What Is Creative Writing?
This is probably the first question you have. Or maybe you already think you know the answer, since you signed up to take a course called Creative Writing or something similar. In all likelihood, you do have some good ideas about what creative writing is, but you may also wonder what distinguishes it from other kinds of writing. The easy answer is that creative writing includes drama, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Those are the main forms of writing that we will look at in this textbook. The answer becomes a little harder when we try to define what makes these forms different from other forms of writing, so here’s another way to look at it.
In most of your other classes, you probably write essays. One might argue that the essay is one form and creative writing uses other forms. Yet when we discuss nonfiction, we will talk about the essay as one form that you might use in creative writing (and we will even talk about the differences between nonfiction and creative nonfiction). So there is a gray area between what we might classify as creative writing and other forms. Perhaps the best way to think about the difference is by looking at the kind of assignments that are given in creative writing versus other classes. In a literature class, you might be asked to analyze a piece of literature and give your interpretation. Or in a history class, you might be asked to
discuss the causes or the effects of an event. You have a specific topic that defines your task, and you write about it, using evidence to support the assertions you want to make. We sometimes call this expository writing because you, the writer, are exploring or explaining something else. The main inspiration for the writing seems to come from the subject you are writing about.
In a creative writing class, though, the assignment is more likely to be to write a poem, write a scene for a story, or eventually write the whole story from beginning to end. An assignment may give you more guidelines than that (e.g. to write about a specific subject or to write using a specific form), but even then, much of what you write has to come from yourself. You create the topic rather than explore a topic that already exists. Your subjective experience of that topic, your emotional response or your inner contemplation becomes a major part of your writing, much more so than if you were writing up a lab report or case study.
Of course, this is a somewhat arbitrary distinction that doesn’t always hold true, and I feel a little ambiguous about presenting it as a definition. Many textbooks do, and it may be a useful distinction. The truth is, though, that all writing can be creative, and the forms we call creative writing can include elements of expository writing. Creative writing can be very objective at times and may concentrate more on finding beauty in language than in expressing emotion, for instance. Expository writing, for all its attempts at objectivity, has been shown to have a subjective component—subjectivity is nearly impossible to avoid entirely. And a lab report may be beautifully written as well as informative. So the difference is largely one of degree and perhaps of intent: expository writing makes more of an attempt to be objective compared to the stated goal in creative writing of being subjective.
But in terms of thinking about what you will do in an introductory creative writing class, this may be a useful place to start, since most of the ideas that you decide to work on will come from your own imagination. You may get at them from many different sources, but ultimately, you will make them your own. This can be a little daunting, especially for students who are used to working on more traditional assignments. You’ve gotten good at expository writing, and for some students it can be a challenge to approach a new kind of assignment that seems to have no
rules and no limits. However, there is a long history of teaching creative writing in an academic setting, and the way a course like this is structured will help you reach the ultimate goal of a finished portfolio of your own creative writing.
How Is Creative Writing Taught?
In this book, we will use a number of strategies common to creative writing as an academic discipline. In the early chapters, I encourage you to do a lot of writing and to try exercises in your writing journal to get you started and to give you something to work on in a group. You may want to choose which of those you want to develop into finished products, and you may be able to focus on other stories, poems, essays, or scripts that don’t start out as an exercise. Yet starting out based on an exercise or prompt can help you get to ideas that you wouldn’t think of on your own. The exercise itself may not supply the idea, but focusing on the demands of the prompt allows you to get started writing and lets your mind supply the content.
One of the main emphases of many creative writing classes is collaborative writing and group work. Often in the early stages of writing, we will work together to develop ideas or to begin shaping the exercises you have started in your journal. As we work together to develop ideas, we will also work on developing a good group dynamic. This is important to foster communication needed to discuss each other’s work in writing workshops. You will develop the trust and the skills to give your peers good advice. But don’t worry that you have to have the “right” answers or advice. Your honest opinion about what you have read is the most helpful advice you can give your peers. You don’t have to tell them how to “fix” what they have written; just tell them what you got out of it. It will be their responsibility to decide how to adjust so that most readers have the response they want. And they may even be surprised to learn that people got more out of their writing than they intended.
