Sense-making, Self-making, Poem-making in the “English that is theirs”
A Review by Linda Lappin
Despite the firm entrenchment of Creative Writing as an academic discipline in universities throughout North America, the UK, and parts of Asia, much of the world still lags behind. Although creativity is a value purportedly held in high esteem by educators everywhere, the legitimacy of creative writing as an academic pursuit is far from being universally established and is often attacked by its very own practitioners (See Hanif Kureishi Kureishi @the Guardian
). Questions like “Can creative writing be taught?” (A google search will turn up over 12,500,000 references on this topic), “Why and how should it be taught?” “Who should teach it?” “How can we evaluate student creative writing?” and “Can the products of creative writing classes be considered literature“? – have yet to find a definitive answer.
As more and more of the world strives to learn English, and EFL and ESL teachers attempt to motivate students through creative communicative practices, L2 creative writing has crept into the L2 classroom, where the questions of why and how assume a new aspect. Students themselves along with school administrators may contest the very notion that creative writing is a valid L2 classroom activity, or one even within students’ capacity. Exploring Second Language Creative Writing: Beyond Babel, a collection of essays edited by Dan Disney, challenges that limited view, offering several exciting itineraries, methodologies, and reasons for bringing creative writing into the L2 classroom. Whether you teach English to foreigners, literature or creative writing to L1 or L2 students, this is a book not to be missed.
This groundbreaking volume collects seven inspiring essays by teachers and researchers around the globe on L2 creative writing practice in particular contexts of English language teaching, exploring the “tripartite relationship of languages, literature, and identity.” (2) All but one essay focus on poetry. “Increasingly,” Disney writes in his lively introduction, “creative writing is being deployed in L2 literary studies and TESOL (or TEFL) classrooms, an experimental pedagogical technology which engages processes of both linguistic and affective expansion.” (8) The essential problem every second language learner deals with is, as Disney wisely points out, “how to feel like ourselves in a language we do not quite feel at home in?” (41) L2 creative writing practices guide students towards the achievement of this elusive goal. Through different methodological approaches, the authors in this volume show how the reading and writing of poetry in the L2 language allows students to connect to their own inner self and at the same expand that self or even acquire a new one enriched by the new linguistic and cultural experience of the L2, “transcribing selfhood into a new linguistic materiality.” (4)
The methodologies discussed in the book depart from a close reading of literary artifacts – canonical texts - serving as models to be imitated, in some cases translated and re-translated, – or as “style guides to shepherd and catalyze new writers.” Learning to close read as a writer by focusing on the subtleties of linguistic choices leads students to see how language works formally and functionally in a text , to understand the effect those choices have on the reader, and how those effects were achieved. This is not, Disney claims, an act whereby students’ imaginations are colonized, rather it may generate an “engaged and emancipatory critique in both mother and other tongues.“ (1) “Through surveying how other makers have played particular language-games, educators equip learners with skill-sets to explore and make texts aiming to extend the great experiment of literature.” (7) Canonical texts are not just “read only” assignments but territories for personal exploration and experimentation –which may take the form of imitation, but also of critique, mash-up, code switching, parody, hybridization in a “life transforming conversation within a community of mentors, peers, and literatures.” (7)
Each essay in the book offers thoughtful theoretical insights on creative writing practice and its employment in both the L1 and L2 classrooms, along with practical and applicable concepts and prompts, which makes Exploring Second Language Creative Writing
a boon to teachers seeking new ways to introduce creative pursuits to their students. David Hanauer ‘s contribution, “Appreciating the Beauty of Second Language Poetry Writing,” is particularly stimulating in this regard. Departing from the premise that “poetry is a dialectic between personal memory exploration and written expression,” (16) Hanauer walks us through his course, which begins with a writing prompt designed to initiate autobiographical enquiry and leads students through the process of poem-making. The process ends in a final product: a bound sheaf in triplicate copy of ten poems to be read aloud at a formal public performance. Considering that these students may be future engineers, doctors, teachers, computer programmers, many of whom probably never considered ever writing a poem in their own language, I find Hanauer’s project highly inspiring. He shows how learning to write in a second language gives students a chance to deepen their self-knowledge and expressive abilities in an “essentially humanizing” act. (8)
The second essay, “Learner and Writer Voices: Learners as Writers and the Search for Authorial Voice” by Jane Spiro describes an experiment, reminiscent of the NEA poets- in- the -schools program, pairing L2 proto-writers with published L1 writers in order to enquire into “What do second language learner writers value in the work of others? How can they transform this appreciation to find their own voice in a second language?” The third essay by Dan Disney, the volume’s editor, “Is This How It’s Supposed to Work?: Poetry as a Radical Technology in Creative Writing Classrooms” provides a critical and practical overview of Disney’s dynamic Creative Reading and Creative Writing classes at Sogang University in South Korea. Departing from the centrality of language to personal identity, Disney’s approach combines the acquisition of creative, linguistic, and cultural skill-sets with deep self-exploration and personal expression. Canonical textual models “are read historically for fun and for function” (45) as students learn to recognize and manipulate image, figuration, enjambment, rhythm, sound patterns, moving on to make poems of their own. “Play is a cornerstone,” he claims, to “emergent L2 Poetry pedagogy.” (44) More importantly his students discover how poems happen, emerging from epiphanies and flashes of insight.
