After a talk at the Kultivate Project Conference that I recently attended in London, I’ve been thinking about the process of creative writing and why it is so difficult to archive creative works.
Professor Kersten Mey spoke an awful lot of sense on Friday, and for a while it was like being back in my Creative Writing lectures at university. I hope that nobody in the room stopped paying attention to what she was saying as I know would have happened if the speech had been a university lecture, because it genuinely got across some really vital points regarding how artists create art.
Of course, I only have limited experience in this area, and it’s to do with how writers write rather than the visual arts – but there was a lot that struck me as true. This is partly because I studied writing as an academic subject, and as such guidelines had to be put into place to make sure that we could be properly and fairly assessed. This is similar to the way that academic research is assessed and graded by the REF and is something that we all need to think about when presenting the institution’s research in a public domain. For us as students, therefore, it was frequently drilled into us that we had to consider what we were writing, why we were writing it, and how it fitted into the literary canon.
All big things. But nothing that any good artist won’t do anyway?
There are those who sit down and write whatever comes into their heads. Stories and characters seize them and don’t let go until they’ve finished telling their tale. (I’m not one of these people. Not often, anyway.)
But, these writers will – I believe- tell you that after two or three novels, short stories, poems etc themes begin to emerge. And it’s these themes that help you to work out what you are writing, and with further analysis why you are writing it. Your cares and worries emerge cathartically through your work.
The other way to consider what you’re writing (or want to write) is to think about something which you’re passionate about. This was some of the best advice I was given (as I’m not one of those people who often spontaneously sit and write until the idea has run dry). You can’t just write about things which you’ve never experienced or don’t care about. You have to be moved, annoyed, emotionally invested – otherwise you won’t produce convincing art.
So: to consider what you’re writing and why, you need to look into your motives. Perhaps this happens organically, an idea or news story sparks your imagination and you run with it. Or perhaps you work the other way around: you want to create something which explores a particular (contemporary) issue that you care about and so you build your story around what you read or learn in the real world.
Both of these methods of writing include research as well as experience and personality. You are influenced by what you experience, and this includes the things you read in the paper and see on the news. It also includes the research you carry out to flesh out your characters experiences, and it includes the theories you read to flesh out the philosophy you want to get across.
The second part of producing art/writing is to think about where it fits into the literary canon. This sounds scary, but it’s not really. It can be as simple as recognising your literary (or musical, or televisual, or whatever cultural thing floats your boat) influences, or it can be an active attempt to recreate a past movement, or invent something entirely original.
I’d like to think that most of us do this anyway. A lot of what we write is subconscious, but we can all tell you who we’d like to emulate, or which things we’d never do. This is what considering your place in the literary canon means. Are you a chick lit writer, a science fiction writer, or do you want to break the mould?
And in order to do all of these things you need to read books, read the paper, watch films, listen to music and engage. As part of my degree, we were taught to think about where our influences came from and document them. This was because we were not just marked on the originality of our piece, but the thought that went into producing it. We were taught to consider the ideas that went into producing something because often, with art, the output is not the sum of its parts – it is influenced by a great many things which come out as subleties in the work and so are not always obvious. So we were taught to contextualise our work in relation to what we had researched, and we had to write an accompanying essay to each creative piece which detailed our considerations. This meant that our examiners (and readers) could consider what we were producing in the same way that we had, and so our meaning was shared in this way.
Obviously, it’s impossible to get all of your influences across in the output itself – you’d be there forever explaining why Dune was such an important book and why you spent two weeks reading about the construction of religion and the importance of charismatic leaders when you produced this minor character who controls the fate of the protagonist. So documenting the process of how you got to the output is important – especially if anybody else is going to see the work as you meant it, and as more than just its words/images. For assessment, they need to see the work that went into the production of your piece.
Of course, I won’t argue that all art happens this way, as I’m not all artists. But, as I’ve mentioned above, there are ways to work back through your portfolio and pick apart the influences that lead you there. As subconscious as they were, once you recognise how you got somewhere, you are able to share that process with those who need to consider it in order to grade it.
And, of course, I won’t argue that this is necessary for all art or writing. The beauty of creative work is that it invites interpretation, and I don’t want to spoil that by contextualising everything. In fact, I think it’s one of the most restrictive things an artist can do to her audience. But in this case I am talking about assessment – assessment of the quality of your research process as well as of the output itself. And this is something which is becoming increasingly important, what with the cuts to the arts we are experiencing here at the moment. It’s not a case of justifying what we do, but explaining more clearly how we go about it, and that it’s not so difficult to assess after all.
The most important point that I’m trying to get across here, and it’s one that Professor Mey made at the Conference, is that research and art are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. The work that goes into producing artistic outputs is often equally empirically based, but the need to represent the research process as well as the output (so as do document the path to this single conclusion) is what causes repositories a problem.It’s just a case of learning how to record what is significant, and for librarians and repository managers (and software developers) to find ways to accommodate this way of working.