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Becoming more than it never (actually) was: Expressive writing as research-creation

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In this article the author combines Chinese literary theory and new materialism with her ongoing research into creative writing. In the opening section, the author discusses how language and writing can be approached using new materialist theories. She then enters into a creative non-fiction “research-creation” piece that explores how creative writing can be a more-than-representational practice, and how words can heighten and/or dampen affective production. The creative non-fiction story experiments with sub-text, format, and sensorial evocations. Finally, the author considers the potentialities and caveats of teaching creative-non fiction writing to high school students.
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Becoming more than it never (actually) was:
Expressive writing as research-creation
Sarah E. Truman
To cite this article: Sarah E. Truman (2016) Becoming more than it never (actually) was:
Expressive writing as research-creation, Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 13:2, 136-143,
DOI: 10.1080/15505170.2016.1150226
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15505170.2016.1150226
Published online: 18 Aug 2016.
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Becoming more than it never (actually) was: Expressive
writing as research-creation
Sarah E. Truman
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
ABSTRACT
In this article the author combines Chinese literary theory and
new materialism with her ongoing research into creative writing.
In the opening section, the author discusses how language and
writing can be approached using new materialist theories. She
then enters into a creative non-ction research-creationpiece
that explores how creative writing can be a more-than-
representational practice, and how words can heighten and/or
dampen affective production. The creative non-ction story
experiments with sub-text, format, and sensorial evocations.
Finally, the author considers the potentialities and caveats of
teaching creative-non ction writing to high school students.
The memory of the event remains: not as image or recollection, but as kind of eld of vir-
tual potential that never quite exhausts itself in the process of becoming more than it
never (actually) was. (McCormack, 2008,p.8)
In Chinese literary theory, the concept wenqi (), coined by 1st century liter-
ary theorist Cao Pi, describes the inborn talent of a writer as manifested in his
[sic] writing(Gu, 2009, p. 23). In the 2,000 years since Cao Pis death, the concept
has taken on myriad meanings including the aesthetic merit of a piece of writing,
the authors inspiration, and literary momentum of the words (Gu, 2009). Pushing
these ideas further, Owen (1992) discusses wenqi as that by which all other ele-
ments which contribute to the formation of a poemtalent, learning, personality,
the affectionsare animated(Owen, 1992, p. 67). I believe the notion of wenqi
intersects well with new materialist theories by conceptualizing writing as a vital
process that is not solely author centred but includes the authors environment
and a multitude of other factors that combine in the writing act: everything that
combines when the pen scratches the paper and the pigment bleeds, the ensuing
affects those sharp black lines produce and the interstices between them(Mas-
sumi, 2015, p. 63). The writer, the reader, the pen, the ink, the paper, the social-
economic milieu, are all part of the apparatus,as Barad (2007) would say that
CONTACT Sarah E. Truman sarah.truman@mail.utoronto.ca Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Uni-
versity of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1V6 Canada.
© Curriculum and Pedagogy Group
JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY
2016, VOL. 13, NO. 2, 136143
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15505170.2016.1150226
produces a piece of writing. In such a view, the author is decentered and replaced
by what Manning (2013) might call a eld of relations,or a force taking form
rather than simply a form(p. 31).
Once we cease viewing writers as pre-formed subjects with distinct authorial
intentions represented in unambiguous texts, a new materialist informed concep-
tion of writing also allows us to consider the emergent qualities of language expres-
sion. As Hayles (2012) states, Materiality is unlike physicality in being an
emergent property. It cannot be specied in advance, as though it existed ontologi-
cally as a discrete entity(p. 91). In this view, language and language-use become
part of a horizontal ontology emerging alongside other social-material forces,
instead of merely a medium for representing them.
So while I agree with many ongoing critiques of the linguistic turn, and believe
its time language was relieved from what MacLure (2013) poetically calls its
imperial position as mediator of the world,(p. 663) in this article, and my writing
practice I do not (obviously can not) exclude language, or linguistic theorizing
from the materiality of my research practice. I maintain that language operates as
a material force and material event, but advise that it is not superior to other mate-
rial forces or events, and is subject to the same emergent properties. Similarly,
Massumi (2002) when discussing affect, notes that although affects differ from
emotions in that they are pre-linguistic, or as he says, the skin is faster than the
word,(p. 25) language can amplify or dampen the intensity of an affect through
articulation or writing. Such a viewpoint does not reduce linguistic communication
to a representation of affective experiences, but allows words into the affective
encounter as another part of the event from which a new material experience
arises. This perspective allows us to move away from the conception of language as
purely representational and experiment with languages material potential through
creative writing.
