Friday, December 4, 2015

The Case for Creative Writing

Yesterday was our last creative writing class of the semester, and my students each had the chance to discuss their successes and challenges over the past few months. Many of them were surprised by a newfound love for poetry, and others mentioned an appreciation for the meditative moment that we started every class with. Several students talked about their amazement at the revision process, which warmed my little writer heart.

Narration & Description
When we started discussing writing goals, I was disheartened when a few students shared feelings of distress about the future. As it turns out, some creative writing professors think it’s helpful to tell their students that they’re never going to make it as a writer – they’re never going to be Stephen King, and they’re never going to make money at this.

I struggle to understand the reasoning behind this scare tactic. No one was telling me I was going to be destitute when I was an American Studies major in undergrad. Why the obsession with dashing the dreams of young writers? What does it accomplish besides chasing students away from the writing life?

What this message does is only assign value to something with a dollar sign attached to it. Essentially, if something you are doing is not quantifiable in terms of money, then it is not a worthwhile use of your time.

Must everything be in the pursuit of money? Do we not engage in all kinds of things purely for pleasure? In my opinion, doing things solely for the sake of a paycheck makes for a sad life.
The truth of the matter is this: it is hard making a living as an artist of any kind, whether you’re a painter, dancer, writer, singer, or sculptor. Creating art is a way of life, and it nourishes us in many ways beyond the wallet.

There are jobs that pay you to write. One of my students got an internship writing for a nonprofit. She’ll be collecting and telling stories of people in the community, writing grants, and designing and editing children’s books. That’s great, but writers will always have to carve out time for their own writing. Very few people spend their whole lives sitting at a desk, working on their own creative writing. Very few people get paid to dance all day, or splash paint on blank canvas. 

There is a myth that writing must be the end all, the only thing you do with your time. If you are truly creative, you will find ways to make money AND write. Writers come in many stripes; they can be researchers, teachers, doctors, farmers, social workers, web designers, actresses, editors. Elizabeth Gilbert worked three jobs while writing her first two books, including as a waitress and bartender. Her writing made her no money, and yet she came home from working long shifts and put pen to paper.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be honest with our students. If they have questions about finances, we should answer them to the best of your ability. Tell them that they should only write if they truly love writing, because that is the bulk of the writing life. Publishing is cool, if you’re so lucky, but even if it comes to that, it changes nothing about the writing process: you in a chair at a desk with your favorite writing utensil.

I think you should write if writing makes you happy, if it feeds something inside of you. Ask yourself: What is the ultimate goal for your writing? Is it simply for the sake of having a creative outlet that is your own? Does writing help you make sense of this life? Does writing in your journal feel like speaking to your oldest friend, or cuddling up with a bowl of chicken noodle soup? Is there a fire in your fingers that can only be quelled by putting pen to paper?

We are creative writing teachers, not financial planners. My job as a creative writing teacher is to keep my students writing. If a student wants to major in creative writing, good for them! If they want to make a living as a writer after they graduate, good for them. If the lights get turned off or their bellies rumble with hunger, they’ll get a job that pays the bills and fills their pantry. If they love writing a lot, they’ll do it still, regardless of the job and the bills and the kids. Because the act of creating something that didn’t exist before feeds a part of you that isn’t quantifiable with dollar signs.