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5.2: Creative Writing is a Unique Category

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    Author: Cydney Alexis, English, Kansas State University

    To many, if not most, the phrase creative writing marks a genre. It’s as simple as breakfast. A man writes in a garret, his pages lit by the faint glow of a lamp. Ideas are spilling madly from his cerebral cortex to the page. He probably has a cup of coffee next to him. Or a dog. And he is writing a story—perhaps about a road trip.

    I know this is the image in most people’s brains because it is the one I’ve read or heard described hundreds of times by the media, in popular culture, by writers themselves, in books written by writers on writing, by my students, and by friends. It is also the image most strangers (or distant family members) produce when I tell them my field is writing studies, a discipline dedicated to the study of academic writing of all kinds: college writing, digital writing, and workplace writing, just to name a few examples. Upon hearing this, a man I met in a hostel, over breakfast, asked me to listen to his poem to see if it was publishable, even though, not being a poet, I had no credentials for evaluating his text. My distant cousin, after years of asking at Thanksgiving dinners, still can’t understand why I don’t want to edit his novel. Most of us learn to laugh off the glaze that comes over people’s faces as we academics in writing studies explain what we do write.

    The problem is that one image of writing dominates the popular imagination and is weighted with value more heavily than all others: creative writing, which is treated as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few pervasive problems that stem from the view of creativity as tied to fiction and poetry, from the public’s lack of awareness of what academics and other workplace writers do, from problematic attitudes held within the so-called field of creative writing itself about what types of writing are creative, and from the ways writing studies scholars reinforce problematic ideas about creativity. These problems include:

    One sphere of writing is marked off as creative while others are de-valued.

    People who write everything except poetry and fiction—that is, people who contribute the vast majority of writing to the world in the form of lists, essays, emails, blog posts, texts, instruction manuals, and so on—see their work as less creative and less important.

    This mass of unrecognized writing and labor is virtually unrepresented in popular culture, and academics and other workplace writers are not part of the cultural narrative around creativity (save some exceptional examples, such as the way writing is represented in the television show The West Wing, often a powerful meditation on the importance of collaboration and revision in workplace writing, and in the film Her, which celebrates vernacular ghost writing).

    I first took note of the emotional weight and impact of this phenomenon when conducting interviews for my dissertation on the impact of materials of all kinds on the writing process. I interviewed 48 people, and in countless interviews, people expressed the heartbreaking sentiment that there once was a time when they wrote creatively (poems and stories), but now, they are just academics or just workplace writers. Even more troubling was that when asked if they considered themselves writers, they resoundingly answered no. Even for people who write daily for their trade, writing has become synonymous with poetry and fiction writing, which has become synonymous with creative writing. They uttered statements such as these: “I used to write [for pleasure]...throughout childhood....I wrote little fiction stories, I wrote in a diary, I wrote autobiographical stories.... Writing a dissertation is kind of like a job.... I don’t write that much anymore. Well, I don’t write creatively.”

    I began asking more people whose livelihoods depend on the written word, and who write daily, if they see themselves as writers. I also began asking graduate students who came to see me at various writing centers I worked at whether they considered themselves writers. And again, most said no. There was something in the identity label of writer that people have attached to a particular kind of writing. Deborah Brandt voices this powerfully when she points out that while the identity label of reader is available to most people, meaning that most readers could confidently say “I’m a reader,” the identity label of writer is not available in the same way.

    In one of her book chapters, Brandt demonstrates how cultural narratives around the importance of reading enable families to understand the value of this act and to support reading as a family value and practice. This practice, of course, has a long history— reading was, until quite recently, a family, and not a solitary or even silent, activity (scholars debate exact dates, but some point to silent reading as a late 19thor even a 20th-century phenomenon). Writing, on the other hand, has often been associated with privacy, secrecy, and solitude, as Brandt asserts. It is also associated not with workplace forms, but with poetry and fiction. A question that comes to mind is that if families do not see themselves as skilled writers (because the designation of writer is reserved only for poetry and fiction), then how can they encourage writing in all of its forms as a family value? Brandt notes that in her hundreds of interviews with families, people rarely remembered writing around parents. For many families, being a writer is not seen as a valuable trade—it’s the stuff of fiction.