I am interested in how words mix with, amplify, or dampen the intensity of an
affect as part of a larger apparatus of thinkingfeeling, and Im also interested in
the material inuences that affect word-usage and reception. I explore these inter-
ests through my creative writing practice as well as with high school English stu-
dentswritings as part of my larger research. Parikka (2011) argues that along with
recognizing theory as situated practice, we should consider, practice as theory.
Practices are in themselves theoretical excavations into the world of things,
objects of (cultural) research conducted in a manner that makes the two insepara-
ble(p. 34). I contextualize my writing practice using research-creation.
Research-creation can be thought of as the complex intersection of art,
theory, and research(Truman & Springgay, 2015, p. 152). The description I just
gave of research-creation could be used to describe most forms of arts-based
research. However, unlike some arts-based approaches to research that attempt
to use artistic media as ways of disseminating or representing qualitative research
ndings, research-creation is concerned with what Manning and Massumi (2014)
call a mutual interpenetration of processes rather than a communication of
JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY 137
product(p. 8889, italics mine). In research-creation, rather than representing
research datathrough art/writing, the process of art/writing is the research and
theorizing. Parikka states, Practices point towards the promise of the experiment
as a formation inseparable from theory(Parikka, 2011, p. 34).
The story belowEpisodes with Eloiseexperiments with the mutual interpene-
trating material processes of thinkingfeelingwriting. The story is an account of
some events in my past that have affective potential, and an experiment in what
happens if those events are re-congured through apertures of language and narra-
tive and ink and paper. Its not a reporting of events but a creation.
Accordingly, research-creation varies from the phenomenological focus of some
arts-based approaches which jagodzinski and Wallin (2013) critique for being
solely located within lived experience or composed from personal memory
(p. 167). Now you might say that of course personal memories are present in auto-
biographical writing. And I agree that memories are part of the ensemble, or wenqi
that any writing emerges from, however I concur with McCormack (2008) that
memories of past events remain not as denite images, rather as a eld of virtual
potential that never quite exhausts itself in the process of becoming more than it
never (actually) was(McCormack, 2008, p. 8). This hints toward how both
research-creations more-than-representational approach, and creative writings
differential potential, have the ability to bring new events into being rather than
merely report on them.
The following research-creation is an experiment in writing practice. The text is
in past-tense, employs a frame-narrative, and direct and indirect discourse. I wrote
this story in conjunction with my qigong practice (a standing meditation practice).
It draws from hazy journal notes, many cups of tea, and a lovely view of the Niag-
ara Escarpment out the window. Although none of the previous two sentencesele-
ments are in the story, they are part of the apparatus from which the story
emerged.
Episodes with Eloise
I ate sushi for the rst time in Berkeley California. I was 19, I had just hitchhiked
from Lake Louise Alberta, and I was high on LSD.
Just try a piece,Eloise said. The chopsticks, wooden spindles, clutched the
squiggling sushi. Innite eyes attended.
Its moving. Its alive.
Its vegetarian, it never moved! And you shouldnt take drinks from strangers.
It was orange juice. Why would I suspect LSD in orange juice?
Were in Berkeley, thats what people do here.
The colors of the cosmos shone on the sushi. It breathed magnicent, spiraled
ocean of emptiness.
Whats that sound?
Youre just tripping. Theres no sound.
138 S. E. TRUMAN
I heard the crystals of eternity grinding, grinding down into myriad things.
Are you going to try the sushi or not?
I sipped the sake. The altar of mouth communed and the cathedral of nostril
perfumed and the catacomb of gut warmed. My hand would soon pass through
the cupuid. The Kirin painted on the cup in ink blue winked. I see you, it said.
I know you. The mythical beast that lives on wind knew me.
I am a cathedral of consciousness. The Kirin knows me. I am the Kirin!
Youre high.Eloise leaned across the table and took my hand. Try the sushi
youll like it!
I was high, I had never tried sushi, but most importantly on that hazy evening,
Eloise was speaking to me. She had ignored me for the previous three days. Two
days of hitchhiking south, and one day in Peoples Park and she hadnt spoken a
word to me except to tell me I was stupid.
Eloise was four years older than I. We met at a lodge in the Rocky Moun-
tains. She had recently graduated from QueensUniversityandhadmovedto
Alberta to work. I had nished my rstyearatUniversityofTorontoandwent
to Alberta to work for the summer. Every night after my shift in the caf
eat
MoraineLakeLodge,wedpaddleayellowcanoeontotheaquamarinelake,
smoke, and watch the sun vanish behind Wenkchemna Glacier. On weekends
wed hike into the mountains and camp among larch trees and crystal creeks.
