New Yorker essay on taxidermy, “Lifelike.”
  9. See Lynn Pearce, Chap. 5, “Museums: The Intellectual Rationale” for a history of museums as “part of the creation of the philosophy of knowledge in the humanities and sciences”; the “museological structure parallel[s] modern structures of knowledge” and value, “underwrit[ing] and stabiliz[ing] the intellectual tradition” (116).
  10. For example, one sharp-eyed student focused on the glaring inconsistencies suggested by the photo of a pet cat fondly displayed above a curator’s desk, itself inconspicuously tucked away among the systematic, “enlightenment” exhibit of nondomesticated “specimens.” More generally, I would note also that the quality of the writing produced in field work exercises has often struck me as stronger than the work students produce in class. The surprise of unfamiliar “things,” or of familiar things de-familiarized through close examination, combined with the perception of such nongraded activities as low risk, allows students to take risks. As one explained it, “the field trips are a nice break from the editing and writing that we do in class, but also to refresh our minds. It’s like a little quiz, but I feel that there’s no pressure to be this ‘great writer’ when we do them.” Samples of the most unusual, inventive, and entertaining field trip exercises usually accompany me back to class in later sessions, where everyone benefits from large-group consideration of these. Some students will go on to incorporate or develop their exercises in their graded essay assignments.
  11. The other elephant, “Charlie Ed/Cranbrook Ed,” was sold to a zoo after his recapture, where he was eventually shot to death “by three police sharpshooters” for stomping a keeper. www.columbiabasininstitute/thegreatelephanthunt; see also articles in The Edmonton Bulletin and The Cranbrook Herald.
  12. For example, our cultural assumptions of anthropocentricism (the long philosophical and religious traditions ratifying human hegemony and “use” of animals in various capacities); even the detail of the erasure of the role played by First Nations hunters (including a female Ktunaxa member) in Myrtle’s story perpetuates, of course, patterns of historical erasure from our “official”/public accounts.
  13. For sample media coverage, see for example www.cbc.ca/news/edmonton/Lucy-elephant-alberta-court.html.
    TV game host Bob Barker was among the celebrities behind the efforts of animal rights’ groups to have Lucy relocated.
  14. Is such anthropomorphism problematic or palliative? Animal studies theorists are divided. “Things do not exist without being full of people,” as Bruno Latour reminds us. “Consider things, and you will have humans. Consider humans, and you are by that very act interested in things” (10, 20). If Theodor Adorno is correct, a sense of the intractable “otherness” of things constitutes an essentially ethical precept, insofar as such an acceptance of things may comprise the condition for acceptance of alterity or difference itself. (See Negative Dialectics, 189–94.) I am indebted to Brown’s essay for the connection to Adorno’s work.
  15. In 1926 the Department of Zoology consisted solely of Dr. William Rowan, the department Head who acquired Myrtle and founded the zoology collection. Myrtle’s de facto role as a teacher of zoology brings to mind the linguist Roman Jakobson’s famously incredulous response upon hearing of the nomination a creative writer (Vladimir Nabakov) for a Chair in Literature: “[What?] Are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” D. G. Myers cites the incident in his history of the institutionalization of creative writing, The Elephants Teach (1996).
  16. That is, to inspect something closely is to defamiliarize it: “Somewhere beneath or beyond the phenomena we see and touch there lurks some other life and law of things.… [E]ven objects squarely within the field of phenomenality are often less clear… the closer you look. As Georg Simmel said of telescopic and microscopic technology, ‘coming closer to things often only shows us how far away they still are from us’” (Brown 6).
  17. This paper began as a reflection on the value of physical residency in education, especially—though not exclusively—for writing programs. “It is not hard to see,” as Paul Seabright notes, in a review of Stephan Collini’s What Are Universities For?, that information technology and the internet are already challenging universities to consider whether there is anything essential about physical presence in an educational institution.” If, as Seabright argues, “intellectual enquiry is hard and demands a commitment… that often needs the close proximity of others similarly engaged,” then this is also axiomatically true of creative enquiry, where “the virtues of proximity” actually exceed the obligation to “engage with… critics under common standards of intelligent and courteous debate.” “Why Defend University? And How.” Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 2012. Accessed May 17, 2013, www.the-tls.couk/tls/public/article988625.ece , n.p.

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