Not-So-Creative Writing

When I first heard about “creative writing,” I pictured writing restrained only by the confines of what my brain could imagine.  I saw myself arranging my letters and words to form a brilliant masterpiece on my 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper.

At eighteen years of age, I signed up for a creative writing class at a community college.  I soon realized that creative writing came with a box.  It had rules that fenced in the spaces in my head and shrunk the wild flood of ideas into a meandering trickle of stifled semi-creativity.  To say it burst my bubble would be putting it mildly.  I dropped writing like a free-loading boyfriend (okay faster – I kept the free-loading boyfriend for two years.) 

I threw myself into my declared major:  Psychology.  The human mind:  now that’s some creative stuff.  There are enough phobias, disorders and mental illnesses out there to make even the most balanced person feel like they’ve gone mad.  Actually we all really are a little crazy; we all have some characteristics of at least a few mental illnesses, but not necessarily to the degree that would earn us the label of a full-fledged mental illness.  Isn’t the human brain fascinating???

Sorry, I got carried away there.  I’m back to creative writing.  I didn’t start writing again until a couple years ago.  I have one novel complete and another one in process, but I thought now would be a good time to take a writing class.  I know my route seems backwards to most rational people, but I choose to look at it as another beauty of my whimsical (read: flawed) human mind.

 In my manuscript writing class, the instructor has told us about the 8 point arc of a story and point of view, and has warned us about punctuation use, overuse of descriptive dialog tags, the avoidance of adverbs, and has advised that we should critically review our work to trim out all unnecessary words, including most adjectives.

I want to have an open mind, but I can’t help but wonder how creative writing could possibly be when you strip it down to the skeleton.  Isn’t the author’s use of adjectives and adverbs what gives a story a unique feel?  I’m all for rules and guidelines when it comes to protecting people from harmful or deadly situations, or our own careless stupidity.  But I’ll tell you, I’ve never been accosted by a single adverb or adjective in my life.  I’ve never been offended by punctuation.  Why are these tools out there if we’re not allowed to use them freely?  Isn’t it like asking an artist to paint the sunset, and then telling them they can’t use the color orange?

As far as education goes, I think I’m looking to learn enough to avoid the obvious goofs, but not so much that I’m stymied by rules to the point I can barely write a sentence.  I’m beginning to realize that in classes, the creativity in writing has little to do with exploring the outer limits of my imagination.  Rather, the creativity involves wiggling in just the right way so the flaps of the writing box they try to stuff me in don’t fold down on top of me. 

I’m claustrophobic, by the way.

Does education foster or hinder “creative” writing?  What are your thoughts or experiences?


20 thoughts on “Not-So-Creative Writing

  1. Brown Eyed Mystic October 11, 2010 / 3:32 AM

    Those rules are definitely helpful to some extent. But then that’s it–there is no reason why we should keep educational rulebook on a pedestal and worship it almost like a multi-handed Hindu deity.

    It is sad that there are sooo many rules, and sometimes it indeed “blocks” us in the wrong way. I mean when I should be writing from the depths of my creative wells, I have to look for “what works” when I revise before finally marking the piece as done.

    But then, I do believe that the basics of these rules are for our own good. As readers, we can easily catch bad writing (I have numerous examples) but good story-telling or v/v. Mostly it is one of these that’s bad–not both. Needless to say, flowery, lyrical language cannot always cover up a bad story, though I have seen the opposite case with commercial bestsellers.

    So, in a pistachio shell, I do not think excessive fretting over prose rules is called for. It is OK to break them every once in a while, as long as you are telling an exceptional story with an otherwise good enough writing.

    Hope I answered your question 🙂


    • jannatwrites October 11, 2010 / 7:43 PM

      I’m glad you weighed in on this topic. I love how you word things – it makes me smile (like the multi-handed Hindu deity or pistachio shell.)

      I should clarify that I’m not supporting super-flowery prose with a string of eight adjectives to describe something. One great adjective (two max) is good. I don’t want to fret over doing everything ‘right’ because I think ‘right’ may be a bit boring. I just got a little frustrated with all the rules that squeeze me tighter than last year’s clothes. I have to play by the rules in class, at least. After that, I’ll use my best judgment 🙂

  2. chlost October 11, 2010 / 7:48 AM

    This is what I encountered in the writing class that I took, as well. Strip it down. Keep it minimal, clear, concise. I learned differently back in the olden days. “Writing to the Bone”, I think is what the title of a writing book is which is a new bible to writing instructors.

    Good luck with the class! I need to take another class soon.

    • jannatwrites October 11, 2010 / 7:46 PM

      I’m not sure if I like the bare bones technique. I’ll attempt to go with it for the class, but I’m sure I’ll fatten up the stories a little when class is over.

  3. nrhatch October 11, 2010 / 5:17 PM

    Enjoyable post, JannaT.

    Especially: “Rather, the creativity involves wiggling in just the right way so the flaps of the writing box they try to stuff me in don’t fold down on top of me.”