We encountered a grizzly bear one evening as we switch-backed into Paradise
Valley.
The sleeping quarters of the lodge we worked at were decrepit, musky, and
damp so we slept huddled in the same bed on cold nights. In August we decided to
hitchhike to California for a trip before I had to return to university.
Here, Ill take a piece of sushi apart so you can see whats in it. You have to eat
something. Look: avocado, rice, sesame seeds, and nori, thats all!
Whats nori?
Seaweed.
Winnowing, winding seaweed swirled in the sushi quiet.
It took us more than a week to hitchhike from Lake Louise to Berkeley. We
made it through the Rockies to Victoria and boarded a ferry to Port Angles. We
danced at a Pow Wow on Bainbridge Island. We hitched rides with families, hip-
pies, librarians, and a hunchback. We slept beneath the stars in Oregons sand
dunes. A meteor shower tumbled across the long vista. Eloise zipped our sleeping
bags together into one.
Are you trying to seduce me?I asked.
We both have boyfriends,she said.
I know. I was only kidding.
The stars burned.
The following morning, I wandered ahead of Eloise toward the highway. She
somehow got lost on her way out of the sand dunes. Her face streamed with tears
when she nally found me.
JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY 139
Where were you? Where were you?I offered her water. She icked the bottle
away.
You dont understand the gravity of this situation,she said.
Eloise stopped speaking to me. We hitchhiked south in silence, speaking only to
our rides, never to each other. We slept in the Red Woods in California. Their tow-
ering columns blocked out the night sky. A man called Ed drove us across the
Golden Gate Bridge, toured us around San Francisco and then over to Berkeley in
his shiny-beige Dodge Dart. Ed wore a terrycloth one-piece suit, and guzzled Wild
Spirit Paddle Your Own Canoealcohol as he drove. He promised that his father,
a professor at Berkeley, would let us camp in his backyard. His dad disagreed and
slammed the door on us. We slept in the forest near Peoples Park instead.
I woke up early and decided to go to a shop and buy some juice. Eloise awoke to
nd my sleeping bag empty just as Ed arrived with breakfast. Eloise decided that
Ed must have kidnapped me, and called the police. I returned to our campsite to
nd Eloise missing and the bags gone. I wandered out of the forest into a swarm of
police cars, Ed in the back of the cruiser and Eloise in tears.
Eloise told me I was stupid and then walked away.
I spent the day playing basketball in Peoples Park. I ate lunch with the Hare
Krishnas. After lunch some guy gave me a glass of orange juice laced with LSD.
Eloise found me playing basketball and insisted I join her for dinner. I had hoped
she would nd me.
Maybe Ill just order some noodles.
No. Youll try sushi,she said. My hands wiggled and dgeted. The sushi
breathed. Effervescent sapphires of punctured space shattered the silence and
rested on my eyelids blue.
Punctured space.
You are a loon.
The following winter, Eloise and I worked at a ski resort in Alberta. We lived in
Sunshine Village on the side of a mountain in a room buried beneath the ski run.
Two ferrets made a home in the snow well outside of our window. At night, the
light would spill from our room and illumine the ferrets snow cave. They watched
us and we watched them. Eloise and I drank Tom Collins or cheap wine every
evening and skied every day. I mailed my essays to Toronto and somehow nished
my second year of university.
Eloise reassembled the roll of sushi, dipped it in the wasabi and tamari paste and
popped it into her mouth.
Have you considered the process involved in bringing that combination of
ingredients into your mouth?
I dont think half as much as you do in general. Its a rule of mine,Eloise said.
Her eyes like oceans green. I almost asked her why she had stopped speaking to
me. But I worried that she might get angry again.
After Sunshine Village shut down for the season, Eloise and I hitchhiked to Lake
Louise. We met a warden from Lake Louises ski hill and he let us stay in his chalet
140 S. E. TRUMAN
for a week. His deck overlooked Saddleback, Temple, and other jagged mountains
in Banff National Park. We listened to Joni Mitchell, Pulp, and Brian Eno, smoked
and drew pictures. One day we decided to canoe from Lake Louise to Banff. We
brought a case of beer, no life jackets, and let the current pull us downstream.
Part way through the voyage, we discovered an elks skeleton caught on a rocky
embankment. Eloise suggested we take its skull and tie it to the bow of our canoe.
The elk lead the way as we charged down stream, drunk, blithe, and irreverent in
the aquamarine water.
We pulled over beneath Castle Mountain and waited for the warden to collect
us. Eloise made an altar for the elk on a bolder. I gathered wildowers and scat-
tered them around the skull.