    What persists are damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity that continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity. Consider the famous joke that “those who can’t do, teach,” which parodies the work of individuals dedicated to fostering creative thinking in others, requiring them, also, to constantly be creating. Or consider that teachers and professors are almost always depicted in popular culture as practitioners, not talent. Although not necessarily a film about writing, Good Will Hunting pits an enfant terrible against a practiced and pragmatic mathematics scholar whose hard work will never be valued as much as Will’s spontaneous ability to solve genius-level problems. To take a more recent example, in Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, Nick Offerman plays a ridiculous sociology professor whose intellectual contribution to his field is portrayed solely via his penchant for wearing tribal clothing from around the world. His son characterizes him as a person who basically sits around a lot. When faculty aren’t being ridiculed in popular culture, all sorts of other problematic stereotypes are propagated, such as the effectiveness of White teachers or teacher figures inspiring at-risk or inner-city students, usually students of color, to be creative by writing fiction or poetry (see, e.g.,, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase). Try to imagine these movies teaching writing skills that would be valuable outside of these singular moments of fictionalized inspiration? In Dead Poets Society, we even see the symbolic gesture of a teacher tearing up a syllabus, perhaps imagined to be the dullest of literary genres, even though as a material representation of a 16-week experience, a syllabus can be one of the most creative and rewarding of writing forms. Indeed, if creative writing is about world creation, as many argue it is (though this, too, is debatable), what is closer to this than the creation of a new experience? These films couldn’t conceive of encouraging other forms of writing—which is why we should be thankful for the model of creativity we are treated to in Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a ghost writer of love letters—not generally a celebrated writing genre.

    How did the field of creative writing, and the public’s idea about this type of writing, emerge? In The Elephants Teach, D.G. Myers presents ample evidence that the institutionalized field of creative writing barely resembles the ideals and movement that produced it in the 1920s United States, when it exploded in popularity largely due to the writings of educator Hughes Mearns. Mearns developed and popularized what’s considered to be the first creative writing workshop for junior high school students. He was tired of English courses that used literature as a means of drilling students on vocabulary or grammar or as some other means to an end. Mearns proposed the practice of writing literary texts for self-expression, so that kids would enjoy literature, and for promoting an understanding of literature by writing it. His published description of his creative workshop spread quickly and was rapidly adopted across the United States, largely because he traveled to present the model in schools and published student work in various texts that were publicly devoured.

    However, according to Myers, in contrast with current conceptions of writing that treat fiction and poetry as more cultured than genres such as workplace writing, emails, lists, or even theses, Mearns would not have abided by a view of creative writing as somehow more cultured or valuable. Neither would prominent early 20th-century progressive educator John Dewey, Mearns’s influencer. In fact, both Dewey and Mearns were highly critical of the notion of culture, which seemed to be a means of discriminating against the masses for abilities that people held due to various privileges and advantages (such as speaking proper English). Myers demonstrates how the rise of creative writing paralleled the rise of post-World War II college enrollments due to the G.I. Bill, as well as the rise of federal student aid. The rise of creative writing programs also divorced creative writing from its study of literary texts, and the field emerged as one that, rather than train future

    writers, instead trained future teachers of fiction and poetry. He notes that “Creative writing was devised as an explicit solution to an explicit problem. It was an effort to integrate literary knowledge with literary practice,” but that “what had begun as an alternative to the schismatizing of literary study had ended as merely another schism.” Now, English departments are divided, with the study of fiction and poetry quite divorced from other parts of the program.

    An effect of popular attitudes about writing is that much public, popular, and workplace writing is devalued, despite its ubiquity, importance, creativity, and potency. The division impacts so-called non-fiction, too (a genre defined by a lack). As Barbara Tuchman articulates, “I see no reason why the word ‘literature’ should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘non-fiction’—as if we were some sort of remainder.”

