Friday, September 7, 2007

Can Academics Be Creative?

I am going to write the world’s greatest novel. So great that it will never be taught as “Canadian Literature,” only as Literature. The people who compile the Norton and Longman’s anthologies will be knocking on my door by my fortieth birthday, and shortly after I die, Oxford World Classics will battle Penguin for the rights to my story. At least that’s been the plan ever since I was ten years old. Back then I wrote murder mysteries using the various characters from the board game Clue as my protagonists. Some of my whodunits were so interwoven and complex that I’m still not quite sure I blamed the right guy at the end. Since then I’ve learned to make my sentences my clear, use fewer adjectives, adverbs, gerunds, nominalizations, words, and I’ve learned it’s important that my story makes sense.

I continued to write whenever the inclination hit me, but for the past five years and since I’ve been in university, my works have taken a distinctly nonfiction flavour. I wrote eighty eight essays during my undergraduate career and only two were fiction. Those both came while taking courses through the writing department. I fell in love with the writing department at the University of Western Ontario. I remember I got so excited when I learned how to properly use a semicolon; sometimes I use them completely frivolously just because I know how. I became such a grammar geek that I actually read the entire Bedford Handbook and enjoyed every minute of it.

The more writing courses I took, the more I loved to write, and the better my grades became on my history essays. By the end of my undergraduate days, I was a pretty good nonfiction writer, and an acceptable researcher. Despite this, my heart still lies with the world’s greatest novel, of which I am currently on page ten and I expect to be finished sometime in the next three years.

But I’m worried. Did I already spoil myself?

Last summer I read perhaps Canada’s greatest novel, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. One line made my stomach churn. “Alice Flett’s first novel should be a warning to all academics who aspire toward literary creativity.” “Posturing.” “Donnish.” “Didactic.” “Cold porridge on a paper plate.”

I intend to write rainbows and sugar drops, not cold porridge.

Of course, Alice Flett isn’t real, and she never wrote a book. But in Shields’ imaginary world, Alice does exactly what I hope to accomplish: she’s an academic and an aspiring novelist.

Now far be it from me to put words into the illustrious pen of Carol Shields. This quote is taken out of context and in fact, should you read this wonderful book you will see that Shields is not damning the academics to unimaginative writing. She was however, showing that this opinion of academics is out there. Alice’s imaginary reviewer reflects a school of thought that academics should stay in their Ivory Towers and explain things to each other. The good writing should be left to the storytellers.

Are academics too didactic to reach the hearts of the people? Perhaps. Michael Ignatieff would agree after he recently had a heck of a time convincing the Liberal party caucus that he wasn’t out of touch with the common voter after years pent up in Harvard. Maybe Shields’ invisible reviewer is right. After all, the only novelist I can think of that is an accomplished academic is Michael Ondaatje. But wait, even Shields had an M.A. from the University of Ottawa.

So maybe the way to keep my writing from becoming “donnish” is to quit after an M.A…


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