Sunday, May 1, 2016

Theory, schmeory


            I got into a friendly debate with a writer acquaintance the other day.
            The person is very invested in creative writing theory. She teaches writing, and focuses almost exclusively on theory with her students and when doing her own writing.
            Like my associate, I love to read about craft and theory. I particularly enjoy reading writers’ accounts of their own processes in a very personal way, like I’m attempting right now. Scholarly essays are also great, though, and I read (and write) those, too. For any serious discussion of writing, in any genre or style, count me fully in.
            But there is a time and place for everything, and the time to apply theory is near the end of the process—not the beginning.
            It is all well and good for graduate students to debate the veracity of Frank Kermode or Longinus or Wayne C. Booth. That’s what grad students do; they have the luxury of time to talk about fascinating and non-essential things.
            I’m mostly kidding. Sometimes a guy like Frank Kermode has exactly the answer we need; he certainly has much to say, some of it worthwhile. But students have stories and poems and essays to write, and having Frank Kermode in one’s head isn’t helpful to that process.
            I’m not sure why I’m picking on poor dead Frank Kermode. Maybe it’s because he specialized in endings. But the logic applies to all theorists. If we’re serious about writing, our reading of theory should be vast and varied and deep.
            It should also be separate.
For beginning writers, it’s a mistake to be too thinky. A poem or story is an artifact of the spirit, best felt and honored and marveled at. I love to hear about where work came from—the inspiration, the source of images, the personal connection even an emerging writer has to the art. Dredging up what the spirit has to offer is not a particularly intellectual pursuit, in my experience. It shares much more with the breath and the blood and the spine than it does with the noodle.
Once a draft is down on the page, there are almost always problems to fix—logical gaps, missing information, rocky language. It’s time to get thinky then, when the body and the spirit have brought us as far as they can. But even this initial revisionary thought comes from a personal source, rather than the ghost of Jacques Derrida.
So, then—when do we consider Derrida?
Look, I have no beef with theorists. They just have very little to do with writing, and time spent talking about theory in a creative writing classroom is time spent not talking about writing. As we go along in our writing education, we find less and less that we need to say about our writing anyhow. The very first time I workshopped with my MFA cohort, they all laid down their preferences immediately, and I spent two years hearing N say I needed to play more with form and F say that he liked the sexy parts and B calling for more imagination. They were all right, but there wasn’t a great deal of value to hearing it every single week.
Enter Derrida. When basic problems are in the rear-view mirror and workshops have become a predictable litany of likes and dislikes, it’s extremely useful to have outside viewpoints to consider and theories to hold our work up to. Ideally, we would have been introduced to some theory along the way, but too much of a focus on other people’s ideas about writing can distract us from our purpose: writing.
Mind you, we can also have too much theory in graduate workshops. The further along we get in our study, the more we regard our “products” as, well, products: widgets from the poem factory, doodads from the story plant. We become fixated on fixing, without much regard for the fact that these artifacts represent our deepest, truest selves.
Some of us can grow very calculated in our approach to our art, and our poems and essays and stories become artifacts of the noodle instead of our spirit. I get to this point regularly in my creative life. My writing habits become predictable and my rhetoric becomes repetitive. I lose the freshness. With discipline, though, and with the bravery to try something new, we can get back to the wonder that led us down this path to begin with.

I’m sorry to report that Alain Robbe-Grillet probably won’t get us there—not on his own, anyway. Art really does start and end in the artist. Critical reading can inform the artist, and that’s all to the good. But art happens on its own, and there’s not a single word of critical theory that is essential to the practice.

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