Friday 29 August 2014

The creative / critical balance in a creative writing PhD

This topic has been debated hundreds of times, of course, and I’ve touched on it before on this blog. Yet I was reminded again recently as a colleague and I interviewed a possible PhD student. I’ve probably moderated my ideas gradually over the years. Many people still have difficulty grasping this concept and even those of us closely involved in them continue the debate.

 How long should it be?

Some institutions try to put limits on them but the problem is that there are two pieces of writing here – the creative piece and the critical one. That can really push the word count up.  The creative piece anyway needs to be as long as it needs to be – if it’s a novel it could well be 100,000 words or even more and then there is the critical thesis.
I wrote a 103,000 word young adult novel and a critical thesis that went with it of 46,000 words. A colleague wrote a 123,000 word novel and provided 26,000 words of critical commentary. I’d had to reduce mine from 80,000 words. When I had to make minor adjustments I found the missing two paragraphs in the 34,000 discarded words.   

Research and reporting on the research

I used to find it quite useful to regard the creative piece as the raw data and the critical component as the normal thesis. You do the research and then you write about the research.  There is almost the temptation to come up with two PhDs. Also, many creative writers, perhaps myself included, attempted to justify producing this strange creature by making my “thesis” – the critical part – look like an  English literature PhD.

A more symbiotic relationship

In truth it doesn’t actually quite work that way and didn’t actually, not even in my case. Most people complete the creative work and then tackle the critical part. Logically enough, you must write in a certain order and this seems to be the favoured one. But you can’t really leave the critical part until the end.  It must be at the front of your brain all of the time.
You shouldn’t really either just produce another piece of writing similar to what you’ve done before.
Between 2003 and 2007 I worked on a young adult novel. Previously I’d written for younger children. The modern young adult novel was relatively new then.  Arguably there have always been young adult novels – Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Wilhelmmeisters Lehrjahre (aha, also the seminal Bildungsroman- there’s a clue) - but there was an explosion of the genre in the late 1990s as we moved into the 21st century. So what was it?
I tried to answer that question be reading as many examples as I could and as much as I could about them. Because I can, I read in other languages and looked across all the continents. My research question was “What is a young adult novel?” and the subtitle to my thesis was “Towards a global definition of the young adult novel.” My novel tried to be that global young adult novel.
As I wrote the writing posed more questions. As I found out more about the topic I adjusted the writing. There is also a huge amount of research through practice involved here.

Adding to the knowledge base?

That’s what you’re supposed to do in order to gain a PhD isn’t it? In terms of creative practice the academy permits the student to go beyond the commercial, to experiment, to question and to innovate. Yes, the creative writing student must know and be able to interact with industry and must apply as much rigour to their work as if they’re looking to get published or as if they’re completing a more traditional PhD. But actually merely being publishable shouldn’t be enough. They must bring something new to the table.  I hope I did.   

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