A review of The Writing Experiment by Hazel Smith

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Writing Experiment:
Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing
By Hazel Smith
Allen & Unwin
March 2005, softcover, A$39.95
ISBN: 1-74114-015-3

There are almost limitless books on how to write. Some are classic, overall guides, and some work on specific niche areas, but almost all of them are built around the notion that you begin with a solid basis of straightforward rules about character, plot, structure and form, and that this is the area where teaching or books can assist, and then, once you are very experienced, you move away from the teaching process and play with the form. This is where Hazel Smith’s book The Writing Experiment is different. It begins from the premise that creative writing can be taught, primarily through structured exercise, and that there are many modes of self-expression that even the most traditional artist can employ through the deliberate use of experimentation. Although the book can be used at any level, it is pitched fairly high, aimed primarily at university students of creative writing who want to explore alternative means of self-expression. Smith draws on her extensive experience as teacher of creative writing at the University of New South Wales in Australia, her research work in this area, and perhaps most importantly, her personal experience as writer, performance poet, and collaborator. As one would expect, the book is impeccably researched, and makes for fascinating reading in itself, and servers as a primer towards post-modernism, looking at a wide number of creative and challenging texts, from Barthes to Kristeva, and exploring the whole notion of self-expression in the context of this work. However, it is also a very readable, and easy to follow handbook, and can be used this way, chapter by chapter, to break writer’s block, as creative strategies, and as a series of cumulative exercises towards creating new and more innovative pieces of writing.

The book is broken up into two parts, one providing introductory strategies (of the sort Smith might use with her undergraduates) and one with more advanced strategies (of the sort used with postgraduate students). Writers of all levels of confidence though can work within both sections, and try out whatever methods spark an interest, and use whatever exercises appeal. For the introductory strategies, methods like building texts through word association, phrase manipulation, a word pool, and referents are explored. There are also chapters on playing with genre, using structural principles to guide the text, recycling other pieces of published work (not necessarily your own), playing with the narrative, and working with different types of dialogue.

The advanced strategies include subverting plot, character, history and physics as we understand it, writing poetry and lyrics that delve into subversion, dissonance, taboos, the extension of metaphor, and as visual experiment. Multimedia, the synoptic novel, sonics, performance modes, and the use of place and space are all examined as routes to creating work. While advanced postmodern forms have all been explored as part of literary theory, this is the first time I have come across it in a writing manual, and Smith handles the difficult balance between analysis, clarity, and practicality very well.

Throughout each chapter are a wide number of illustrative examples, some taken from Smith’s own teaching practice, some from Smith’s own work, and some from the work of well known writers as diverse as Calvano, Woolf, Atwood, Julian Barnes, Ishiguro, and DeLillo, just to name a few. It is quite interesting and even demystifying to look at the bones of these often very challenging authors, and then to try out some of their experimental techniques. At the beginning of each chapter are a series of exercises, which, when complete, may form the basis for a whole text, the part of a text, or just a stimulus to further work. All of the exercises and examples are clearly laid out, and because of their post-structural nature and open-endedness, fun and thought-provoking. Engaging with the process of meaning making in such a structured and careful way, can produce a significant change and improvement in the creative process, opening new doors:

Grammar can be constraining because it is hierarchical. The sentences we use are hypotactic, that is, they contain a main clause usually with other subordinate clauses. This has the effect of making one idea in the sentence seem more important than others, or at least of making one central idea the focus of the sentence. Grammar also fixes meaning, and makes it as unambiguous as possible. For many social uses grammar is essential because we need to communicate with other human beings with as little ambiguity as possible, and prioritise some aspects of our communications over others. But in poetry we sometimes want to exploit the polysemic aspect of language: its capacity to generate many different meanings. We want to juxtapose ideas, and celebrate their co-existence, without locking them into a structure where one is subordinate to another. (175)

Although the book is well structured, and presented in a course-like format, Smith is never didactic. Throughout the book, both in the beginning and the advanced section, the emphasis is always on playing, and experimentation, in order to communicate meaning better. The examples are sometimes striking, and sometimes just cute or interesting, but it is all thoughtfully presented in a context which is both helpful and a stimulus for writers to push their work towards new boundaries. This book is highly recommended for writers of all levels of ability – those interested in producing avant-garde works and those who only want to delve deeper into the art of communication using traditional models. It is, and perhaps unintentionally so, one of the clearest, easy to follow books on postmodernism in literature on the market. This is a unique and very valuable offering to the literary world, full of unusual experiments with words that writers will make use of repeatedly.