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Oh the Creative Writing Students

posted: 1.6.12 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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“While I do feel more confident as a writer after taking this class, I don’t really see myself in a field where I’m going to be hung up on the technicalities of writing.  I prefer the idea of being a more fiction centered writer.”

“This class” was Introduction to Writing Studies, the 200-level gateway course for my English department’s Writing major. It exists in large measure to help students begin interrogating statements like those above, with its entertaining binary between technicality and fiction.

Ideally, then, said statement would not have come from the final reflective writing of one of the students in the course.

From my first foray into writing about writing, I’ve seen countless instances of the binary that high school leads students to make of school writing and personal writing, research writing and creative writing, rule-based writing and free writing, writing to be judged and writing for self. Often, students don’t realize that their private, personal, home-based, expressive writing even counts as writing at all. Such students usually learn that “writing”—because it is presented in high school as rigidly rule-based, formulaic, involuntary, judged, and to no end that they care deeply about—is not for them.

Another kind of student, though, comes to understand that there is a writing that is for them—it’s just not any kind of writing you’d ever do in school.  It’s “creative” writing: novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry and verse, songwriting. These students groove on the free expression offered in such writing: the writer makes it up. No one can tell you how to do it; no one can tell you what to say; no one can tell you that you’ve done it wrong; total control lies with the writer, no control lies with the audience—because there actually is no audience.

When WAW is used as an approach to first-year comp, we spend most of our time working with students of the former sort. But, interestingly, when we use WAW as an approach to the intro course to a writing major, we wind up working mostly with students of the latter sort.

How do we fare?

For me this last semester, it’s gone something like what would lead to another student statement: “There are all these components to [writing] as well, context, language, target audience …, all the way down to how the piece is aesthetically structured.  Up until this course, my mind was processing all this stuff subconsciously as I wrote, now I can’t stop thinking about it.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I like it.”

Well, yes. What’s to like about having to confront the unpleasant realities that fiction writing is actually not an exercise in complete freedom (for a variety of reasons that learning about the nature of writing helps explain), or that all writing is “creative,” or that readers aren’t required to like what you wrote just because you wrote it?  It’s pretty worldview-shattering.

I think I’ve realized for awhile but not seen quite so starkly as now: WAW seems to be a somewhat different sport among students who fancy themselves writers, than among students who don’t.  This bears further thinking—feel free to start here.

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2 Responses to “Oh the Creative Writing Students”

  1. Sarah Read, DePaul University Says:

    I know what you mean. In my Writing in Workplace Contexts course, in which I have students research writing in a professional context of their choice, I have run up against a similar phenomenon. While the business student studying writing in the context of a Hawaiian resort restaurant hits the wow factor that all writing leads to the menu and back again and learns a good deal about restaurant management (and how it is constituted by various forms of writing) along the way, the journalism major is unimpressed and disappointed. This quarter I have made a big effort to guide students away from projects in which writing is the main product. There is something different about approaching writing as -the- product (journalism, fiction) and approaching writing as the process of which a product is an outcome. Of course even journalists engage in workplace writing of various kinds in support of their writing products, but this point is hard to get across to someone really committed to already being a writer of said products. Does this make any sense?

  2. Barb Bird, Taylor University Says:

    One of the binaries that Doug mentioned — research (or more broadly, academic) and creative writing — is one I will be explicitly deconstructing this semester (our semester started yesterday). The second textbook I assigned my FYC class (beyond the WAW textbook) is *The Imagineering Workout: Exercises to Shape your Creative Muyscles* produced by the best — Disney (I’m a HUGE Disney fan :)).

    I bought this book on our celebrate kids’ college graduation Disney World trip last May. As I read through it over the summer, I kept thinking — wow, virtually every one of these imagineering/creative thinking exercises can easily be applied to academic writing!

    So I am having my students complete 2 exercises (totally their choice which ones) for each paper they write, encouarging them to do their imagineering exercises at different points in the reading/writing/revising cycle across the semester. I am really excited about using this book because 1) I’m a Disney fan :); 2) I think it will really open up my students’ view of creative and academic writing. I think the book and my students’ exercises will convince them.

    Since our first class of the semester is today — I can’t tell you yet how it is working. But I’ll report back later!