Writing: Creative Writing

Parents often say, "My child loves writing stories, but hates writing essays. I want to help them improve without quenching their creativity. Do you have a good curriculum for that?" They seldom like the answer, which involves the fact that for creativity to flourish it must first be squelched.

This isn't a homeopathic approach to writing (homeopathy applies small doses of dangerous substances intended to heal the subject). It's the notion that before experimentation can begin, the fundamentals must first be understood and mastered.

Writing isn't science, but the analogy fits—you can't formulate a new physics theory unless you have a broad knowledge of the current facts and theories of physics, just as you can't write a short story if you know nothing about grammar, writing structure and organization, or developing a thesis.

Most people either have a highly romantic view of creative writing, or believe it to be an advanced and particularly painful form of torture in the Medieval tradition. The second group hates creative writing, but the first likes it too much. The fact is that anyone can succeed in creative writing, and very few can succeed in creative writing.

Almost no one is born with an innate ability to put words on paper in a convincing, meaningful, and entertaining fashion. John Keats, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens are notable exceptions, but even these brilliant writers penned some stinkers, and none were born with a pen in their tiny fist.

The ability to write well requires three things: an ability to think clearly, a knowledge of grammar and mechanics, and vast amounts of serious practice. The best way to acquire these skills is not to jump into the middle of them and thrash around till you understand them; it's to study and master them in a logical progression.

Creative writing is the most difficult form of writing to do well. It involves not only understanding the mechanical elements of language (grammar, syntax, etc.), but the ability to use them creatively and even to break the rules where style necessitates. A good writer will obey the rules some of the time, and break them some of the time; a bad writer will generally break the rules all the time, but not necessarily on purpose.

It also requires the ability not only to think clearly, but to think broadly and to hold many lines of thought in mind all at the same time. A short story is easier than a novel in this regard, but even if your only goal is continuity you've got to keep track of characters, places, times, and that says nothing about depicting character development, intertwining major and minor plot points, exploring themes, etc.

Not all creative writing is fiction, of course. But all good creative writing involves elements of fiction, even those pieces that purport to be based on fact or to be true stories. It is impossible to depict reality entirely accurately or from a wholly objective perspective, and even the most honest writers will manipulate the facts to make their work more interesting or powerful.

That doesn't mean they're lying. If the purpose of a creative essay or story is simply to relay absolute fact, then manipulation of the facts is completely unwarranted, but a work of that nature isn't really creative writing. Facts by themselves are dead, and the purpose of writing is to communicate: what's the point of communicating something cold and lifeless?

And yet, it's important that manipulation of the facts not deteriorate into lying. For this reason, very young students probably shouldn't be asked to produce creative pieces. Not only do they lack knowledge of the mechanics and grammar of the language, they lack the appreciation of nuance to understand the difference between embellishment and lies. Therefore, their stories will either be collections of bare facts, or elaborate falsehoods.

So how does one go about embellishment? This only applies, of course, to memoir, true stories, and the like, though it is also relevant to historical fiction, etc. Embellishment is there, not to merely serve the plot of any story, but to get across the main theme or idea.

Which brings us to the point that nearly every beginning creative writer blunders over: your creative efforts are worthless if you aren't trying to say something. Fantastical elements and fancy plots are all very entertaining, but if you're just being creative for creativity's sake, your writing is meaningless and will serve no one.

Good writing is meant not only to communicate, but to communicate something important or profound in a way other people may never have encountered it. In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, we see clearly human prejudice in all its forms, not just in the form of racial prejudice. Her point is that people mistreat one another habitually, and everything in her brilliant novel is intended to illuminate or serve that overriding theme.

If, by the time you've read all this, you've had a bit of the wind knocked out of your creative writing sails, let me assure you that it is a rewarding and wonderful pursuit. It isn't romantic, and it's often scream-inducingly difficult, but the finished product is almost always worth it. Writing a story, a novel, a poem, or anything else will make you a better thinker, a better writer, and a more appreciative reader, as long as you persevere and are consistent.

You'll find a lot of opinion in the books below. Some of it is excellent, some of it is decent, and some of it is outright bad. The point isn't to digest these volumes and then simply follow the authors' advice slavishly. The point is to be inspired, guided, and sometimes led so that you can develop your own style and method, and write meaningful pieces that will affect readers and cause them to think, not simply let them pass an hour or two idly.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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