By Heidi Ann Smith
What is creative writing? By this question I do not mean to ask how we can cause those who are not creative writers to understand a work of creative writing rather, by this question, I mean to provoke others to ask how we might understand the question. For a long time I labeled myself as ‘a free-verse poet’ until it occurred to me that if I did not label myself as aligned with any particular genre I might have more creative writing options. Rosemary Butcher argues that, “the thesis is produced in a sense in the making of the work”. By this I mean to suggest that a creatively written text is evidence of a performance that has ended and that the performance must not aim at reproduction and by ‘re-production’, I mean a ‘preconceived’ idea. If a creative writer is aware how a creative writing performance will end before the writing process has begun this necessarily limits the creativity since the nature of creativity implies that something will ‘arise’ or ‘come to light’. It is in the making of the text that the artist supplies the necessary space and all of the materials that provoke a work of art to come into being.
Some may argue with the above proposition by asserting that anything can be interpreted as a work of art, for example, by arguing that Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) and other ‘readymade’ art proponents, have demonstrated that anything ‘chosen’ by an artist can be a work of art. If you will recall, Duchamp argued that a urinal is a work of art simply because he ‘chose’ to submit urinal to an art exhibit (that claimed it would present all works of art). Duchamp signed the urinal with the pseudonym, ‘R. Mutt’. I would counter this argument by suggesting that the work of art was the designer of the urinal not Duchamp. ‘Choosing’ a common object and signing a pseudonym does not instantiate a work of art no matter how famous the artist’s signature or how ‘well chosen’ the object. In terms of creative writing, the previous argument would imply, for example, that the poet Mark Strand could sign his name to a store receipt and that store receipt would suddenly become a creatively written artifact. While an object signed by a famous poet may be of value, history demonstrates that monetary value or affiliation with someone famous does not necessarily translate into a work of art. Vincent van Gogh, for example, sold only one painting in his lifetime (and received very little money for it) and Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Peirce’s writings did not gain popularity until after their deaths. The previous examples demonstrate that the artist informs the field of artistic practice, not the viewer or the object, no matter how well ‘chosen’. How was Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” altered by the viewer’s ever increasing appreciation of it? How was Duchamp’s urinal informed by Duchamp’s artistic practice? While some may suggest that anything is a work of art, I would argue along the lines suggested by Deleuze that a work of art is ‘molded’ by a skilled and practicing artisan and that the work of art itself ‘causes sensations’ or ‘affects’ regardless of the viewer. Is a tree in a forest, a tree in a forest, if no human is there to view it? Following along similar lines of reasoning, some may want to say that a machine is a work of art. I suggest that a machine may be a work of art but a machine cannot manufacture an art theory, a machine can only instantiate an art theory. Artists are creators of art theories that arise in the ‘making’ of the work of art. If this is not the case, then what are the fundamental notions by which we might arrive at understanding of what we mean by ‘creative writing’ and what are the conditions that allow or cause a work of creative writing to come into being?
About Heidi Ann Smith
Heidi Ann Smith grew up in the Chicago area and began publishing poems as a child. At a young age, she won various local and academic awards for her writing; based on her writing abilities, she was awarded a scholarship to a private high school and attended college courses during her high school years. After high school she began raising a family and was taken away from her writing, but soon returned to complete a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University. She then earned a Master of Arts in Humanities from California State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Several of her poems recently found homes in various journals, and she published a scholarly thesis on the German artist George Grosz. Heidi is currently a PhD student studying Creative Writing at Middlesex University in London, England. THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY is her first novel.
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About The Clara Ann Burns Story
In Heidi Ann Smith’s short novel THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, a woman who suffered child abuse looks back over her turbulent life as she approaches her fifties. Smith describes it as “a story of a young girl, Clara Ann Burns, who was tortured, abused and neglected by her family. When she was old enough to go out on her own, she got herself into situations that were not always the best. But in the end she raises her own family and holds onto the hope of healing and living without fear.”
Smith explains that the story “is based on some of my life experiences,” which included sexual abuse. “I needed to write this book–and I needed to have the right and the freedom to bring together different events.”
Rather than creating a traditional narrative text from start to finish, in THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith–who holds one master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing, another in humanities, and is a PhD student in creative writing–chose to express child abuse and loss by experimenting with literary genre. The result is that the protagonist, Clara Ann Burns, tells her story through written memories (short stories, lists, poems, one-minute plays) and memorabilia (hospital records, photographs, personal records). All are presented without explanation: a grandmother cooks breakfast while she speaks to her deceased husband; a mother scalds her child in a bathtub; the funeral processions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the death of a child’s father; and the rape of a stepdaughter. This multi-genre approach, Smith feels, more accurately conveys “the impossibility of piecing together this story, and reflects the inconsistencies of an abuse victim’s memories that tend to jump from one instance of abuse to the next, rather than flowing through, perhaps, what might be considered the normal ups and downs of life.”
In addition, Smith points out, “These isolated memories of abuse that flash through Clara’s mind are what it means to have post-traumatic stress disorder. I suggest further that these isolated incidents also represent the perplexity of healing from prolonged neglect and abuse, since a constant state of fear is what is most familiar to Clara since she was abused by family members and friends for many years. If a child believes his or her own family is not adverse to his or her own torture, neglect, or rape, the child cannot survive as emotionally or psychologically intact. In Clara’s case, the abuse is pervasive, there is no relief for many years, nor hope of relief until she is an older woman and capable of looking at what happened to her objectively through the instantiation of the events as presented in the text.”
Despite the personal inspiration behind THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY, Smith’s academic and scholarly understanding of both creative writing and fine art informs the book’s power. She likens writing to fine art: “All the great artists I studied reflected their life; in a great work of art, you cannot extricate the artist’s life from their work. When you look at a work of art by Van Gogh or Caravaggio you see some truth about their life. For me, the truth does not necessarily read like a biography; there are details that are blurred from your view. When I was engaged in the writing process, some things that were hidden from my view came out–which may grab the reader because it hit me as well.”
Smith hopes that readers who can identify with THE CLARA ANN BURNS STORY will find some comfort in it. “When I was a little girl I was very sick and I didn’t have a happy home life. I started reading poetry, and I felt some kind of resonance and a kindred spirit with the other writer’s work. I hope my work will reach someone and that they will also know that they are not alone.” And, she adds, “I also hope the work is received as a work of literature.”