(a rambling blog on Doctorates in Creative Writing, and Jamaica’s insistence on Sovereignty)
So first of all, beg pardon for the long weeks of silence on this blog. It turned out to be – not a heavier semester than I had expected, but a more involved one. What with the head of Glasgow’s Creative Writing programme gone on sabbatical, and me supposedly stepping into his shoes. I did it at first reluctantly, but realized soon enough that I actually enjoyed that kind of work – thinking through a programme, understanding its structure and in some places trying to restructure it.
At another time I will have to write a series of blogs about the ‘teaching ’ or the ‘pedagogy’ of creative writing – a phrase which is all the rage these days in CW programmes, but which I confess I don’t actually believe in. Perhaps that is the first irony I am hinting at. For despite my job, I actually hold to that old cliché – that those who can do, and that those who can’t teach. My aim has never been to become a ‘teacher of Creative Writing’, but rather to always be a practising writer, one willing to invite others (my so called ‘students’) into that very personal process. In this way, some will connect more with what I’m doing; some will be less inspired. So be it.
‘Creative Writing’ despite its growth within the academy (and actually, sometimes BECAUSE of its growth within the academy) continues to have a contentious place there. Even I have been cynical about some aspects of it. For instance, that vexing question – ‘Can you really do a PhD in Creative Writing?’ You can at Glasgow, and in fact I do have a couple fantastic students whose ambitious projects slowly chip away at my own cynicism.
But holders of PhDs in Creative Writing invite suspicion from the very two camps they want to belong to: those with traditional PhDs are likely to think (and sometimes with good reason) that anyone with a PhD in Creative Writing isn’t a real academic, but rather a practitioner; successful writers on the other hand are likely to think (and also with good reason) that those with PhDs in Creative writing aren’t real practitioners. Even today, none of the living ‘greats’ have PhDs in ‘Creative Writing’ so exactly what does the designation prove? What kind of mastery does it establish when the majority of its holders have never even published a book, or in the course of their academic career, attended or presented at a conference? Alas, the critical pursuit of the creative can leave one being neither fish nor fowl. And isn’t it ironic – this earnest attempt to be accepted by both camps means one is ultimately rejected by both.
At its worst, I really do fear that this PhD in Creative Writing business will be mainly successful in reproducing its own mediocrity: I imagine a system in which unsuccessful writers will supervise other writers to be unsuccessful writers, but will give them a fancy degree for the trouble of the three years they put in, earn a little money for their cash-strapped Universities which the Universities will accept as rent money and not kick them out or ask them to turn down the volume upstairs.
Yes, yes – that’s me at my most cynical. And yes, it is why my own PhD which I am only just about to submit (and so may well still fail!) was never going to be a Creative Writing project. Still and all, I am actually convinced that there is a better way to do all this, and that there is indeed a space for a doctoral programme in creative writing. But perhaps such a doctorate would not usually be a ‘PhD’ (which even by name suggest an emphasis and an engagement with philosophy and theory) but perhaps a ‘DFA’ – a Doctor of Fine Arts (the kind they give at Yale’s Drama School), and a natural progression from the more common MFA, Master of Fine Arts. Glasgow is taking the helm to innovate such a programme and I, for one, am excited to be a part of that. These past few weeks I have not been writing blogs, but writing plans for academic programmes, trying to reduce what many perceive as the ironic distance between the pursuit of a doctorate and the pursuit of a career in Creative Writing.
But to switch gears suddenly and magnificently, though still on this matter of irony (incidentally, one of the most widely misused words I know, and of course Alanis Morissette didn’t help the case with her 1996 hit which catalogued a list of circumstances that were each moderately ‘interesting’ in their own way, but none of them ‘ironic’)….so yes…. isn’t it ironic this whole hoohah in Jamaica over David Cameron’s hard-handed policy to withhold aid from countries that do not repeal their buggery laws!? Many Jamaicans are all up in arms about it and insist that no foreign power should interfere with their sovereignty.
Uhm…so let’s think about this.
#1: Isn’t it a little ironic that Jamaica, in its dealings with Britain, should invoke this concept of ‘sovereignty’ and should indeed claim it. I thought in its dealings with Britain, Jamaica had always wanted to reject this imperial notion of sovereigns and sovereignty. Yes, I know it’s a small point, and more about the limits of language than anything else, but perhaps when invoking this word ‘sovereign’ a postcolonial country should be especially mindful of those peasants who suffer under such rule.
#2: Isn’t it ironic that the laws that we Jamaicans are now claiming as our own, as homegrown, and a true reflection of our culture and our values, are in fact cultural impositions. The buggery laws are part of our colonial inheritance. These are BRITISH laws. However, this irony goes both ways, because such a fact does not seem to occur to David Cameron either! It is with a kind of contempt, a sneer almost, that he suggests that countries like Jamaica repeal their backward laws which, in a large way, are actually HIS laws.
So Jamaica now stands on its sovereignty and on its Christianity (we could point out that this is another cultural imposition) and claims a British law as her very own, telling Britain’s Prime Minister to keep his nose out of Jamaica’s own private affairs. But actually, Cameron is not really putting his nose in, so much as he is keeping his money out. Jamaica wants the money but not the strings attached to it. Surely though, Britain has the sovereign right to give money to who she wants; Jamaica would like to interfere with those sovereign rights.
What can you do but sit back and watch, and think, oh isn’t it all seriously, seriously ironic!