I often suggest starting with exercises in small groups, then moving toward more formal workshops in small groups with early drafts that are based on exercises everyone has done, and working toward more
formal workshops later, when everyone discusses the nearly finished work each writer has chosen to bring to workshop. Another model is to begin with formal workshops much sooner, and a third method is to avoid the workshop model entirely and focus on working in smaller groups.
Along with exercises and workshops, we will study many of the forms and literary terms associated with creative writing. These terms will help you discuss your writing with others, and they should prove useful in discussing literature or if you ever find yourself teaching writing or language arts. We will also begin the discussion of the process of literary citizenship and publishing in the appendix.
The main work that you do in a creative writing class, though, will likely be developing a portfolio of your creative writing. Once you have an idea, which may come from an exercise or may come from your own writing, you will develop it into a finished poem, story, essay, or script. Group sessions or workshops will help you reach this point, as will individual conferences, if those are available.
The Writer as Reader
Writers need to know what other writers are doing. We are all inspired, not only by writers of the past, but also by writers of today. We want to remain current, and we want our writing to fit in with current trends or to buck those trends, but how will we know that we are working with or against the grain if we don’t read in the grain? To learn what other writers are writing, you will want to begin reading literary magazines, current anthologies, or other outlets for contemporary writing in your region, your country, or the world.
When writers read, we look at a text differently than literary scholars do. Actually, many writers are also literary scholars, so they may do both kinds of reading, but when thinking about what they read as a writer, they look for different things. First and foremost, writers read for enjoyment. We don’t necessarily analyze everything we read. We don’t necessarily try to form an interpretation, though sometimes we can’t help ourselves.
Instead, when writers read, we often look at how
a poem, story, essay, or play is written, and not only at what
it is trying to say. We read to see how it’s done, not to copy exactly, but to learn from other writers and to adapt what they do to our own work. Copying exactly what another writer has written would be plagiarism, of course. But even being too heavily influenced by another writer can lead to writing that is uninteresting. Whenever a writer “steals” from another writer (as some like to call it), she or he does try to make it her or his own. Yet most writers acknowledge the influence of others, especially early in their career. You can emulate another writer without copying their style exactly. So as you read, think about how a story or poem is put together and consider the choices you might make. You might try to write in a similar vein, or you might try to write in contrast to the work you have read. In either case, there is some influence, yet you also strike out on your own.
How Is This Book Organized?
As you might have guessed by now, I do not expect you to know much yet about the forms, or genres
, that we will study. In the first chapters, we will concentrate on getting started writing and on issues that are common to all genres: drama, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In fact, for your earliest drafts, you may not even know what genre you want to work in. Exercises may ask you to write lists or to start with a prose paragraph. Then you may work on the different forms this might take. In later chapters, we will begin to study some of the conventions of these four genres. By this point, you will likely have decided which of your texts will be poems, essays, stories, or scripts, though as they develop, you may still change your mind. I have found that it is usually better, especially for writers in the early stages of their careers, not to decide too early what form they want to work in. I encourage everyone to try all four genres, though you may eventually decide which ones you want to focus on. But to decide what form a text will take too early in the process can limit how you develop the idea, and that can cause problems. If you remain open to many possibilities of form, you may be surprised at the way the writing turns out. We will discuss why this is the case more in Chapter 2
, as we discuss the writing process.
When I first sat down to write the notes that became this textbook, I was of two minds: on the one hand, I have always enjoyed using someone else’s textbook for the opportunity it provided at times to argue with another author; on the other hand, after teaching creative writing for 20 years, I felt I had something to say that was lacking in the books I had used. My biggest concern was that if I wrote my own textbook, I wouldn’t be able to argue with myself. There are many ways to teach creative writing and many approaches to fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and drama. I don’t claim to have all of the answers. What I have tried to do is to put forward a unified and cohesive approach. At times, I have tried to present a range of views; at other times, the need for cohesion has limited the number of views I can express.
That is where you come in, of course. I encourage you to give your students your own experience, to argue with positions I take, or to try out alternative strategies. I assume that you generally agree with much of what is said in this book or you would likely choose a different one, but I also assume you have your own examples, your own anecdotes, your own way of talking about how to write and how to teach creative writing. You may even decide you would rather rearrange the chapters in this book, and teach them in a different order. I’ve done that many times with other books, so I could hardly argue with you now.
