Gothic Intersections: Between the Creative and the Critical

Posted by Tracy Fahey on September 08, 2013 in Ms Tracey Fahey tagged with

In my last post on the theme of Gothic intersections I wrote about the dissolving boundaries between the notion of self and self as author; selves that sometimes present as opposing personalities, sinister, often inextricably entangled.  In this post I’d like to return to the idea of double lives – but this time to focus on the idea of the intersections that can occur between creative and critical writing and the correlations, coincidences and insights that can arise in this overlap. For one of the oddest and most thorough reflections on this phenomenon, see Nicholas Royle’s The Uncanny; in which he ponders the two very separate but often uncannily overlapping lives of  himself, Nicholas Royle, critic and his doppelganger, Nicholas Royle, novelist[1].

Nicholas Royle and Nicholas Royle (from Royle, N (2003) The uncanny)

I think this dual practice is particularly prevalent in the Gothic (though I welcome refutations of this), possibly because the Gothic itself is fascinated by the in-between, and all that might lurk in this no-mans-land.  In fact, David Punter the godfather of Gothic has written several books of poetry including China and Glass, 1985, Lost in the Supermarket, 1987, Asleep at the Wheel, 1996 and (surely one of the best titles of a poetry collection ever?) Selected Short Stories (1999).

I’ll return briefly to the original starting point of my first post – the discovery that many of the short-story writers represented in the Impossible Spaces anthology were present or past PhD students, with fiction as their stock-in-trade, from both a creative and a critical standpoint.  What is it, I wondered, that makes us long to pass from secondary commentary to primary authorship? What benefits could this bring?  Why add more writing tasks to a life already saturated with words, sentences, paragraphs?

From my own perspective, varying modes of writing can produce different insights ; with different conditions conducive to different types of writing.  This is true even of purely critical writing.  Some days are inspired, the ink flows freely, fingers on the keyboard scrabble to keep pace with the overflowing thoughts. Other days can dawn in a fog of despond, destined for grim grunt-work, for checking bibliographies, for indexing.  These grey days are no less useful in crafting the final product.  The problem is when these days stretch together, and suddenly there is a period with more deleting than typing.  This time, I always find, just when ennui and apprehension are rising like a miasma from the desk, is the perfect time to plumb the soul for angst as raw material for fiction.  Yeats always categorised his work as being “the poetry of longing and complaint” – how many works of dark literature, I wonder, are the lovechild of boredom and anxiety?  And sometimes, just as one carefully-worked sonnet can effect a catharsis of rejected love, a short horror story can get the writing juices flowing – and maybe even take the writer in directions not previously contemplated.

At the International Gothic Association conference in August, I was talking about this with Dr. Hannah Priest from University of Manchester, who gave me a fabulous example of how such overlaps can work for mutual benefit.  Hannah, a medievalist by trade who also writes and edits under the pen name, Hannah Kate kindly responded to my e-mail asking her to elaborate on her story for this blog.  “When I was working on my PhD thesis” she writes “I was also working on the first draft of a (as yet unpublished) novel. My PhD thesis focused on intersections of sex, violence and monstrosity in late medieval verse; my novel was a reimagining on a twelfth-century romance poem – one of the texts I explored in my thesis – as a contemporary YA urban fantasy about fairies and domestic abuse. Switching between modes of writing was a challenge, but it was also very rewarding (in several, sometimes unexpected, ways).  For instance, at one point, I was writing a scene in the novel where the heroine borrows a piece of clothing from the hero. In the medieval text I was adapting, this is described in just one line – I wanted to write a lengthier scene. This encouraged me to look much more closely at that single line than I had previously done, to explore the implications and nuances of a single word (the garment in question) and to consider how that related to gender roles within the poem. Not only did that help me write the scene in my novel, but it laid the basis for my forthcoming academic chapter on secular female-to-male cross-dressing in medieval romance.”

From the critical PhD to creative writing PhD therefore isn’t such a jump.  These PhD options flourish in many universities, and have constituted a long tradition especially in Australia, where there is a history of over twenty years of practice-based PhDs in the creative industries.  Kimberly Campanello writes about the experience of working on a creative writing PhD at Middlesex University on the Irish Writers blog (/http://writerscentre.ie/blog/blog/2012/09/03/finding-a-way/).  She praises the experience as creating a structure and a focus for her writing  and for challenging her to stretch her writing over other forms and genres.  All creative writing PhD programmes I have encountered ask for the production of a pre-agreed piece or pieces of creative writing, accompanied by a critical text.  This critical text usually comes in two variants; one is a straightforward essay that deals with a pivotal question, theory or form of creative writing.  The other is a contextual text that analyses how this work abuts on the work of others, and what new insights or reflections it brings to the genre or form.

To sum up, creative and critical writing are two different forms which can sometimes converge.  No-one decides where on the landscape you are positioned.  It’s up to you.  Novelists can be critics, professors can write poetry.  There are, after all, two sides to every story, so why not two sides to every storyteller?

In my next post, I’m going to get a little more autobiographical, when I reflect on another set of intersections that are crucial to my own critical and creative practice, and to an understanding of Irish Gothic – where histories, stories and memories meet to create a particular kind of local Gothic.

Until then, comments, criticism and contradictions are all welcome on the blog.

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The paperback version of Impossible Spaces is available direct from Hic Dragones or through Amazon.co.uk. Online stores carrying the eBook version are listed on the Hic Dragones website here: http://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/impossible-spaces/


[1] Royle, N. (2003) The uncanny (Chapter 12: The double, pp 187-202)

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