Thank you spirit elk,she said.
I collapsed onto the grass. Eloise lay beside me and held my hand. It burned.
I know youre not hungry now. But you will be. Im leaving the rest for you,
Eloise said. She sipped the sake.
I sipped the sake, my senses are. Eloise watched.
We should probably go to San Francisco tomorrow and gure out how well get
to Toronto,she said.
School started in a week. I didnt want to go back to Toronto. I didnt want to go
back to university. I wanted to wander longer.
The last time I ever saw Eloise, she punched me on the dance oor at her MA
graduation party. The DJ played Soft CellsTainted Love.Eloise followed me
outside, dumped all my schoolbooks onto the road and trampled the ower I had
brought her as a graduation present. She raged down the road and I stood beneath
a streetlamp rubbing my arm where shed hit me.
Just eat the sushi,Eloise said. I gripped the chopsticks in my right hand.
Be delicate. Delicate but rm.
Deftly, I dipped the sushi in the tamari and wasabi mix and brought the chop-
sticks to my lips. The wasabi burned up my nose and down my spine. Eloise
laughed as I quivered in a prism of taste.
Further (to write conclusion might imply that there is one)
Regarding my non-ction research-creation Episodes with Eloise, in light of the
more-than-representational approach I take to writing, Im not going to use this
section to interpret the story and tell you what it means. I will claim that after read-
ing through the text again from my current vantage, for me, the story is as much in
the gaps as the wordsby that I mean the story emerges as much through what is
not said as much as what is said. A story requires both words and space. I can feel
how words, narrative, and the space between words can amplify and dampen affec-
tive experiences instead of merely representing those experiences.
Pedagogically, I believe that these material affects of language should be
highlighted in schooling beyond lessons in rhetoric, persuasion, and exposition.
JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY 141
Accordingly, writing and re-reading this story has made me reconsider the poten-
tial of teaching autobiographical writing in classrooms. The immediacy of writing
about a personal event may serve as a int to ignite writing practice that in turn
experiments with languages more than representational ability to become more
than it never actually was.
Heres the caveat: while providing immediate access to content for students to
begin a writing practice, autobiographical writing in the classroom has the ten-
dency to open what Leggo (2007) calls a Pandoras Boxwherein the realities of
topics such as the death of loved ones, or broken homes, or loneliness are likely to
arise in studentswriting, potentially making both student and teacher uncomfort-
able (p. 31). This tension haunts many of us English teachers who want to allow
students to experiment with autobiographical writing in schools. If succeeding in
school has come to mean achieving specic test results on standardized tests and
autobiographical writing has the potential to materialize Pandoras Boxes of issues
why would we bother teaching it?
I recently nished a research project in a school wherein one task required stu-
dents to reect on and critique something they didnt like about their walks to
school and take it as a starting point for a poem. Issues of sexual harassment, rac-
ism, and bullying that the students encounter arose in the poems. Reading the stu-
dents poems showed me how although these issues were not on the English
curriculumthey are part of the hidden curriculum or public pedagogy those stu-
dents experience each day, and consequently part of the eld of relations or wenqi
they write from (specically in those poems but perhaps also in general). However,
the poems were more than the eld of relations they emerged from. The poems
were not simply representations of unpleasant experiences rendered in poetic
form, but again demonstrated the material potential of a piece of writing for ampli-
fying or dampening experiences of both the writer and reader. This returns us to a
hope of research-creation as an approach to creative practice: it requires us to con-
sider how writing does, rather than only consider what writing means, and requires
us to recognize that that process is ongoing. This is the affective-material function
of creative writing/readingit isntnished.
Contributor
Sarah E. Truman is a PhD candidate at University of Toronto in a Collaborative Program
of Curriculum Studies (OISE) & Book History and Print Culture (Massey College). She is
the author of Searching for Guan Yin (White Pine Press, 2011) and the co-editor of Peda-
gogical Matters: New Materialisms and Curriculum Studies (Peter Lang, forthcoming).
www.sarahetruman.com.
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JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY 143
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... Research-creation has been well-theorized through visual (e.g., Leduc, 2016;Myers, 2017), performative and gestural (e.g., Manning, 2016a;Springgay, 2011;Springgay & Zaliwska, 2017;Tallbear, 2017), and multimedia, narrative, and textual registers (e.g., Dokumaci, 2018;Loveless, 2019;Truman, 2016aTruman, , 2016b. We have written on research-creation as a method(ology) elsewhere (Truman & Shannon, 2018) and so only briefly summarize it here. ...
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