Though I’ve written the chapters to build on one another, it may be that for your strengths as a teacher or for your students, you find another order works better. Especially when we get to the chapters on genre, I think they could be taught in any order, though I find that starting with nonfiction is a good choice, and for practical reasons it’s easier for students to move to poetry before writing something as long as a story. Drama tends to work well at the end because students are often less familiar. I have even included some material in the appendix because I assume you’re likely to make very different choices about if and when to incorporate it, depending on the class, your school’s calendar, etc. I also highly recommend assigning an anthology, literary magazine, course packet, or links to online texts in addition to this book to provide recent examples of creative writing.
Because I feel a textbook should be a starting point and not the final say in teaching a subject, on the companion website for this book, we will create a space where you can share ideas for additional resources, exercises, class activities, and pedagogical discussions. Please visit us and join the conversation at www.palgravehighered.com/dunkelberg
A Note to the Student
If you are like me, you probably just read the note to your instructor, so you will know that I encourage instructors to engage with this book, rearrange it, even argue with it. Writers love to argue about what we do, and sometimes we take very energetic positions. Yet by and large we try to show respect for one another. If your instructor has another way to explain a concept or if she or he uses different terminology, there’s nothing wrong with that. It may depend on your culture or on your instructor’s background. Or it may be a matter of personal preference.
You should also ask questions and look for your own answers. Be an active learner, in other words, and don’t expect the book to have all the answers already. A textbook like this is there to introduce you to the topic, to get you to try new things and to ask questions that you wouldn’t have thought to ask. Your answers and your instructor’s answers are just as valid as mine, but I hope this book brings the subject of creative writing together in such a way that you move further along on your journey as a writer than you would have on your own.
For those who may be reading this book outside of any class and without an instructor, I encourage you to find a group of other writers to share your thoughts and your writing with. We learn most from the vital conversations we have with other writers and with sympathetic and perceptive readers. A creative writing class is one of the best places to find a community of writers and readers, yet if you don’t have the structured environment of a classroom, you can always create a community on your own.
The companion website for the textbook has resources for students as well as instructors, including links to resources for writers, additional writing exercises, a discussion area, etc. Please join us at www.palgravehighered.com/dunkelberg
The Writing Process
A common image of the writer is of someone who is suddenly struck with inspiration, like a bolt of lightning. He or she rushes to the typewriter (or these days to a keyboard, but in the old days to a roll of parchment and a quill pen) and dashes off a few perfect lines. This is the romantic idea of the poet: Wordsworth walking through daffodils, then sitting down later to pen “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” It’s a nice idea, but it’s terribly unrealistic. I’m not saying that poems or even stories never seem to happen this way—some writers do report times when writing seems this inspired, and even I have had some poems that seemed to come to me fully formed. But it can be a debilitating model to try to live up to, and even when the writing does seem to flow from the pen, I would argue that it usually does so, not only because the writer is inspired by the muse, but also because the writer has done many things prior to that experience to cultivate the muse.
Look at it in another way. How often have you been inspired to write in the last year or so? When you did sit down to write, was the initial product perfect? If you’re a typical student, my guess is you answered that you wrote a few times in the past year and the writing you produced was less than perfect. Otherwise, why would you sign up for this class or buy
this book? If you already write perfectly, then you should quit school, move to Hollywood, New York, or London, and seek your fortune as a screenwriter or novelist. If you’re a poet, I’m sorry to say, you’d better not seek your fortune with poetry, but if you can live on fine words alone, you can move to the mountains and subsist on air. I’m joking, of course, since very few people can make it as a writer without some serious training or at least many years of apprenticeship.
The point is, you’ve signed up for a class in creative writing that may require you to write several different pieces in different forms. If you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, it will get very stressful when it doesn’t strike soon enough or often enough. The more stressed you are about what you haven’t already written, the harder it is to write. This is often called writer’s block, and I encounter it with students every semester. If it happens to you, talk to your instructor about it. Together, you can work through it, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
But I am convinced that a lot of writer’s block happens because of our romantic ideas of how writing ought to work, which don’t match the practical realities of how most writers do work. We get these romantic notions from movies, TV, and even writers themselves, who often would rather not talk about everything that they had to go through to get that novel written and published. We get it from literature classes, where we concentrate on the final, finished product (with good reason). We analyze it for meaning and structure. We interpret. We prod and poke and try to tease out what we think the author intended (even though literary theory has...