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Journal, Day Two
I teach a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Uncreative Writing,” which is a pedagogical extension of my own poetics. In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead, they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly, what they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.
Well, you might ask, what’s wrong with creativity? “I mean, we can always use more creativity.”1 “The world needs to become a more creative place.”2 “If only individuals could express themselves creatively, they’d be freer, happier.”3 “I’m a strong believer in the therapeutic value of creative pursuits.”4 “To be creative, relax and let your mind go to work, otherwise the result is either a copy of something you did before or reads like an army manual.”5 “I don’t follow any system. All the laws you can lay down are only so many props to be cast aside when the hour of creation arrives.”6 “An original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.”7
When our notions of what is considered creative became this hackneyed, this scripted, this sentimental, this debased, this romanticized . . . this uncreative, it’s time to run in the opposite direction. Do we really need another “creative” poem about the way the sunlight is hitting your writing table? No. Or another “creative” work of fiction that tracks the magnificent rise and the even more spectacular fall? Absolutely not.
One exercise I do with my students is to give them the simple instructions to retype five pages of their choice. Their responses are varied and full of revelations: some find it enlightening to become a machine (without ever having known Warhol’s famous dictum “I want to be a machine”). Others say that it was the most intense reading experience they ever had, with many actually embodying the characters they were retyping. Several students become aware that the act of typing or writing is actually an act of performance, involving their whole body in a physically durational act (even down to noticing the cramps in their hands). Some of the students become intensely aware of the text’s formal properties and for the first time in their lives began to think of texts not only as transparent, but as opaque objects to be moved around a white space. Others find the task zen-like and amnesia-inducing (without ever having known Satie’s “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” or Duchamp’s desire to live without memory), alternately having the text lose then regain meaning.
In the act of retyping, what differentiates each student is their choice of what to retype. One student once retyped a story about a man’s inability to complete the sexual act, finding the perfect metaphor for this assignment. Another student retyped her favorite high school short story, only to discover during the act of retyping it, just how poorly written it was. Yet another was a waitress who took it upon herself to retype her restaurant’s menu in order to learn it better for work. She ended up hating the task and even hating her job more. The spell was broken when purposefulness and goal-orientation entered into the process.
The trick in uncreative writing is airtight accountability. If you can defend your choices from every angle, then the writing is a success. On the other hand, if your methodology and justification is sloppy, the work is doomed to fail. You can no longer have a workshop where people worry about adjusting a comma here or a word there. You must insist that the procedure was well articulated and accurately executed.
We proceed through a rigorous examination of the circumstances that are normally considered outside of the scope of writing but, in fact, have everything to do with writing. Question arise, among them:
What kind of paper did you use? Why is it on generic white computer paper when the original edition was on thick, yellowed, pulpy stock? What does it say about you: your aesthetic, economic, social, and political circumstances?
Do you reproduce exactly the original text’s layout page by page or do you simply flow the words from one page to another, the way your word processing program does? Will the texts be received differently if it is in Times Roman or Verdana?
For a task so seemingly simple, the questions never end.
A few years ago I was lecturing to a class at Princeton. After the class, a small group of students came up to me to tell me about a workshop that they were taking with one of the most well-known fiction writers in America. They were complaining about her lack of imagination. For example, she had them pick their favorite writer and come in next week with an “original” work in the style of that author. I asked one of the students which author they chose. She answered Jack Kerouac. She then added that the assignment felt meaningless to her because the night before she tried to “get into Kerouac’s head” and scribbled a piece in “his style” to fulfill the assignment. It occurred to me that for this student to actually write in the style of Kerouac, she would have been better off taking a road trip across the country in a ‘48 Buick with the convertible roof down, gulping Benzedrine by the fistful, washing ‘em down with bourbon, all the while typing furiously away on a manual typewriter, going 85 miles per hour down a ribbon of desert highway. And even then, it would’ve been a completely different experience, not to mention a very different piece of writing, than Kerouac’s.
Instead, my mind drifted to those aspiring painters who fill up the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day, spending hours learning by copying the Old Masters. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for us? I would think that should this student have retyped a chunk —or if she was ambitious the whole thing—of On The Road. Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her? I think she really would’ve learned something had she retyped Kerouac. But no—she had to bring in an “original” piece of writing.
At the start of each semester, I ask my students to simply suspend their disbelief for the duration of the class and to fully buy into uncreative writing. I tell them that one good thing that can come out of the class is that they completely reject this way of working. At least their own conservative positions becomes fortified and accountable; they are able to claim that they have spent time with these attitudes for a prolonged period of time and quite frankly, they’ve found them to be a load of crap. Another fine result is that the uncreative writing exercises become yet another tool in their writing toolbox, upon which they will draw from for the rest of their careers. Of course, the very best result—and the unlikeliest one—is that they dedicate their life to uncreative writing. Later in the week, we will actually look at works of uncreative and conceptual writing by mature writers who, in fact, have dedicated their oeuvre to this type of practice.
1 Marc Chagall
2 Philip Yeo
3 Richard Florida
4 Dr. Wayne Dwyer
5 Kimon Nicoliades
6 Raoul Dufy
7 Gail Sheehy