The fourth essay, “Literary Translation as a Creative Practice in L2 Writing Pedagogies” by Eugenia Loffredo and Manuela Perteghella investigates the process of translation as a creative and explorative experience, which, when liberated from the tension of replicating a source text or extracting its meaning allows students to “engage critically and creatively” with it so that translation becomes a tool for “learning new ways to play with language and facilitates the establishing of a new type of relationship with the text.”(71) The authors also give a practical examples of their method carried out in workshop sessions both live and online.
The fifth essay, “Process and Product, Means and Ends: Creative Writing in Macao,” by Christopher Kelen gives an account of his efforts to introduce creative writing to non-native speakers of English at the University of Macao as a way of approaching literature. His aim was “ to motivate students to live more of their lives in English (and so improve their English) by showing them that literature in English was something they could make themselves: by showing them that culture (even of another language) was a living, dynamic process in which they could participate and in which they could possibly make a mark themselves” (77). Kelen also argues for a “publication oriented curriculum” to help legitimize his overall project within the community. “Polishing and publishing the best student work was a means to the end of creating a set of exemplary texts for the inspiration of next generations of Creative Writing students.”(93) The sixth essay “Curriculum as Cultural Critique: Creative Writing Pedagogy in Hong Kong,” Eddie Tay discusses the social, political, and cultural specificity of Hong Kong and the ways in which creative writing may contribute to the fostering of an “imagined community” (103). Creative writing is not a “solitary endeavor” he emphasizes, but one “embedded within literary circles inhabited by editors, publishers, and interested audiences.” He writes, ”students need to be socialized into the act of writing.” (117)
Grace V.S. Chin of the University of Brunei Darussalam, would agree. Her essay, “Co-constructing a Community of Creative Writers: Exploring L2 Identity Formations through Bruneian Playwriting” explores “notions of identity, language, and place by investigating L2 creative writing,” (119) showing how the creative writing classroom is an interactional space where students “engage each other as a community of writers.” Chin argues that “educators should tap students’ shared sources of lived experiences and internalized knowledges to heighten their sense of collective identities as creative writers.” (120)
This book is an invaluable resource for creative writing teachers whether in the L1 or L2, L2 language teachers, and creative writers who happen to be engaged in either or both of these fields. The authors give us glimpses into some fascinating classrooms, where we may observe students, with eyes closed, recapturing a memory in silence, trying to associate it with appropriate images and sounds (Hanauer), others, sitting on cushions with stuffed animals, as if at a slumber party, snacking while working on drafts of a play together (Chin), visiting zoos and museums as writing spaces (Disney), reading poems in a public performance, (Hanauer) or polishing work to be published by a community press. (Kelen).
These two extremes: the act of deep, personal reflection when the spark of a future poem, story, or play first flashes in the writer’s mind and its public transmission to a community through publication or performance mark the moments of departure and arrival in the birth of any piece of literature. That journey passes midway through the experience of “serious” linguistic play and interaction with other writers, peers, mentors, in the processes of formation, revision, delivery . Writing is, as most writers will probably attest, very hard work , deeply bound up with the writer’s sense of who she is, at moments intensely pleasurable and even, fun.
It is this aspect that seems to make some educators nervous. It is unfortunate, Kelen writes, “ideas like fun and play have come to be regarded as the anathema of the academy.”(101)
The teaching of writing must respond to students’ real, expressive needs. A growth in the student’s communicative skills can occur only through purposeful and meaningful tasks which speak to a student’s authentic self. The magic of creative writing is that by practicing it, we may discover that we have a lot more to say to the world than we thought, that our authentic self knows a lot more than we give it credit for, and that there are people interested in hearing what we have to say. The linguistic, cultural, and social competence gained by L2 students through the learning experiences outlined in this book enormously enhanced students’ self-esteem and self-awareness, while reinforcing their sense of belonging to a community of fellow writers. These are all definitely “tangible, deliverable” outcomes that can be appreciated by even the most narrow-minded educator. The authors in this book have shown that L2 creative writing is “empowering,” “transformative,” “playful,” “enabling.” It builds self-confidence and is “essentially humanizing.” Disney warns, “Unlike the instrumentalism of a TESOL pedagogy, Creative Writing requires that students explore inwardly and beyond in their own terms.” (7)
Now if we could just humanize schools to truly embrace that very aim as an essential learning goal…..
This is an expensive book. Get your university library or writing center to buy a copy.
Exploring Second Language Creative Writing: Beyond Babel
Dan Disney (ed)
Linguistic Approaches to Literature 19
John Benjamins, Amsterdam 2014
Hb 157pp EUR95.00
US 143.00 Read More