The Path Less Trodden:
from Research to Creative Practice
When you get to a certain age as an academic, you need to make a critical assessment of your writing. If you want to remain intellectually fresh, you have to critique your own methodology, be prepared to make major shifts, and to be flexible. The imagination can flourish inside the academy as well as outside it, and it can do so in new ways if you give your creativity the right kind of encouragement. There are too many intellectual fossils in our business. To avoid being one of them, you need to put your old insights and methods to new uses, and to be prepared to take risks. When I reviewed my own published work, which was unorthodox in many ways, it was clear that it was fuelled by an interest in repressed aspects of film history: working-class audiences and films for women, for example (Harper, 2000). I was concerned with visual style and the way in which cultural codes were imprinted into it (Harper and Smith, 2012). I was also interested the representation of history and the way in which film texts could usher in contradictory interpretations of events, which had a profound effect on their social function (Harper, 1994). I was part of a group that argued for the establishment of “the new film history” - a type of analysis that was deductive in method, and relied on primary sources culled from archives, rather than on inductive theoretical models (Chapman, Glancy and Harper, 2007). I wanted to find out more about the armature of film texts - that irreducible structure of meaning and myth which lies beneath the surface of a film or genre. And above all, I wanted to import into academic discourse (which can be dry and impenetrable) a different kind of style: a moist, fruity, irreverent language.
I asked myself: what to do after retirement? I could continue along the same path: or I could take an adjacent one, and continue my investigations in a different medium. It was not that I was tired of academic work - I have a natural inclination for it - but that I wished to work in another mode. So after my Outstanding Achievement Award from the British Association of Film, Television and Theatre Studies in 2017, I started to write fictional short stories. My master is the Ovid of The Metamorphoses and Ars Amatoria, and so my stories are informed by the themes of transformation and surprise. They are in the Gothic mode. Their emotional temperature is febrile and the proportions are jagged. They have a playfulness about them, and they often combine the erotic with comic elements. I published 150 short stories on my website (www.sueharper.co.uk). It had many thousands of hits, and in 2020 Egaeus Press published The Dark Nest, which sold out immediately and had extremely good reviews (Harper 2020). I am currently completing a second collection called The Sarah Chronicles.
What I want to do now is to examine the ways in which continuities can be forged between academic methods and creative writing, and to use my own stories as a sort of test-case. It is important to stress at the outset that a mechanical application of academic methodology to creative writing will be unproductive. They are different kinds of activity: but they can mutually illuminate one another, and can stimulate new types of approach. Historical research is by its very nature less instinctive than creative work, and the latter of course often conceals its intellectual roots. But we need to be aware of them, and to feel free to challenge them. Both academic and creative writing are innovatory when they challenge taboos: but they do it in distinctive ways, since they each march to a different drum.
When thinking about the creative process, we need to have a working model of cultural innovation: that is to say, of the conditions that are conducive to new thinking, or to the transformation of old methods. It seems to me that there is a “tipping point” in cultural analysis as well as in creative work: a certain amount of repetition needs to take place in the cultural sphere before exasperation or fatigue sets in. Practitioners will not innovate before the old models are exhausted. Cultural transformation takes place in an atmosphere of contradiction: between the security (and also staleness) of the old, and the excitement (and also danger) of the new. In analysing patterns of cultural production therefore, it is crucial for the academic historian to identify which genres fulfil important cultural tasks, for how long a period, and for what reasons. The creative writer needs to identify their own relationship to dominant or emergent genres or modes of thought, and to present this process in an attractive way. Basically the creative writer has to be able to locate themselves in a precise spot within the fictional pantheon, and to know why they are there. The issues of rhythm and intensity are crucial for both academic and creative writers, when they are trying to draw the map of cultural production and locate themselves within it: the rhythm of the artistic events, and the intensity with which they are delivered. Sometimes both academics and creative writers can have an instinct that their purpose is to fill a critical or cultural hiatus: and that instinct commands attention, always. In my own case, my 20th-Century literary influences (in terms of narrative structure) were Hemingway, Angela Carter and John Kennedy Toole: in terms of style, they were E. F. Benson, A. E. Housman and Philip Pullman. I had to decide what to do with my masters: where to imitate them, and when to abandon them. Like everyone else, I had to find out where the gaps were, and decide if I could fill them.
Cultural researchers have to select from a huge range of evidence and make orderly patterns from it. The production, distribution and (on occasion) exhibition of artifacts has to be taken into account, as well as material about the various types of authorship, response and contextual writings. The academic writer has to categorise evidence and to rank it in order of significance. And the creative writer has to do this too: to decide which are the most important determinants in the world which they describe, and to establish how the different spheres of influence operate in the text.
It is the researcher’s task to pick their way through the forest of discourses in the material that they find, and to locate them historically. They need to deploy a high degree of self-awareness in the way they do this, and to show that they are self-critical too. The same holds good for the creative writer. They must be aware of their own discourse and its debts, and they must above all be aware of their own ideological freight: of the echoes, experiences and quotations which reside deep within their own work. They may choose to display or conceal them: but they need to know that they are there.