• J. Woken

Creative Writing (part 2): Why creative writing is better than journalism (and why it’s worse)

Last week I published a post introducing my thoughts on the differences between creative writing, english literature, and journalism. I wrote it because I couldn’t find an article to share that fully reflected the frustration I felt when talking to people about what I do.

If you haven’t read that article yet I suggest you do so now and then come back here to see what creative writing means to me and why I think it kicks journalism’s butt.

Creative writing: What it does, why it’s better, and why it’s not

As I mentioned before, some people don’t realize creative writing as a major — not a minor, not an extracurricular, but as a major field of study — exists. “Creative writing?” they say. “Is that like english composition? What do you learn in that?”

Quite a bit, actually.

What it does

A degree in creative writing prepares you to do two things well: write and read. That’s it. Anyone telling you different is wrong.

I’ve heard jokes about creative writing majors being right up there (or down there?) with liberal arts majors. I’ve read articles promoting creative writing like it’s some kind of magical, easy-to-pass stepping stone from college to employment in any field that utilizes reading and writing. So, um, anything? That’s helpful. Thanks.

Finally, I’ve gotten the, “Why did you spend all that money in college to learn how to write? Can’t you just learn that at home?” Well, sure, but technically you can learn anything at home. Why have culinary school if you can self-teach in your kitchen while watching how-to YouTube videos? Why should fledgling scientists and engineers bother taking courses if all they need to learn has been published in the oldest and latest greatest mathematical and engineering papers? I mean, just watch this insightful scene from Good Will Hunting:

So, why anything? Why does anyone bother with paying for college when we could learn everything we needed to learn to do what we wanted to do with $1.50 in late charges at the public library?

Because a formal education isn’t about learning which books to read. It’s about having mentors available to teach you what’s not in the books. And, if you want to get good at writing, you need to find those mentors and cling to them like dryer sheets on fleece.

Why it’s BETTER

If you’re a fledgling writer and you take a creative writing course, be prepared to have your heart’s work torn to pieces right before your eyes. If you can’t hack that, you’re not made for this.

On writing

Writing is different than, say, science. Science has equations and hard set rules of play. Writing does to some degree (e.g. punctuation), but there are limitless ways to add two components together. It’s not just two hydrogen plus one oxygen creates H2O. Writing is indefinitely more complicated than science if only because human behavior is. Sure, science is amazing. I’m not shrugging that off. I’m merely pointing out that understanding the human psyche enough to not only write about it but to communicate it and do it well is no small feat, either, and is worthy of it’s own due respect.

You can’t tell a story without understanding not only the rules, but also the how and why of the characters in that story. Storytelling is a vast word exercise in psychology. In speech alone, inflection, tone, mood, background, and a vast number of other factors play into conversation. And then there’s the choice of punctuation: should I use an em dash ( — ) or a colon or a comma or italics, and what do those things infer in writing? And, not only in writing, but in MY writing?

You can’t tell a story without understanding not only the rules, but also the how and why of the characters in that story.

I’ve spend weeks in classrooms working to simply harness the magic of dialogue. It’s a lot harder than you’d think. Some people are naturals at it; others will never grasp the concept and their characters will forever talk like robots. Some of my classmates just couldn’t figure it out and had to drop the course and, inevitably, change majors. It’s that important.

On reading

This isn’t reading comprehension. You want that, go take a literature course. This isn’t basic composition, either. You want that, go take an english course.

You want to know how to read something and strip it naked, remove it’s excesses, analyze what’s happening between the lines and behind the scenes of the characters, bring out the best in them (or the worst), and properly use a “red pen of death” on any piece of writing you get your hands on? You’re in the right place.

You’ll never read anything the same way again after you’ve learned what creative writing actually is. It’s being an author, editor, and reader all at once while simultaneously understanding that you can’t be all at once, that authors are inspired by other authors, that editors need editors, and readers can be really, really wrong.

Creative writing is being an author, editor, and reader all at once while simultaneously understanding that you can’t be all at once, that authors are inspired by other authors, that editors need editors, and readers can be really, really wrong.

Why it’s WORSE

Plainly: To a lot of people, creative writing isn’t a thing. It simply isn’t. It’s no more than an inflated hobby.

Say “I majored in journalism” and people are all over you, wondering what stories you’ve done and where you’ve traveled and if you have any particular topics you prefer to write on.

Say “I majored in english” and people are all over you, asking if you teach somewhere or what your favorite authors are and by the way would you recommend a great read?

Say “I majored in creative writing” and you either get a look as if you’re insane or eye contact suddenly breaks because the other person is (needlessly) embarrassed for you. Then comes the inevitable, “So what do you do with that?” Well, um, I write. And I read.

Writing and reading is nothing special, which is why creative writing isn’t taken seriously by the general populace. So, in conscious or subconscious efforts to lift the creative writer’s ego and spirits, we’re grouped with more “acceptable” fields of study, like journalism or english literature because, you know, people in those fields can DO things.

It’s the equivalent of a stay-at-home parent being offhandedly disrespected because they don’t hold a “real” job.

The other stuff

Taking creative writing courses taught me a lot more than how to write and read well. They taught me deeper lessons, like how to

  1. be disappointed in myself and move on;

  2. take criticism on something deeply personal (something drastically lacking in today’s world because, let’s be honest, we’re turning into a society of low-level narcissists) without exploding into a psychotic frenzy or collapsing into a depressed heap;

  3. distinguish between worthwhile commentary and unworthy criticism;

  4. be a critic without being cruel;

  5. know when trying harder isn’t being productive, its simply creating more work;

  6. know when giving up is okay and sometimes necessary;

  7. know the difference between passion and necessity;

  8. fail;

  9. tell a story in a way that engages and, ultimately, changes people.

I couldn’t agree more.

For more on what makes creative writing different from journalism, read this interesting article in