Teaching Students to Break the Rules

This month we are publishing Nigel Krauth’s book Creative Writing and the Radical which explores the ideas of innovation and experimentation within creative writing. In this post, Nigel discusses how he taught students to break the rules and how the way creative writing is taught must change to incorporate the ever-evolving modern world.

I’ve taught creative writing for 25 years at Griffith University, but only in one course – my Radical Fictions course – have students thanked me for teaching them how to break the rules. In addition, they’ve said: ‘I wish I had taken this course at the start of my degree, not at the end of it’.

In reply I used to say: ‘You need to know the rules before you can break them well.’ But nowadays I don’t say that. The students know already that rule-breaking is part of the mainstream in literary publishing.

Creative Writing and the RadicalMy book Creative Writing and the Radical traces the history of experimental writing in the 20th century and earlier, and shows how those gallant, devoted writers who sought to escape the strictures of the page – who made typography dance, presented narrative in manoeuvrable fragments, introduced pictures amongst the prose, and did away with the conventions of the printed and bound book – were actually onto something. They were rehearsing for the future.

Multimodal writing – based on ways of reading spatially which developed since TV and computer screens took over our reading/viewing habits – breaks the rules of traditional linear text writing in favour of writing which is not constrained by the densely-printed page but is oriented to the hypermedia possibilities of the app book, web publication, formats like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, PowerPoint, and other applications that combine text, visuals, audio – and even haptics, potentially.

In my Radical Fictions/Experimental Writing course last semester, I had a student who presented a suite of poems using QR codes on stickers located in appropriate settings, such as a poem about departure accessible from a QR label in an airport. I also had a narrative about a young woman’s enviable married life presented in images and short texts on Instagram, alongside a web journal which showed what was really going on in the relationship. And I had a romance genre novelette presented in PowerPoint with images and audio subtly supplementing – and subverting – the reading experience.

When students are shown Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph’s collaborative web novel Flight Paths (2012), or Chapter 12 (the PowerPoint chapter) of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), or the reissue of Marc Saporta’s novel-in-a-box Composition No 1 (1963) by Visual Editions (2011) which can also be read on shuffle on their iPads, they quickly understand the possibilities of creative writing in the digital world and the changes most likely to happen for fiction, poetry and memoir in the future.

My students tend to have no particular visual arts or digital writing training, and not all feel confident about working on digital outcomes. As has happened over many years now, I still receive submissions based wonderfully in collaging, cut-and-paste, concrete typographical, discontinuous narrative and constraint/combinatory techniques as pioneered by the Dadaists, Oulipians and generally by experimental literary writers on paper.

This year one student handed in a story about a child who develops a psychotic disorder in his teenage years, as told through the parental words added to birthday and Christmas cards throughout his shortened life. The greeting cards (almost forty in number, purchased, hand-written upon, and submitted for assessment) show how the apple of the effusive parents’ eye becomes a stranger they have nothing left to say to. Another student, who in fact lived through 9/11 in New York, submitted a narrative in a hundred 6-word mini-stories – each printed on a torn strip of paper, a jam jar full of them – which looked like a retrieved collection of the confetti that rained down on that fateful day. This novelette in a jar, narrated from children’s viewpoints, seeks to understand what adult culture is doing to the world.

Traditional paper publishing too is changing: the experimental has been accepted into the mainstream. The best example is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), a highly acclaimed novel – and also a bestseller – which sets up complex interactions between text, layout, typography, design, graphics, colour, photography, literary forms and the structure of the codex itself. This novel is a master class in the possibilities of radical novel writing – a work that puts onto paper everything that the digital world can teach us about writing. It too is about 9/11’s explosion of American culture.

It stands alongside J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. (2013), a novel on a Hollywood scale made from a myriad of visual pieces, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), a novel which shows how memoir is significantly composed of photographic snippets.

There are many new avenues for the teaching of creative writing to follow. But they are not optional. Publishing is changing, how we read is changing … the way we teach creative writing must also change.

For more information about Nigel’s book, please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also be interested in the other titles in our New Writing Viewpoints Series.

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