    IMHO, education kills imagination and promotes conformity. 8)

    • jannatwrites October 11, 2010 / 7:51 PM

      Thanks, Nancy! If you couldn’t tell, I’ve gotten a bit frustrated with the rules. Each week, new restrictions are passed along and it seems much of what I do goes against the rules. Figures 🙂

      I’m in favor of education, but I think when it comes to arts, I share your opinion – it can kill the imagination. (On the other hand, I’ve taken many insurance courses and no harm is done because there’s not much imagination required.)

    • nrhatch October 11, 2010 / 8:21 PM

      Just remember what Cities of the Mind said on your pariah piece:

      “In response to Mr. Vonnegut I say: A writer chooses; a slave obeys.”

      • jannatwrites October 11, 2010 / 8:30 PM

        I liked his quote – and they are wise words that I will remember.

        For class, I have to follow the rules to some extent. When I leave, I will keep the rules in mind so I can make deliberate choices about what works and what doesn’t. (For example, really think about if a semi-colon is the right choice, or might a period work better?)

  4. nrhatch October 11, 2010 / 8:32 PM

    When you’re writing in class . . . you have to follow the rules.

    But in the real world, just let your words lead the way.

    • jannatwrites October 11, 2010 / 8:53 PM

      Ooh, another good quote to remember: “In the real world, just let you words lead the way.”

      Thanks for the ‘permission’. Sometimes I need that, you know 🙂

  5. Rissa Watkins October 12, 2010 / 11:12 PM

    I have often wondered if I should take a creative writing class, but then I hear from people having similiar experiences.

    I think you need to know the rules before you break them. But I have learned so much on my own through writing mentors, blogs and other writers.

    I’m afraid the class would stifle me too much.

    Good luck!

    • jannatwrites October 13, 2010 / 9:23 PM

      The creative writing class I took many years ago seemed more restrictive than the manuscript writing class I’m in right now. One class might not do permanent damage:)

  6. darksculptures October 13, 2010 / 5:33 AM

    There is only one important thing to remember, IMHO; good writing stands on its own no matter how well it’s molded to fit inside the box, or whether it’s the little popcorn fillers that leap out all over the floor. All you need to do is connect with the reader – it is as simple as that.

    For me learning to write has come in three stages.

    1.) I splattered words all over the place with reckless abandon.
    2.) I learned to tie my stories down/together by taking classes.
    3.) I learned to splatter words again, but this time with flare and a distinct pattern I call my voice.

    Writing mechanics are taught, but creativity tends to grow on its own. Those writing classes will serve a purpose, they are the foundation from which you will build, but you my new friend, are the architect and will design the building. It is your choice. You can choose to build a brownstone, or a cathedral.

    • jannatwrites October 13, 2010 / 9:32 PM

      True enough…connecting with the reader is really important.

      I love the analogy of constructing a building – you are very wise 🙂

  7. Bill Greeves October 13, 2010 / 7:16 PM

    Personally, I think it’s all about balance. You gotta get the rules under your belt so you know what you’re “supposed” to do. But then you let the creative juices flow and bend and break them at will if it fits your needs. Of course, I am not published yet, but this approach has worked for me well in many areas of career that don’t have anything to do with writing, so I am gonna stick with it! : ) Great post – definitely inspires me to do some more blogging on the process of writing itself. Adding you to the blogroll – thanks for sharing!

    • jannatwrites October 13, 2010 / 9:37 PM

      Balance is the key (but I’m off balance…anyone who knows me can vouch for that.) The writing process is good material to blog about, for sure 🙂

  8. Ollin October 13, 2010 / 10:28 PM

    YES, academia more often then not, STIFLES the creative person. It’s no wonder that I always wanted to press the EJECT button while I was in college. The artistic spirit in me was screaming GET OUT, this place is not here to NUTURE you, it’s here to kill that artful spirit!

    I may have people who disagree with me, but I believe academia is no place for an artist. It runs incredibly opposite to what we do. They break down literature, we create it. So we just don’t fit. Classic authors BREAK tons of rules, and sometimes they are famous exactly for BREAKING all those rules. One revolutionary work that comes to mind is Ibsen’s The Doll House which for the first time in the history of literature ended with the self-empowering decision of a woman, liberating herself from her stifling role as “wife” and “mother.” Now that’s not necessarily a punctuation error, but I think you get my point. It proves that you may be a good writer if you follow the rules, but you’ll only be a great writer if you break them.

    Anyways, Janna, I think you’re on to something here. 🙂

    • jannatwrites October 13, 2010 / 10:35 PM

      Thanks, Ollin! I’m all for education, but I have struggled with the rules vs. creativity. On Tuesday, the instructor summed up what we should do with the rules: learn them and then forget about them and write the story. That’s all the permission I need 🙂

  9. Miss Rosemary October 20, 2010 / 4:27 PM

    I like this. Because it’s EXACTLY how I feel.

    • jannatwrites October 20, 2010 / 8:54 PM

      I’m glad I’m not alone in the struggle, Miss Rosemary. Last week, my instructor advised us to learn the rules and then forget about them and just write the story. That sounds like a plan to me!

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