Silence and the teaching of writing practice

The emergence of Creative Writing as a Higher Education-level subject and practice in UK universities has resulted in the validation and delivery of teaching content in many institutions relating to essential topics, such as the short story, the poem, the screenplay, word, image and sound, professional writing skills, narrative structure, characterisation, dialogue, editing, revision, digital storytelling, peer review ... and so forth. But there seems to be relatively little mention of silence. This silence about silence itself prompts speculation, suggesting the possibility of insight. What starts to happen when we notice the place of silence in creative work and its teaching in formal institutional contexts? How might silence be understood, discussed and applied? This book gives a range of possible answers, suggesting, without defining, a commonality of methods and perspectives.

This link between creativity and silence is central to all the contributors to this publication. In probing an understanding of the term, preparatory work for this volume brought together practitioners from an eclectic range of disciplines, who share an interest in working inductively from practice to reflection. Starting with the idea of silence as enabler, from the very first impulse of how creative ideas are formed, their work, and this book, spans the arc from history and tradition to reclaim lost tales and silenced voices, and to raise difficult and uncomfortable truths along the way - towards the unspoken as both technique and subject of silence.

This book, unlike others derived from Creative Writing practice, does not set out to be a ‘how-to’ book, still less a work of theory. Neither is it a work of linguistics (see Jakobson’s communicative model of 1960, and the six functions of language cited in Ephratt, where silence is viewed primarily as linguistic sign (2008, 1909)). Instead, this collection works inductively from creative practice to reflection, taking a central concept - that of silence - to question the range of meanings and values which inform both the concept and the pragmatic fact of silence as these impinge on the content and context of the various creative processes described. This collection therefore aims to offer a blend of disciplinary approaches to a key single idea which has a distinct range of theoretical, poetic and historical meanings. In taking this approach, we are aware that we are working in an opposite direction from much academic practice, which grounds itself in theory and works through a kind of deduction from it. Instead, we begin with creative practice and work inductively, towards insights which are, or can potentially be, expressed as theory. Creative Writing studies which work in this direction are, it should be noted, a relatively new field, university practice being usually the other way about. When Eaglestone wrote that ‘sometimes, a less acute phrase that illuminates is better than a very precise one that may serve to obscure’ (2008, 12), he might have had such new fields as this book attempts in mind. He calls such places the ‘outsides of discourse’, where the philosophical, literary and historical might crush up against each other and ‘where what can be spoken of and what cannot, meet’ (2008, 4).

Eaglestone writes primarily about the Holocaust and postmodernism to illustrate what ultimately lies beyond discourse. In doing so, he (amongst others) draws attention to the ways in which postmodern experimentation, in its very insistence on an end to rules, acts as a focus for the same rules (2008, 4). This hints at one potential risk of bringing our chosen method to bear on the subject of silence: the implication that any focus creates its opposite means that this work on silence risks ending the silence which is its subject. After all, one must presumably break a silence in order to speak about it. However, as in the example of the group conversation above, within the crush of a crowd, we find that silence is not (or not always) a dead state which ends with speech, but an active receptivity which is sustained by speech and sustains it in return. Silence in this sense can be stalwart, receptive and absorbing. By our silence, we signal the attentive listening which enables speech. Such alert, resilient silence co-exists with the crush of words and is not rendered inaudible by it. Similarly, to actively contemplate this silence can be to sustain it, not to curtail it. The essays in these pages are offered as an active contemplation in this sense of the silence which has sustained them. Their range of essentially inductive methods are applied to understand silence as an active component of creative discourse and a foundational condition of insight.

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