Creative Writing Courses
Since the proliferation of Creative Writing courses in universities in the Anglo world, much has been written and said about “genre” in writing.
While talking with a friend from my writers’ group recently, the question of the basic difference between mass media and literary fiction came up. She said: ‘One underlying aim in commercial fiction is to provide hope, e.g. romance stories always end happily, and in crime fiction there is always a solution and the criminals end up paying for their crimes.’
Creative Writing contrasts with Non-Fiction Writing in the broadest sense. It is the sort of writing that novelists, short story writers and poets employ. Non-Fiction includes traditional biographical works, academic texts, journalism, and books on a diverse range of subjects, such as food (recipes), self help and memoir.
Of course, with fiction, there is a breakdown of genres within the broad genre: Science fiction, romance, historical fiction, mystery, horror, detective stories, action, fantasy and adventure. However, here I am interested above all in an overview of the term in relation to fiction and memoir.
Contrasted with ‘commercial fiction’ is ‘literary fiction’, in which experiences and insights, both positive or negative, are what count. However, when I hear this term nowadays, I think back to classical writers of the past: Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charles Dickens, who employed an omniscient point of view and approach, and upheld classical traditions of the time. ‘Creative Writing’ is the new general term that has sprung up in its place.
Literary fiction has almost lost its significance today, since most writers are writing for commercial reasons, to be published or self-published in books, eBooks, or online, as quickly as possible. For that reason, the term “creative writing” is more appropriate as a general term for writing that employs fictional devices today. This distinguishes it from academic writing, on the one hand, which endeavours to present factual or argumentative texts in an objective framework. Journalistic writing, too, is based on the principal goal of providing factual information to the public, although there will be some overlap with fictional genres in the expression.
Truman Capote’s non-fiction work “In Cold Blood” (1966 ) is looked on as the forerunner of this genre in modern times. It is also the ultimate true crime novel. Based on painstaking research and interviews, Capote used the story of the cold-blooded killing of a family in rural Kansas, and his investigation of the crime, as the plot for his novel. It is written brilliantly, employing all the techniques of the best fictional writing: strong characterisation, realistic sounding dialogue, vivid imagery, and narrative suspense, without wavering from the facts. (Apart, perhaps from the ending, where he improvises a little; endings are often difficult for this type of writing).
One of the first attempts at a creative non-fiction novel in Australia was “Poppy” by Drusilla Modjeska (Penguin 1990), in which the author recounts her mother’s life; it is well told but lacks the dramatic, page-turning aspect of plot-driven fiction. A past master at this subjective type of writing is Helen Garner, whose “The First Stone” is now a classic, as well as a cause of ongoing controversy for student discussion in Creative Writing Courses in Australian universities.
“Memoir” has taken on a slightly different aspect within this new context. It still belongs within the category of non-fiction and refers to first person narration that focuses on a particular aspect or period of a person’s life. Memoir “sticks to the facts” but especially today, often employs creative techniques, such as narrative drive, strong characterisation, vivid dialogue, and dramatised events.
Most fiction is based on one’s experience, however the connections are concealed behind invented characters, settings and names. Many writers are wary of “treading on the toes” of living relatives and friends when they recount true events. It is easier and less constricting to invent, rather than to recount the facts.
Lee Gutkind, an American author, is looked on as the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction today. He is the editor of a Creative Non-fiction journal and the author of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.
The Hero’s Journey
The is basic to all good stories. I had attended a seminar on “The Hero’s Journey” and could not see how this theory, first elaborated by the American scholar Joseph Campbell “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” (1949), could be applied in a helpful sense to my writing. George Lucas used it in the “Star Wars” movies and it is very relevant for screen writers in the film industry today in the United States and elsewhere. It is based on the idea of the “monomyth”, i.e. that all stories can be conflated into one: the hero’s journey. This starts with the Call to Adventure, continues through Initiation, and ends with the Return. Each of the three stages can be broken up into sub-sections linked to certain archetypes. I feel that this theory can be applied more readily to commercial mass media genres, such as the “Star Wars” screenplays, than to literary writing, at least in terms of plot. However, even here, I could be challenged by those who know. Are stories all ultimately conflated into the hero’s journey?
Finally, I can see that the archetypes are invaluable as guides for creating character types in fiction.
Just as the debate on genres changes in response to commercial interests, this is true with relevance to movies on the big screen as well.