    Too often, binaries are leaned on in order to praise one thing and devalue another. This is the case with the phrase creative writing and just about every form of writing that is set apart from it. For example, in his powerful book chapter on housewives’ shopping lists, Daniel Miller demonstrates how the lists he studied reflected an awareness of the organization of grocery stores that housewives were calling on when producing them. Rather than items being listed in random order, their writers were, instead, listing items to reflect food categories and writing them to reflect their planned future movement through those stores. Once again, this is the creation of an experience through a particular writing form.

    And also too often, what’s placed on the other side of the binary is work that is critical in nature. Consider an article by scholar and literature professor, Graeme Harper, who, in championing the creative writing workshop, repeatedly utters sentences like these: “[My students] are required to write both creatively and critically.” When the critical is opposed to the creative, it’s easy to understand why public and academic attitudes so pervasively represent persuasive writing as uncreative, particularly when pitted against those in the so-called creative arts.

    Over the years, the students I have worked with, and particularly students who see me in the writing center, have reported that after I talk with them about some of these ideas, and after they begin thinking of themselves as writers, their positive feelings about writing intensify. No one wants to feel that the daily work they do is valueless, dull, uncreative. And everyone should be able to access an identity that they are proud of related to their trade.

    I am concerned that narratives about what it means to be creative and a creative writer are to blame for much of what I’ve described. I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of creative writing in titling disciplines, tracks, and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of writing studies, writing, or writing arts.

    In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo-writers, proposal writers, and list writers. And I want them to practice their craft in each of these genres and to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry. It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And the idea that those who write in the workplace aren’t artists. Or that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to expand our ideas about what it means to be creative, to stop using the pernicious phrase creative writing, and to produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry.

    Further Reading

    For more information about the development of creative writing, see D.G. Myers’s The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (University of Chicago Press). Scholars have traced the history and evolution of the interrelated fields of creative writing, literature, and composition and rhetoric/writing studies, all of which have traditionally been housed in English departments. Notable examples are Robert Connors’s Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, Pedagogy (University of Pittsburgh Press); Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature: An Institutional History (University of Chicago Press); and Susan Miller’s Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition (Southern Illinois University Press).

    Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives transformed the writing studies field’s view of how literacy is acquired by arguing that our acquisition of it is dependent upon large-scale, powerful, rich, and often invisible structural forces, or sponsors, that enable or thwart access to literate resources such as technology, reading materials, and money. In the chapter, “Remembering Writing, Remembering Reading,” she demonstrates how families and society contribute to literacy acquisition, noting that individual self-concept as a reader

    or writer are not only tied to family practices around reading and writing, but to cultural ideas about the value of those activities that are themselves culturally, nationally, and institutionally sponsored and are passed down, often unremarked, through generations.

    Theorization of identity (also referred to as self-concept, selfhood, and self-identity) is robust in fields such as consumer research, psychology, and philosophy. My research frequently draws on the following works: Russell Belk’s “Possessions and the Extended Self”; Erik Homburger Erikson’s Identity and the Life Cycle (W.W. Norton & Company); Dorothy Holland, Williams S. Lachicotte, Jr., Debra Skinner, and Carole Cain’s Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds (Harvard University Press); Robert E. Kleine, III, Susan Schultz Kleine, and Jerome B. Kernan’s “Mundane Consumption and the Self: A Social-Identity Perspective”; Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (Routledge). Good synopses of Erikson’s and Sartre’s work are also available on Wikipedia.


    composition and rhetoric, creative writing, creativity, genre, reading, workplace writing

    Author Bio

    Cydney Alexis is an assistant professor of English and writing center director at Kansas State University, where she teaches courses in composition pedagogy, digital rhetoric, the material culture of writing, literacy studies, professional writing, and writing center theory and practice. Her alma mater is the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was assistant director of both the first-year writing and Writing Fellows programs. Her research primarily focuses on the material culture of writing—those material goods, rituals, and practices that support writers in their trade. She is interested in tracing how writers’ adult practices are impacted by their early writing environments. You can find her on Instagram @materiallives and @writinglandscapes and on Twitter at @cydneyalexis.