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The importance of creative writing

By Kyle Minor
On August 15, 2012

Very few will argue about the value and utility of certain academic disciplines. Those who study medicine learn how to prolong human life. Those who study business learn how to multiply money and employ people. Those who study criminal justice are ostensibly involved in the work of making the community a safe place to conduct daily business.

The value and utility of the study of creative writing is less apparent, so it’s fair to ask the question — why study creative writing?

It’s true that for all but a small handful of lucky and talented professional writers, the work of making fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction is not a terribly lucrative affair. But the creative writing classroom is, in the words of a colleague, a place that offers “an invitation to adult life.” It is a place where the exploration of questions of needs, wants, desires, longings, withholdings, secrets and trouble of all varieties, can yield new understandings of what it is to be an individual, a child, a parent, a friend, an enemy, a lover, an ex-lover, a member of a community, an outcast from a community, a citizen of the world.

Among the valuable things a student might explore while studying creative writing:

1. A better understanding of self. One question a writer must ask herself when thinking about a draft is, what is the distance between the story this character is telling and the more true — and probably more difficult — story that experience is revealing about his life? The writer who first confronts these questions about a character must sooner or later confront these questions herself.

2. A deeper and broader understanding of others. The first question a story or poem must answer is the question of “Who speaks?” Technically, this is known as point of view and it deals not only with the mechanics of first, second, or third person and not only with the important questions of the position of the speaker with regard to the time of the story and the time of the telling, or of how many speakers the story can accommodate but also with the psychological questions that inform the speaker’s way of understanding the world. What does the speaker want? What are the values, contradictions, prejudices and peccadilloes, acknowledged or not, which drive the speaker’s choices? What the writer is learning, line by line, choice by choice, is an engagement with empathy, the special understanding akin to “walking in another’s shoes.”

3. A confrontation with time and history. Characters come from someplace and some time. Time and place shapes understanding. Time plays the changes on place. When a writer gets to the question of where we begin, or the question of where we end, time is the crucial modulator in the making, or not making, of meaning. The making of the story raises these questions in the writer and then the writer has to reckon with these questions in his or her own life.

4. What does it all mean? Is it possible to make meaning? What does the question of meaning require of me? At story’s or poem’s end, after the cannons have fired and the flags have been raised and lowered and the trumpeter has played his song, the story or poem inevitably must find a place to land and the place where the story or poem lands is, in one sense, the whole story or poem, because the act of making stories and poems is the act of gathering a coherent whole out of the millions of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years available to us in a lifetime. Every story or poem, in the most generous sense, invites us to ask, what shall we do with our days?

 

Kyle Minor is a lecturer in creative writing and recently published a book of short stories titled “In The Devil’s Territory.”

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